Small-budget films serve up thoughtful summer humor

It would be an overstatement to say comedy is turning toward the dark side this summer, but some of the latest arrivals have an edgy and sardonic quality to balance their humor and romance. This may not suit every viewer's taste, but it's a relief to see even small shreds of seriousness when Hollywood's idea of amusement seems stuck on the level of Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy at their most boisterously vulgar.

The Tao of Steve signals its thoughtful undercurrents right from the title, which is slightly misleading, since there's not much Taoism in the picture, and there's no Steve at all.

The main character is Dex, a roly-poly kindergarten teacher whose philosophy of life is a celebration of the lax, the lazy, and the lascivious. His spends his time chasing women, getting high with his buddies, and preaching the virtues of irresponsibility. He calls his ideas the Tao of Steve, referring to a pair of his favorite inspirations: the Eastern concept of harmony with the world, and the Western worship of ultracool celebrities like Steve McQueen.

Dex isn't much of a role model, but the movie about his adventures has three things to recommend it: One is the story, which introduces Dex to a relatively mature girlfriend who gets under his skin and encourages him to change his ways.

Another is Donal Logue's magnetic performance, which makes Dex lovable at his best and hard to dislike even at his rascally worst. Logue is strikingly versatile, as he's shown with his chameleonlike work in such movies as "The Patriot," where he plays a soldier gradually overcoming bigotry, and the coming "Steal This Movie!", in which he plays a close friend of Abbie Hoffman, the '60s radical. He's a standout talent with a promising future.

The third redeeming element of "The Tao of Steve" is Greer Goodman's refreshingly lifelike portrayal of Dex's new love interest, which avoids the glamour-girl clichs that even non-Hollywood productions often fall into. Ms. Goodman also helped write the picture, with Duncan North and director Jenniphr Goodman, all of whom deserve applause for the originality of their comic vision.

The punningly titled Saving Grace takes us to the Cornish coast of England, where middle-aged Grace is facing more than her share of hardships: Her husband has died, her debts are enormous, and if her financial picture doesn't improve she'll lose her beloved home. Putting together two of her remaining assets - a talent for gardening and a few shady acquaintances - she sets up a marijuana farm in her greenhouse, hoping for a quick profit to end her woes. The enterprise veers in unexpected directions before the happy ending, which restores Grace's basic decency and provides endorsement of traditional values.

"Saving Grace" gets much of its charm from the first-rate acting of Brenda Blethyn, already known for "Little Voice" and "Secrets & Lies," among other British pictures. She brings her character alive with a canny blend of subtlety and gusto, keeping the movie bright even when the plot occasionally sags. Add a sturdy supporting cast and some very funny visual moments, and you have a minor but engaging entertainment.

Also opening this week is Better Living, which reminds us that impressive names in the cast don't guarantee pleasing results on the screen.

Olympia Dukakis plays the de facto head of an eccentric household that's been more troubled than usual since her nasty policeman husband (Roy Scheider) abruptly vanished. The troubles don't end when he abruptly reappears, seizes control of the family, and drags them into a cockamamie plan to improve their fortunes. Other key characters include the clan's three grown daughters and a clergyman (Edward Herrmann) with unorthodox ideas.

Dukakis and Scheider both have long strings of commendable credits, but neither is brilliant enough to surmount the artificial dialogue, arbitrary plot twists, and wan humor of this limp comedy-drama. They're too talented to be doing time in this forgettable offering.

*"The Tao of Steve" and "Saving Grace," rated R, contain vulgarity and drug use. "Better Living," not rated, contains sex and vulgarity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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