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`NOW AND THEN’ WORKS - IN AN ON-AND-OFF WAY

SHARE `NOW AND THEN’ WORKS - IN AN ON-AND-OFF WAY

Another "women's" ensemble piece, "Now and Then" is also, unfortunately, another weak entry in the "Steel Magnolias"-"Fried Green Tomatoes" genre, joining "How to Make an American Quilt" and "Moonlight and Valentino" to make 1995 the year of noble but failed efforts in this vein.

A nostalgic coming-of-age comedy/melodrama, "Now and Then" showcases young actresses Christina Ricci (the "Addams Family" pictures, "Casper"), Thora Birch ("Monkey Trouble," "Paradise"), Gaby Hoffmann ("The Man Without a Face," "Sleepless In Seattle") and Ashleigh Aston Moore (TV's "Northern Exposure"), while the opening and closing segments feature Rosie O'Donnell, Melanie Griffith, Demi Moore and Rita Wilson as the same respective characters all grown up.Simplistic and loaded with cardboard caricatures, the film does get a boost from the kids' performances. Each is natural and rooted - although Moore is saddled with a stereotypical and thankless "fat kid" role. (Oddly, she grows up to be Rita Wilson, not Rosie O'Don-nell.)

Demi Moore narrates, remembering that summer in 1970 when all three were 12 years old and free of adult inhibitions. The episodic tale has them discussing sex, holding a seance, tracking down the truth about a mysterious death that occurred some 25 years earlier, having run-ins with some local bully brothers and coming to terms with various personal crises.

Some of the characters and situations are more broadly drawn than others - the character played by Moore and Wilson is particularly annoying as the prude of the foursome - but the film does have its moments, especially in scenes where Ricci, Birch and Hoffmann are allowed to show their stuff. (There are also amusing comic cameos by Cloris Leachman, Bonnie Hunt and Janeane Garofalo.)

Choreographer Lesli Linka Glatter makes her directing debut with an obvious affection for the era, and she perfectly captures the feel of growing up in a small town. But the '60s-'70s atmosphere is ridiculously overstated with a constant stream of "oldies" songs. Like much of the screenplay (by first-timer I. Marlene King), this overly familiar device quickly breeds contempt, as the entire movie plays like something we've seen too many times before.

"Now and Then" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity, nudity and violence.