Film and TV

Lesson Learned

Women who exchange descriptions of their sexual encounters are certainly no more appealing than men who boast in locker rooms, but they seem to get more free passes. If, in the name of social candor, Jerry Springer can induce sisters to confess what they've done with barnyard animals and every librarian in Keokuk can write a memoir about her affairs with multiple presidential candidates, then what harm is done by a little naughty girl talk in the privacy of one's own home?

That's the premise, more or less, of Crush, a loquacious and dreary piece of business in which three forty-something women living in a sleepy English village get together every week to discuss their unhappy sex lives. Kate (Andie MacDowell) is the never-married headmistress of a private school, and she apparently has a thing for younger men. Janine (Imelda Staunton) is a divorced police detective inspecting the local male ranks for a good, solid type. Molly (Anna Chancellor) is a prosperous but miserable doctor with three or four divorces on her resumé and obvious bitterness in her voice.

Young John McKay, a budding British playwright directing his first movie, never makes it clear why these three are friends. In fact, they seem highly incompatible candidates for bonding, despite a shared affection for chocolate, gin and cigarettes, which are the lubricants for their catty psychodramas. The only thing you can conclude is that their town, where cute cottages and picturesque lanes seem to have been conjured up from a fairy tale, is so deadly dull, so bereft of good company, that these three are stuck with each other. In any event, they talk. And smoke. And talk some more. They drink gin. And then talk some more.

The subjects of all this blather and sniping are, well, familiar: Molly's latest date refused to pick up the dinner check on the grounds that he must defy social convention; Kate felt blue while buying a baby present for her niece in Hawaii; Janine has had to flee from an intruder in her own police car. Someone or other is sick and tired of jerks and losers. We've been over this ground a hundred times, via everything from Steel Magnolias to The First Wives Club, and the mixture of malice, resentment, longing and bemusement in these voices sounds as recognizable as an old love song on the radio. These are wonderfully talented actresses -- Staunton enlivened Shakespeare in Love and Sense and Sensibility, Chancellor was "Duckface" in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and MacDowell you know about -- but the self-conscious melodrama of this material, insufficiently spiced with wit, doesn't do much for them.

McKay has studied the playwriting texts, so he gives his characters motivation. At the funeral of a school colleague, headmistress Kate falls under the spell of a young fellow named Jed (Kenny Doughty), who ten years ago was one of her students. Then she immediately falls under Jed. Sorely in need of an infusion of Evelyn Waugh- or Martin Amis-style satire, the movie makes Jed the church organist -- apparently for no better reason than to allow for some beat-up double entendres about "organs" and their uses.

The second act of Crush concerns Kate's (failed) attempts to hide her affair from her friends -- and their nosy, envy-ridden and ill-advised efforts to put it asunder. Doctor Molly is particularly devious and virulent. She even foments a trip to Paris to talk her friend out of a wrong move and, while she's at it, gets the police inspector to look into the boy's records. Of course, Molly is a hard-used domestic combatant who refers to two of her ex-husbands as "Mr. Unspeakable Lying Bastard" and "Mr. Gay," and whose view of humanity causes her to insult the poor, choking restaurant patron to whom she's just administered the Heimlich maneuver. Certainly, she's not about to stand by and watch while her best friend gets happy. For her part, Kate remains afloat on a cloud of bliss -- once she gets over young Jed's appalling table manners and his ear-splitting heavy metal.

Shopping for irony? The boy turns out to be the most honest and upright citizen of the whole bunch. That, of course, implies that tragedy cannot be far behind. Along with enlightenment. And important new lessons in life, all dripping with sensitivity. Will our three beleaguered yakkers -- Kate, Janine, even nasty, unlikable Molly -- finally get their due? Will they find love and peace and contentment, each in her own way? Will the final curtain drop on satisfaction? Suffice it to say that before we get to that point, Kate upchucks on a prospective bridegroom, and Molly discovers she's been pursuing the wrong quarry all along. After enduring these two hours, you may feel the same way.