Strange adventure into Manhattan's underside

What's to like about ``After Hours,'' the offbeat new comedy by Martin Scorsese? The mood is dark; the settings are weird; the characters range from wobbly to wacko. Even the hero can't wait to get away from it all, and he started the story with great expectations. So what's to like?

The answer may be different for everyone, and moviegoers who don't enjoy a strange adventure -- once in a while, at least -- won't like it at all. I enjoyed the picture less for its craziness than for its control. The more bizarre and frantic the material, the more I felt the strength and sureness of Scorsese's directorial hand, taming the screenplay's goblins and rendering them harmless.

The tale begins when Paul, a well-groomed New Yorker, gives in to a whim. After meeting a lively young woman over coffee one dull evening, he decides to visit her digs in the funky SoHo neighborhood -- a most exotic place, compared with his posh Upper East Side habitat. The moment he rings her bell he enters a Yuppie version of ``Alice in Wonderland,'' following his innocent-looking White Rabbit into a nightmarish night that grows more absurd by the moment.

City-dwellers may identify most closely with Paul's predicaments, which take place entirely in the cast-iron canyons of lower Manhattan. But anyone can sympathize with the plight of being someplace you don't want to be, elbowed by the kind of people your mother warned you about, and not knowing how to get home -- since your money flew out the window, and the subway fare just leaped so high you can't afford a token.

Scorsese carries the craziness to unexpected lengths, keeping a comic outlook but allowing real darkness and disorder into the story, too. By the halfway mark, there's more Franz Kafka than Lewis Carroll to the tale. In fact, the screenplay echoes ``The Trial'' more than once; and (nodding to Orson Welles's movie version of that novel) it quotes directly from Kafka's parable, ``Before the Law,'' in an uproarious scene involving a nightclub, a bouncer, and a sea of Mohawk haircuts.

``After Hours'' isn't for everyone. Some episodes are as creepy as the people and places they satirize, and the characters are as motley a crew as I've seen all year. Scorsese's deft cinematics turn away the threat of chaos, though, and his wit softens all but the most abrasive moments. Credit also goes to Michael Ballhaus for the razor-sharp camera work; to first-timer Joseph Minion for the inventive screenplay; and to the cast, a Who's Who of savvy performers ranging from Rosanna Arquette and Teri Ga rr to John Heard and Linda Fiorentino, with Griffin Dunne in the lead and Cheech and Chong tossed in for good measure.

Add them up and you have an off-the-wall winner: What ``Pee-wee's Big Adventure'' would be like if Pee-wee had a brain, and lived just a little closer to the real world.

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