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Memphis Flyer Under and Beyond

JULY 31, 2000:  What Lies Beneath isn't really a fright -- it's more a start, where hearts don't so much race as leap from time to time. Serviceable but nothing to scream about.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Claire Spencer, a former concert cellist and now full-time homemaker and wife of scientist Norman (Harrison Ford). Claire has been a bit on edge. In the past year, she's refurbished a Vermont lake house, sent her daughter and only child away to college, and -- oh yeah -- crashed her car head-on into a tree going 80 miles per hour. Who wouldn't need a little Valium to sleep?

But a pill won't still her mind or keep her company while Norman's away working late hours at the lab. Nor will it keep her from spying, Rear Window-like, at her neighbors' house, where once there were two fighting like mad and making love like mad and now there is but one placing a body-shaped package into the trunk of a car.

So Claire's mind is spinning, working her thoughts around that missing spouse, and, slowly but surely, coming to the conclusion that the dastardly thing, it, deed, whatever next door has made its way into her own home. That's what's making those whispery noises and opening her front door and filling her bathtub and toppling that one particular picture frame so that the glass breaks.

Alas, Claire is embarrassingly dead wrong, as she will find out soon enough. For she, the stay-at-home mom with no one to mother so often alone in her house by the lake, can do nothing else but pick and dig so that the truth, the one which stared back at her in a fogged-up bathroom mirror, becomes much, much clearer.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact), What Lies Beneath is neat and trim, rolling along at an even enough pace. As a whole, however, it feels almost too neat, too stagy, perhaps a result of its screenwriter, Clark Gregg, who's done a lot of theater work. There's the McGuffin, and the doors creak, slowly opening to reveal -- the dog! At one point, Claire goes backward -- backward in a thriller, imagine -- down a staircase. This tried-and-true approach saps some of the menace and surprise, and hence, the point, right out of the movie.

What is dead-on about What Lies Underneath is the casting of Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple. They fit together comfortably. Ford, for much of the movie, is secondary to Pfeiffer, and rightly has his character hover just a little out of the background. Pfeiffer, for her part, does shaken and frail well. Physically, she's perfect for the part -- stick-thin and all cheekbones and eyes. As Claire, she's apprehensive, ram-rod straight, appearing just a hair away from screaming her brains out, and, not inconsequently, making fear look pretty darn good. -- Susan Ellis

Loser, another of the endless string of forgettable teenage romantic comedies, is a bubble-gummy creation that you hate to like. It's equal parts entertaining and nauseating.

The film follows a pair of college freshmen: the holier-than-thou upstate-New York-native Paul (Jason Biggs) and his city-savvy crush Dora (Mena Suvari), both of whom have an aggravating pile of atrocities committed upon them at a nameless New York City university. Warning: Although it is a nice change to see Suvari sporting a "bad girl" chestnut do and ratty wardrobe, she is still nearly as doe-eyed and whiny as she was in American Pie, while Biggs oozes charm no matter what his role, although awkward teenage boys suit him just fine.

If writer/director Amy Heckerling is attempting to turn Loser into another version of her 1982 cult hit Fast Times At Ridgemont High or even the more recent and hilarious Clueless of 1996, she falls dwarfishly short. Heckerling does, however, achieve a realistic portrayal of college-life issues such as sex, drugs, and date rape, and she does so without elaborate moralistic ploys.

Paul takes corny advice from his flannel-wearing father (Dan Ackroyd) and is repeatedly stepped on and taken advantage of by his roommates. It takes about 90 minutes for him to thicken his skin against his sponging, alcoholic-wannabe "friends" who fake 'n' bake tan, highlight their hair, and yet have the gall to make fun of their fashion twins, the Backstreet Boys. They are ridiculous, post-yuppy college boys who slip roofies in girls' drinks against the seductive backdrop of New York.

Dora, a grunge pixie down on her luck, works at a strip club where she must don leather bikiniwear until she is fired for being "either too dumb or too smart" for chatting with customers. She is crestfallen, and her starry eyes cloud over even more when her sugar-daddy, a pretentious college professor (Greg Kinnear), does not take her into his loving, open arms. She thinks about selling her eggs to fund her college tuition. Don't worry about her, though.

It takes about three sitcoms' worth of time before Dora stops asking to be dumped on by her professor and instead recognizes Paul as a sweet soul. The scene in which Paul and Dora try to revive a newborn kitten at an animal shelter guarantees to have every 13-year-old diehard-romantic girl sighing.

As for Kinnear, he always plays a creep with finesse -- this time a trite professor who sleeps with his students. Cameos by Andy Dick and David Spade are amusing, and the film's bottom line is that love, even awkward love, makes the most dire problems diminish. -- Jamie Schmidt

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