A Chekhovian Tragi-Comedy?

Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah, Martin Donovan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 100 minutes. 1998. New Line Home Video N4726. Rated R. $24.95.

He was first a writer---The Horse Whisperer, Beloved, The Fisher King, and The Mirror Has Two Faces grace his screenplay résumé---but Richard LaGravenese slapped on the director's cap for Living Out Loud. LaGravenese says the film is based on two short stories by Anton Chekhov: "The Kiss" and "Misery." But even though LaGravenese's characters almost drown in Chekhovian tragi-comedy, this directorial debut has more in common with Paul Mazursky's 1977 landmark "feminist" movie, An Unmarried Woman.

LaGravenese projects everyday doings onto the big, urgent, rushing city-canvas of Manhattan. He takes risks, showing a character's vulnerability, inner fantasies, thoughts, and wishes as if they were dance numbers from a musical or theatrical play, then intercutting them with "real" life. You've got to give him credit for trying something new with the medium, despite the fact that Living Out Loud is ultimately overwhelmed by its eccentricities. The movie doesn't quite figure out how to reconcile its fantasy life with reality. It's the type of film that's laced with biting, zingy wit and implausible dialog that really works only in dreams.

What does work, however, is Holly Hunter as Judith, a fortyish doctor's wife who learns that her cardiologist husband (Martin Donovan) is leaving her for a younger woman. Judith hibernates in their tony Fifth Avenue co-op, drinking too much, sending out for food, hiring hunky masseurs, ruminating over what could have been, and wishing she'd finished her pediatrics degree. Her only solace is schlepping downtown to Jasper's, a nightclub, where she sips martinis and listens to the soulful songs of torch singer Liz Bailey (Queen Latifah), a scorching cynic with a romantic heart who befriends Judith when Judith gets drunk and heckles an amateur-night participant.

One night, Judith engages Pat (Danny DeVito), the elevator man in her building, in conversation. She learns that his daughter has just died of cancer, and his wife has booted him out because of his gambling problem. Never mind that he tossed the dice only to please his long-gone wife. The two lost souls become friends and, in the struggle to merge their essential differences, discover not only that timing is everything, but that, despite liking and affection, it's not always enough.

Hunter makes full use of her own deft timing and oddball scrappiness, managing to make us feel the agonizing pain of being dumped. DeVito is touching as a man who just wants to give love. But LaGravenese can't keep up with his energetic actors. He zigzags back and forth between reality and fantasy, tone and time. In the end, Living Out Loud is like watching a play leveled by almost too much ambition.

But it looks terrific. The crisp, well-balanced transfer captures the smoky atmosphere of a nightclub as well as the melancholy of twilight. Queen Latifah's mellow ballads are superbly transcribed on the clean, clear soundtrack. All in all, this is an interesting project from a writer. Hopefully, LaGravenese will be a more complete director next time out.