Let's not give the plot away

Julia hasn't been home for a long time, and she's glad to see her little Arizona town again. It seems quiet and restful after the noise of the rock-music circuit, which she recently fled.

She's especially pleased to see Ernie Blick, an old friend she has liked since childhood. She feels genuine sorrow when he says his parents died a couple of years ago in an accident.

But she takes heart from his cheerful spirits, and from the news that he's working on an amazing invention, which is almost perfected.

He won't tell what it is, but the very thought of it makes his eyes sparkle. It will change the world, he tells Julia with quiet joy.

After he unveils it, he insists, ``people will be happy -- not sad!''

That's the beginning of ``Static,'' an offbeat new tragicomedy by Mark Romanek, one of the most promising independent directors to arrive on the scene in ages.

It's an utterly original film, with a curiously unpredictable story and a mood that gives ``bittersweet'' a piquant new meaning.

But it's also a hard movie to review, since I'd rather not give away the secret of Ernie's invention, which is the nub of the plot and an important clue to the hero's wistful personality.

I'll just report that Ernie's claim would be more than justified if the device actually turned out to work, and that he sincerely believes it's a success.

What other people think, when he bestows it on the world, is another matter -- leading to a harsh climax on a hijacked bus, which has been taken over by a party of little old ladies who respect Ernie's dream even if they can't speak for its reality.

The sly, insinuating atmosphere of ``Static'' comes largely from the precisely choreographed style of director Romanek and two of his key colleagues, cinematographer Jeff Jur and editor Emily Paine.

Of equal importance are the deft performances.

Keith Gordon, who wrote the picture with director Romanek, gives a nuanced portrayal of Ernie that's more memorable than anything from his Hollywood career, which has included parts in ``Christine'' and ``Dressed to Kill,'' among other films.

Amanda Plummer is refreshingly unglamorous as Julia, the not-quite-lover who wants so badly to believe in her old pal.

Bob Gunton rounds out the principal cast as the town oddball, a ``survivalist'' whose idea of a nice Christmas present is a set of matching radiation suits for his family.

``Static'' is the first full-length film Romanek has directed, and like every picture, it has its flaws. The visual style seems self-consciously eccentric now and then; the performances are sometimes too low-key for their own good; and the screenplay takes awfully long building up to Ernie's grand unveiling.

But movies this unusual and this convincing don't come along every day, so I won't raise any more quibbles.

Right down to its music score -- an eclectic mix that moves from Brian Eno to Elvis Presley and beyond -- this is a provocative treat for filmgoers with a taste for adventure.

``Static'' is having its American theatrical premi`ere at New York's invaluable Film Forum, where cinematic derring-do is a way of life.

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