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Dangerously dull

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Honesty isn't always the best policy, but mousy Martha Horgan is still strangely naive enough to know better. Martha may be strange to her small-town neighbors, perhaps even mildly mentally handicapped, but she's unflinchingly direct and unaware of the politics of little white lies. Living among folks who have plenty to fib about makes her, indeed, A Dangerous Woman.

One wonders what Martha would think about the emotionally empty film that director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner have based on her fictitious life. Chances are good that she would agree that A Dangerous Woman is not a very good movie, although it has its moments. Most of these are courtesy of Debra Winger's vivid, if overly mannered, performance as Martha, before her strenuous overacting gets buried in the filmmakers' murky deceits.

Winger's painfully shy Martha is initially an intriguing character; an outsider repressed by her seeming abnormalities, yet possessing a sweetness that should rub off on her neighbors, who mostly classify her as a "screwball." Before long, though, Winger settles into Rain Man mode, all nervous tics and endearing behavioral oddities. Martha's a great character in desperate need of a storyline, but Gyllenhaal and Foner sadly neglect her, just like everyone else does in the film.

A Dangerous Woman unsuccessfully goes trolling for drama in several directions. Martha falls into a guilty sort of love with a handyman named Mack (Gabriel Byrne), after she mistakes his date rape for true affection. Meanwhile, Mack has a fling with Martha's widowed aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey), after her affair with a married politician momentarily goes sour, thanks to his violently jealous wife.

Martha gets fired from her job at a dry cleaner when her honest streak embarrasses her boss, and she gets blamed for some cash shortages. She's the only one who knows that slimy delivery man Getso (David Straithairn) pilfered the money, but no one, not even her "best friend" Birdy (Chloe Webb) will believe her. These minicrises are played out in overlapping episodes that mute whatever engagement viewers may have developed for the film, thanks to Winger. We're left focusing on her next acting trick in an overstuffed potboiler that strains for an upbeat ending after 95 minutes of angst.

A Dangerous Woman is a timid movie in dire need of Martha Horgan's forthrightness. Only those fans who are fascinated by Winger's consistently poor choices of acting vehicles can appreciate it.

Honest.

MOVIE REVIEW

A Dangerous Woman

Grade: C

Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal

Cast: Debra Winger, Gabriel Byrne, Barbara Hershey, David Straithairn, Chloe Webb

Screenplay: Naomi Foner

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

Running time: 99 min.