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Wednesday, August 20, 1997


Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Nothing renders human fallibility as an action sequence quite like substance abuse, inspiring a slow-down-to-see-the-car-crash blend of sympathy and spectatorship. And so movies like Leaving Las Vegas and Trainspotting have made a joyride out of careening off life.

Filmmakers have a harder time finding the straight life screenworthy. Like the experience of witness-protection-programmed Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, life after living bad may be good, but good can be boring. And life can be boring, but films can't.

Drunks, playwright Gary Lennon's 1996 screen adaptation of his stage drama Blackout, is admirable indie filmmaking. Bankrolled by first-time producer-director Peter Cohn's Hollywood screenwriting work, Drunks' frank portrayal of alcoholics at a Times Square AA meeting teems with monologues that inspire big-name actors to work for scale and career funnymen to get serious. This explains bug-eyed Richard Lewis as Jim, the AA pillar whose sober serenity jackknifes suddenly. Lewis proves he can act, though his lurching mannerisms make Jim more pathetic than sympathetic.

Back at the meeting, Faye Dunaway, Amanda Plummer and Parker Posey all turn in vivid renderings of souls sandwiched between proud sobriety and uneasy coping with the rest of life. The late Howard Rollins (A Soldier's Story) puts so much into his monologue that he slips in and out of character and is all that much more moving because of it.

But like an "Afterschool Special" for adults, Drunks is at times more important than enjoyable. As a quasi-documentary -- one with brilliant acting and big stars -- Drunks depicts the profundity and banality of an AA meeting objectively. But like last year's tediously dry adaptation of David Mamet's American Buffalo, Drunks suffers simply from being made into a movie; its lack of a point of view, while forgivable on stage, here becomes a void.

Thankfully, some poignancy shines through. When Jim finally unloads to a disinterested bar patron, the point seems to be that, sober or drunk, you still wind up spilling your guts in front of strangers. The difference is that at an AA meeting those listening are more likely to care.

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