- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

The Australian movie "Lantana" pretends to be a crime story about a missing-person case while being sneakily and drearily preoccupied with a quartet of rocky marriages. It derives, rather improbably, from a play titled "Speaking in Tongues."

The core of the original is preserved in the character played by Barbara Hershey, a panicky shrink named Valerie Sommers who becomes stranded on a lonely road when her car breaks down. The psychiatrist becomes increasingly desperate to summon assistance by phone rather like the heroine of the vintage radio play "Sorry, Wrong Number."

Dr. Sommers becomes the missing person in question, but the resolution of her fate proves anticlimactic when the work is transposed from stage to screen.The process shifts the emphasis to the extramarital woes of a police detective named Leon Zat, of all things. Played with almost unrelenting despondency by Anthony LaPaglia, Zat is betraying an attractive wife named Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) with a saucy divorcee named Jane (Rachael Blake) whose appetite for mischief is the most provocative and interesting aspect of the movie.

The Zats and Jane belong to the same ballroom-dancing club a musical-comedy angle that is never exploited with adequate playfulness or mercy. Leon tends to be habitually late for classes. The shameless Jane at one point volunteers to pinch-hit as Sonja's dance partner. The wife and mistress actually look much cuter and happier swaying together than with Mr. LaPaglia as a dour and grudging companion.

Because Jane looks ripe for infinite mischief, you're never quite sure how far she's willing to trifle with either Zat. This promising line of sexual farce proves deceptively tentative and immaterial, like all the other teases in the scenario. To be fair, the filmmakers probably would look completely wanton if they didn't try to preserve the Zat union while letting the question "Can this marriage be saved?" get rather laughably out of hand.

Poor Dr. Sommers also fears that her marriage is caving, which seems to be confirmed by the testy behavior of her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), an academic. She suspects that an insinuating patient may be an adulterous snake in the grass.

Jane can't be blamed for that one, alas. The movie clearly would be more fun if she were a prodigious, eight-armed troublemaker. She is positioned, though, with amazing expediency, to intrude on Dr. Sommers' disappearance by being an eyewitness to suspicious behavior.

The case is assigned to Detective Zat, who is up to his nostrils in conflicts of interest. Not the most convincing sleuth in movie history, he acts more like a glowering mob enforcer than an astute law officer. Maybe Australians have their own way of being disarming.

Jane does make a play for a next-door neighbor, threatening to wreck at least one additional marriage while time hangs heavy during regular working hours and she awaits the next rendezvous with heavy-hearted Leon. Her ex-husband, Pete, turns up and looks perfectly agreeable as played by Glenn Robbins, a popular comedian in Australia.

Clearly, the intriguing mystery element in "Lantana" is what makes Jane tick.

Miss Armstrong and Miss Blake, wide-awake actresses who seem to have eluded American producers, are the best reasons for humoring the lackluster deceptions of the plot. They bear a stimulating resemblance to real women and provide a character contrast that might be worth exploring, with or without a mutual consort as sluggish middleman.

The exotic title is illustrated at the outset: The lantana is a flowering shrub whose blossoms tend to conceal a formidable tangle of thorns in the undergrowth. Alas, the metaphoric conceit remains more savory than the movie's elaboration of it from one entangled character to the next.

*1/2

TITLE: "Lantana"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual candor; occasional nudity and graphic violence, allusions to teen-age drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Ray Lawrence. Screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on his play "Speaking in Tongues."

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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