THE key to ``Crimes of the Heart'' is in its title. True, the story deals a little with real, tabloid-style crime: One character is in trouble for shooting her husband, then fixing him a glass of lemonade instead of calling an ambulance. But the movie, written by Beth Henley from her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, stresses feelings over events and personality over plot. Its three heroines are dogged by a nagging sense of emotional distress, vague and persistent, that wells up from within no matter what outside circumstances are.
The story of the film is the story of their fight against memory, time, and loneliness. Careening from comedy to melodrama and back again, it shows once again that laughter and tears can be perilously close cousins.
The lives of the three main characters, the MaGrath sisters, are mirrored by their relationships with the Mississippi town of Hazlehurst and the rambling old house they grew up in.
Lenny, played by Diane Keaton, has never married or strayed from home. Meg, played by Jessica Lange, has returned there only after a failed attempt at Hollywood success. Babe, played by Sissy Spacek, has steered a stranger course - marrying the most powerful man in town, wearying of his neglect and abuse, and one day aiming the household ``burglar gun'' squarely at him and pulling the trigger.
``Crimes of the Heart'' takes place during the complicated time after Babe's bizarre act. She's out on bail, bewildered by her own outburst, and working reluctantly with a lawyer who has his own ``personal vendetta'' against her injured spouse. Meg is just back from Hollywood, smarting from failure and wondering if she should take up again with Doc Porter, an old boyfriend. Lenny is having a crisis of loneliness, bred by sadness at being an ``old maid'' and aggravated by the appalling fact that just about nobody has remembered her birthday.
Hanging over all three sisters, meanwhile, is the memory of a tragedy that none of them has managed to shake off: the suicide of their mother, who hanged herself and (in a Southern-gothic touch worthy of Flannery O'Connor) the family cat - in that very house. The reasons for this remain a mystery until Babe intuitively grasps them, just as she herself is teetering on the brink of final despair. Her insights don't bring instant emotional salvation for anybody, but point the way to a last scene that's at once giddy, goofy, and transcendent.
Miss Henley's celebrated play is not only a folksy character study but an intricate combination of dramatic moods and textures, ranging from cute and funny to somber and scary. Her screen adaptation suffers from the ``opening up'' that's considered necessary when a stage work is motion-picturized. The movie does have a diversity of locations and actions that would be impractical in a legitimate theater. But the shifts from one setting to another, and the self-conscious need to use each one in some appropriate way, dilute the concentrated force of Henley's dialogue.
The acting also proves to be a mixed blessing. Although the three stars give all-out performances that sometimes jell into sympathetic ensemble work, filmmaker Bruce Beresford often lets them get stuck in separate, self-centered grooves. Spacek gives the most fully rounded portrait, leaping artfully among the different facets of Babe's oddball personality, but Mr. Beresford undercuts it by overdirecting some of her most important scenes. There's also a great gap between Lange's regal assurance and Keaton's fitful mannerisms, which make Lenny into a Southern-style Annie Hall.
The shortcomings of ``Crimes of the Heart'' don't cancel out its assets. One of these is a strong supporting cast, headed by Tess Harper and Sam Shepard. Others are the screenplay's ever-surprising dialogue; an energy that pulses through the performances even when they're a bit off the mark; and a vision of family love and solidarity that brings an uplifting conclusion to the sometimes sordid plot.
It would be a better film, though, if director Beresford had trusted more to the unpretentious virtues of Henley's dialogue and not strained so hard to crowd the screen with eager eccentricities of action and setting. As things stand, a very good play has been translated into just a pretty good movie.