Norman Rene's Reckless is not for everyone, and Mia Farrow with her neurotic whine turned up full blast is for almost no one. But this quirky black comedy, which is in part another take on Candide, has the kind of daring you don't find in more commercial projects.

For one thing, it's a "Christmas movie" in which the most appalling things happen on Christmas--a husband puts a murder contract on his wife, a bottle of poisoned champagne shows up on a doorstep, a drunk chokes to death. For another, it takes apart the ideas of American hearth and home and family with a savagery equal only to the care with which it tries to put them back together later. Sound intriguing?

Adapted from his own play by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Blue Window), Reckless chronicles the harrowing (but intermittently hilarious) journey of discovery undertaken by a sentimental, moony-eyed housewife named Rachel (Farrow). Faced with a hit man, she literally slips out of a snowy New England postcard scene into a surreal world where no one is what he or she seems and nothing is quite real--including Rachel. Everybody has a double or triple life.

She's taken in by a mysterious social worker (Scott Glenn) with a shadowy past and his wheelchair-bound, deaf wife, Pooty (Mary-Louise Parker), who has some secrets of her own. Reinvented as "Mary Ellen," Rachel runs afoul of an embezzler/murderer, a nightmarish game-show host (Giancarlo Esposito) who plays demonic, Freudian tricks on the contestants and a half-crazy nun (Eileen Brennan) who operates a homeless shelter.

Ever the optimist, like Voltaire's great creation (or the coffee salesman in O Lucky Man!), the wandering Rachel is constantly battered, baffled and traumatized, mostly on successive Christmas Eves, sinks into catatonia and at last must face the consequences of her past--with some startlingly upbeat results. There's a dreamy, fugitive quality to the film that works well, although it's highly theatrical and overwrought in places.

Filmmakers Lucas and Rene, who worked together on the breakthrough gay drama Longtime Companion, are clearly interested in rattling a few cages, and Reckless succeeds in that. It's the American domestic fantasy turned violently inside out, then ironically reconstituted: Call it postmodern, call it cynical, call it revolutionist. There's a disturbing and ineffably moving quality to this bizarre update on the picaro at large that goes straight to the heart--if you're willing to wait and can weather the assault.


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