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'Second Best'

Times Staff Writer

A melancholy little movie starring Joe Pantoliano playing against type, "Second Best" is writer-director Eric Weber's tragicomic ode to those who don't always finish first. Pantoliano is Elliot Kelman, a middle-aged writer who works in a clothing store and plasters his photocopied essays around his New Jersey town on telephone poles and windshields because he's too insecure to send anything out and risk rejection. A former editor in the publishing industry, Elliot gets alimony from his ex-wife (Polly Draper) and borrows money from his mother (Barbara Barrie), who lives in a nursing home, and his gay dental hygienist son (James Ryan).

Elliot's essays deal with the plight of the Loser, both in general and himself in particular. His masochistic cycle is interrupted when he meets a sexy crossing guard named Carole (Jennifer Tilly) and he's visited by his best friend, Richard (Boyd Gaines), a Hollywood mogul. The biggest change, however, occurs when he puts his e-mail address on his fliers and starts getting an overwhelming response from fellow nonwinners. The strongest scenes are those between Elliot and Richard, which give "Second Best" a verisimilitude lacking in the rest of the film. The truest thing here is that these two guys have been friends forever and always will be.

"Second Best," rated R for language and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010.

Something fishy in 'Wasabi Tuna'

A shaggy dog tale in more ways than one, the campy comedy "Wasabi Tuna" is the kind of film that can give dumb blonds a bad name. Anna Nicole Smith plays herself in a supporting role alongside a cast of similarly brainpower-challenged characters in writer Celia Fox's convoluted scenario about five friends (Barney Cheng, Jason London, Tim Meadows, Alanna Ubach and Antonio Sabato Jr.) who each year strive to achieve über-fabulous, food-themed costumes for West Hollywood's Halloween mega-party.

This year for a change they opt for gangster chic over the title sushi as their attire, which leads them to getting involved with real gangstas, inept DEA agents, Anna Nicole drag queens, ninja gymnasts and eventually Ms. Smith herself. The story unfolds with Cheng's and London's characters trying to talk their way out of a drug bust at the WeHo sheriff's station and director Lee Friedlander illustrates the meandering plot with vintage film clips. Things go downhill fast after a cleverly colorful title sequence with the plethora of subplots (including the alleged kidnapping of Smith's pooch, Sugar-Pie) colliding in a messy showdown in Chinatown.

"Wasabi Tuna," rated R for sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Loews Cineplex Beverly Center 13, 8522 Beverly Blvd., (310) 652-7760; and Edwards Park Place, 3031 Michelson Drive, Irvine, (949) 440-0880.

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