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Just Looking


Friday October 13, 2000

     If you want to stretch as an artist, it'll probably be easier if you have never achieved fame in a long-running sitcom. Jason Alexander may have been feeling this burden fromthe time he set out to direct "Just Looking." There have been--and doubtless will be--many moviegoers smirking at the very notion of "Seinfeld's" wormy sociopath George Costanza directing a feature film.
     Matters probably won't be helped by the fact that the protagonist of "Just Looking," a 1950s coming-of-age story, is a 14-year-old Bronx klutz named Lenny (Ryan Merriman), whose idea of sating his raging hormones is to be able to watch two people in the act of copulating. As someone remarked at a preview screening, "That's just the kind of creepy story you'd expect from George."
     Oh, dry up! In the first place, there's nothing in the Costanza genes to suggest that this--hello!--imaginary character is capable of writing a story so humane and sweet that even its flaws are ingratiating. In the second place, the script is by ex-ad man and TV sitcom writer Marshall Karp, who keeps the wisecracks jumping off the griddle--often at the expense of pace and depth.
     And in the third place, Alexander displays in his second time in the director's chair (the first was the 1996 dud "For Better or Worse," which ended up on Showtime) a finely tuned approach to the movie's period setting and an ability to coax bright, sassy performances from his actors, including Patti LuPone as Lenny's mom and Peter Onorati as the uncle from Queens who takes Lenny in for the summer of 1955.
     If nothing else, "Just Looking" may someday be remembered as the movie that finally brought out the juice and energy in Gretchen Mol, cast here as a nurse and former brassiere model who becomes a focal point of Lenny's inchoate desires. Mol's Hedy comes across not as a mysterious or worldly-wise Older Woman so much as someone who is, in her way, every bit as awkward and vulnerable as Lenny.
     It spoils little to mention that she will, unwittingly, break his heart. That's what you expect from stories like this. But there are enough grace notes and gentle surprises strewn along this well-trod path to make "Just Looking" just good enough to justify Alexander's career move.

Just Looking, 2000. R, for sexual content and language. A Jean Doumanian Production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Jason Alexander. Producer Jean Doumanian. Screenplay by Marshall Karp. Cinematographer Fred Schuler. Editor Norman Hollyn. Production designer Michael Johnston. Art director Mark Ricker. Set decorator Andrew Baseman. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Kane Picoy as Nick Razca. Jason Cairns as Charlie O'Connell. Autumn Macintosh as Sarah Jenkins. Ed Lynch as Johnny the Bartender. Gabriell Ruvolo as Iris Razca. Paul Herman as Ted Razca. Ryan Merriman as Lenny. Joseph Franquinha as John. Peter Onorati as Phil. Gretchen Mol as Hedy. Patti LuPone as Sylvia.

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