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Hot plot fails to sizzle

There are two things to do in this flea-speck Texas town, the comely blonde informs the newest salesman on her husband's used-car lot. "You got a TV?" she asks.

"Nope."

"Well, you're down to one," she purrs with the sort of purr that makes most men feel they're wad-ing deeper than they can swim.

In director Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, the new salesman forgets common sense and pays heed to the calls of nature. He pays dearly for his pleasure as, no doubt, his boss did before him.

It takes a long time for car salesman Harry Madox (Don Johnson) to get his comeuppance. In the process, there are a bunch of neat twists. But The Hot Spot ends just as you'd expect it, and with less payoff than Hopper, his cast and the story promise.

The problem, in part, is Nona Tyson and Charles Williams' adaptation of Williams' 1952 novel Hell Hath No Fury. What was steamy and depraved 38 years ago, isn't quite as nasty today. Yet, by updating it _ at least on clothing styles _ The Hot Spot carries a sense of stilted stuck-in-time artificiality.

Johnson looks great in those designer-styled linen pants you'd never see on a huckster in the middle of Texas. He's The Hot Spot's initial problem: He looks like a fashion plate, not a man whose facial lines mirror the miles he's traveled on the road.

Madox swings into the tiny town of Taylor, long enough for a pre-noon glass of beer. Somehow he gets stuck, and in the process, torn between the boss' lookin'-for-trouble wife and the angelic 19-year-old secretary in the loan department.

Hopper attempts to combine the retro-noir feel of Body Heat with the twisted underbelly-of-America realism of David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart. His

picture looks great. It feels alternately gritty and slippery. But it doesn't amount to much.

For starters, everyone in Tyler is meddling where they shouldn't. Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), the car-lot owner's wife, has apparently bedded nearly every available male in a 200-mile radius. Virginal Gloria Harper (Jenifer Connelly) is harboring a purportedly horrific secret _ a single lesbian encounter _ in addition to juggling the books to keep her boss from repossessing a car owned by Frank Sutton (William Sadler), a hillbilly who looks like the product of professional inbreeders.

Madox makes plenty of trouble for himself. He slips into Dolly's bed at the first opportunity, even though he knows she's as discreet as the Voice of America. Then, he knocks off the local bank with a less-than-perfect scheme that makes him a mark for blackmail.

Johnson is far better in The Hot Spot than in his earlier features, but he's still more of a poser than an actor. He doesn't get much help from Madsen, who emotes with all the woodenness of an actress in a triple-X feature. In bed she's a pro. It's the interludes that sink the movie.

Connelly has a similar brain-dead blankness. She acts as if she would be chanting mantras and button-holing airport travelers if she weren't stuck in this tiny Texas town and fearing about the deep-dark secrets of her past.

No one in The Hot Spot thinks of packing up and moving away. Maybe that was a rash solution four decades ago. Today, however, people skip town for legitimate love affairs gone sour, let alone illicit ones.

Moreover, there's a real problem with the movie's resolution. Nothing in the picture gives any reason for Madox and Harshaw to have any attraction for one another other than sex. Yet, at the end, they're inextricably linked; a union made in hell that neither would want, and at least one could end. That cools The Hot Spot's embers fast.

MOVIE REVIEW

THE HOT SPOT

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Director: Dennis Hopper

Cast: Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, jennifer Connelly, Charles Martin Smith, William Sadler, Jerry Hardin, Barry Corbin

Screenplay: Nona Tyson and Charles Williams, based on William's novel Hell Hath no Fury

Rating: R; violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations

Running Time: 128 minutes

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