- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

Writer-director Brad Anderson may be too clever for his own good, a rare complaint to lodge against a filmmaker trolling through the 2001 film wasteland.

Mr. Anderson, who scored an independent bull's-eye with 1998's "Next Stop Wonderland," brings a similar snarky attitude to his latest film, "Happy Accidents."

Marisa Tomei, still in career free fall following her 1992 Oscar-winning turn in "My Cousin Vinny," stars as an emotionally confused woman caught up in a most dysfunctional romance.

Mr. Anderson isn't content to pair her up with the ever-creepy Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays the mercurial Sam. The writer-director sets up an otherworldly complication to enliven their affair.

Sam doesn't know a carnation from a rose. He cowers in the presence of miniature dogs. He may, or may not, be a time traveler.

Yes, there are laughs along the way, the kind that only a wicked observer of human foibles like Mr. Anderson can summon. Our heart goes out to Miss Tomei's character, who shares the actress's haunted look and genial warmth.

Yet the grand total of Mr. Anderson's movie manipulations is wearying. One is left not caring about the fate of the film's lovers, let alone the rickety resolution.

It's like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but the audience is spun around for so long, all it wants to do is sit down and take a breather.

Modern romance is a tough enough world to navigate, especially if you're a neurotic co-dependent like Ruby Weaver (Miss Tomei). She spends her days clinging to her job as a directory-assistance operator and nights swapping dating war stories with her friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani).

We even get the now obligatory montage of her dates with one sleazy guy after another, seen from the opposing seat at a standard restaurant.

One day, Ruby bumps into a Dubuque, Iowa, native named Sam Deed, a disheveled mensch so clueless about dating that he asks Ruby precisely how to woo her.

Sam isn't all that he appears, however. After a few awkward rounds of dating, Ruby learns a bit more about her new love. He is from Dubuque, but a Dubuque 400 years in the future. He claims to be a time traveler who came back because he fell in love with a photograph of her that miraculously survived all that time.

It's an image, we slowly learn, that also portends danger for Ruby.

"Happy Accidents" unfolds in a combination of flashbacks and real time. The results are unsettling, but so, too, is much of what transpires.

Mr. Anderson's infatuation with his concept hurts the relationship and, more important, the film itself. The leads spend little quality time together. Sam is too busy either defending his grandiose story or blanketing Ruby with devotion, while Ruby buries herself in self-examination for sticking with a seemingly deranged lover.

"Accidents" might be an attempt to satirize modern relationships by intertwining them with a time-travel motif. Has Mr. Anderson taken the "Men Are From Mars " metaphor to its illogical conclusion? His muddy execution isn't devious enough to wring such a gambit out of its maladroit moments.

Miss Tomei's Ruby has our sympathies from the opening moments. She's a wounded bird feathering her nest with complicated men. But even her huge brown eyes and sympathetically oversized smile can't keep us from becoming annoyed with her as we watch her let herself get swallowed yet again by another unhealthy partner, no matter his origins.

Purely taken as a science-fiction film, "Accidents" suffers the usual breakdowns in logic that most time-traveling movies endure. Time travel is a wondrous gimmick.

The "Star Trek" franchise wouldn't be nearly so much fun without it, but in tremulous hands, it provides little but plot devices of the most strained variety.

"Accidents" has its lighter sequences, mostly involving Ruby's wry therapist, the reliably acerbic Holland Taylor ("The Practice").

Watching the film's plot pieces slip into place should provide some satisfaction — but Mr. Anderson throws one too many feints in our direction.

"Happy Accidents" is a science-fiction romance with nary a special effect in sight. Perhaps a few twinkling, computer-generated marvels might have disguised the film's awkward narrative and disastrous romance.

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