The small Florida Gulf Coast town of Palmetto must be one of the steamiest places on earth, judging by ex-con Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson), who sweats profusely when he's not "panting like a big dog on a hot day." What's causing his distress -- the humidity or the two femmes fatales who make him an enticing offer of quick, easy money?

Directed with verve by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid's Tale), Palmetto is an overheated film noir which proves that it's a very short trip from the frying pan into the fire.

Just Another Sucker is the title of the James Hadley Chase novel that screenwriter E. Max Frye (Something Wild) has adapted, and it perfectly sums up the character of the none-too-bright Harry, a former newspaper reporter with a chip on his shoulder. Framed by corrupt Palmetto city officials, he spent two years in prison but obviously didn't learned his lesson.

When the sultry Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), every inch the desirable and devouring female, enters his orbit, there's no doubt he's a goner, quickly forgetting both his good sense and his sexy, supportive girlfriend, Nina (Gina Gershon). Rhea needs Harry to help her carry out the fake kidnapping of her stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny); the two women have joined forces to milk money from the Malroux patriarch. But while Rhea easily seduces Harry, it's the long-legged-Lolita Odette who really unnerves him.

Two things are certain in a story like Palmetto: Even the most simple plans go magnificently awry; and no one is who they initially appear to be.

Even when all the crooked lies of this labyrinthine tale are straightened out, it doesn't quite make sense. But atmosphere is what Palmetto excels in, particularly a 1950s feel (in the costumes and excellent use of locations) that makes the seedy goings-on seem that much more dirty.

Palmetto self-consciously walks a fine line between tongue-in-cheek humor and outright parody, but always maintains its sense of decidedly nasty fun.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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