directed by Daniel Taplitz
Gramercy, 1996

Seth Warner is a troubled man who starts out as a Job and ends up a Jonah, which makes for good alliteration but cramped living quarters.

The trouble begins when Seth's wife, Karen, decides to go for a swim and doesn't come back. That's the day Seth (Aidan Quinn) loses the two people he loves most in the world: Karen (Joanna Going) and Seth's yet-to-be born child.

Things go from bad to worse, and it's not long before Seth is on the roof of a New York apartment building, screaming at God and threatening to jump. He doesn't, of course, or Commandments would have run eight minutes instead of 86. But he does decide to get some answers -- by breaking each of the commandments until God levels with him.

That's about as contrived an opening as a film can have, and yet Commandments recovers from it, in part because writer-director Daniel Taplitz plays much of his film for laughs and in part because he presents the story not from Seth's view, but from the view of a devout agnostic, Harry Luce (Anthony LaPaglia).

Luce is the husband of Seth's sister-in-law, Rachel (Courtney Cox), an attorney who takes Seth in -- despite his somewhat peculiar pastime -- and eventually becomes the focus of Seth's attempts to break the seventh commandment. That, of course, doesn't sit well with Harry, who's no slouch at breaking commandments himself. And soon the race is on to see who's going to break the sixth commandment first.

If this doesn't sound hysterically funny to you, that's because it's not. It's droll humor, steeped in irony; and it depends as much on peripheral characters as it does on Seth.

The most obvious laughs are provided by Pamela Gray as protected witness Melissa Murphy. Murphy has been placed by the chief of police in a witness protection safe house, where she's apparently safe from everyone but the chief and Harry.

But the best fun comes from an elderly couple (Tom Aldredge and Alice Drummond) who discover a quarter of million dollars in their bank account one day -- and give it all to "Save the Whales."

Unfortunately, the fun has to end somewhere, and for Taplitz, it's about five minutes before the credits roll.

Audiences have 86 minutes to forget a contrived opening, but endings have to make it on their own. Taplitz's doesn't. If anything, it's even more contrived than the opening, and more predictable. Consequently Commandments becomes little more than an intriguing, if uneven, sermon on man's place in God's world, and vice versa.

It wins points for approaching a timeless subject with wit, care and concern, and for pairing Quinn and Cox, who could take this year's Nobel Prize for chemistry. But it gives many of them back for asking obvious questions -- "Why does God the all powerful allow pointless suffering?" -- which it does not satisfactorily address.

What's left is wit and taste. Good taste, generally, but not for all tastes.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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