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CHARMED LIVES

The limousine liberals John Guare satirized in his Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation are the same kind of New Yorkers Woody Allen seems so genuinely fond of...and so profoundly incapable of understanding. Installed in lavish Park Avenue apartments, these posers have a passing acquaintance with both intellectual fashions and matters of conscience, and they prize their urbanity almost as much as the little Matisse hanging in the library or the good cases of Burgundy laid away in the wine cellar. Dedicated culture vultures, they can spout all the politically correct cliches about race and national affairs and the new show over at the Guggenheim, but just below their highly polished surfaces they are troubled, insubstantial people afflicted by greed and family dysfunction.

These sophisticates go to the theater and read the Times every morning, but they've never produced an original thought.

The film version of Guare's sharp-edged play reproduces all the wit and pungency of the original, and Australian-born director Fred Schepisi brings to it the same invention, energy and daring that distinguished his earlier films, notably The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Russia House.

If Schepisi has a recurrent theme, it's the drama of the outsider trying to find a niche in an alien society. Even in the light-hitting Mr. Baseball, the hero is an aging American star (Tom Selleck, of all people) trying to recapture his glory days in Japan.

Thanks to Guare (who also wrote the screenplay), the outsider of Six Degrees is far more interesting. Paul (Will Smith) is a magnetic young con artist who insinuates himself into the home of one Flanders Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), a profiteering art dealer, and his high-toned wife, Ouisa (Stockard Channing, reprising her Broadway role), by posing as a classmate of their two children at Harvard. Gotten up in Bass Weejuns, blue blazer and regimental striped tie, this charming young black man lays on a fiction about being mugged in the park, then proceeds to snow the Kittredges with his quiet worldliness, highly original take on The Catcher in the Rye and gourmet cooking.

If, beneath the artifice, the con man really yearns to be his marks' son, they yearn just as fervently to accommodate him. Even the sniffy South African industrialist over for cocktails gets completely seduced.

Paul's coup de grace is sheer brilliance: Almost imperceptibly, he lets slip that he's the son of Sidney Poitier, which opens the satirical floodgate. Before we know it, this fraudulent catalyst reveals in his "victims" the whole tangle of white guilt in the face of minority aspiration, the material ambition and status-seeking that underlie upper-middle-class privilege, and the cant of artistic trends. By degrees, subtexts of generational conflict and marital tension come to light: We may not all be East Side snobs, but Six Degrees is very much a movie about the way we live now.

As it happens, Paul has similarly scammed well-heeled families all over the park. He's also gay. And the Henry Higgins that has transformed him from a street punk into a well-mannered buppie seducer is a childhood acquaintance of the Kittredge children. Guare and Schepisi put a fascinating hook into the tale. Paul may be a fraud, but he's more authentic than those he lies to; he's more original, and his possibilities run deeper. Paul cons people because he hasn't got a lot of choices; they distribute largess because it doesn't hurt. If you're looking for the neuroses and follies of contemporary America in a nutshell, look no further.

Smith, the rap artist and star of NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel Air series, changes gears beautifully here, and Paul's captivation of Sutherland and Channing is a wonder to behold: Playwright Guare knows not only how to stick in the dagger but he locates the funnybone as well. Not since the screwball comedies of the Thirties deflated upper-crust pretension have we seen social satire this deft, and the entire cast (including Mary Beth Hurt and Bruce Davison as Kittredge friends) clearly enjoys chewing over both Guare's bons mots and his travesties on the rules of penthouse life.

Once more Schepisi proves himself an underrated director. He has captured the swift, almost impatient pace of Guare's play, and he brings just the right touch of tragedy to it. Once young Paul--the essence of charm, the demon of conscience--invades the lives of the Kittredges, there's no getting him out again, and that transforms them in ways they've never before imagined.

You might want to see this vivid social satire twice.

 
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