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JULIA ROBERTS STRIKES OUT A 3RD TIME IN `MARY REILLY'

MARY REILLY - turkey - Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Glenn Close; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity, brief partial nudity, sex); Carmike 12 and Creekside Plaza Theaters; Cinemark Sandy Movies 9; Century 9 Theaters; Cineplex Odeon Crossroads Plaza and Midvalley Cinemas; Gateway 8 Cinemas.

After three huge flops in a row - "Ready to Wear," "I Love Trouble" and now "Mary Reilly" - it seems fair to ask why Julia Roberts still earns the big bucks.

Like Demi Moore, Roberts is one of Hollywood's highest-paid actresses, demonstrating the weird movie law that failure is rewarded with a bigger paycheck.

They must have the same agent.

"Mary Reilly" is Roberts' worst misfire to date, despite the fact that on paper it must have looked awfully good. After all, it's a detailed period piece that reunites the "Dangerous Liaisons" team of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, producer Norma Heyman, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears.

But this adaptation of Valerie Martin's novel "Mary Reilly," a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" from the viewpoint of the doctor's chambermaid, goes completely haywire from its earliest scenes.

Taking for granted that as soon as we hear the name "Dr. Jekyll" we will know the story, explanations about Jekyll taking a serum that turns him into Mr. Hyde aren't revealed until the end of the film. (And when we actually see him change, it looks for a moment as if he will become a two-headed monster, or maybe that creature that crops up toward the end of "Total Recall.")

Instead, the film is all about the angst-ridden servant girl Mary Reilly (Roberts), who is obviously attracted to Dr. J. but never says so . . . despite his getting a bit personal by inquiring about the odd teeth marks on her neck and arms.

We see in flashbacks and nightmares that Mary's alcoholic father abused her (and incest is implied), and the teeth marks come from rats. (It seems that Dad liked to lock his little girl in a cellar closet after tossing in a rat or two.)

Meanwhile, Jekyll informs the staff that he is giving the run of the house to his new assistant, one Mr. Hyde. Instead of his being a monster, however, this Hyde is more like Buddy Love, the flip side of the good doctor's personality in Jerry Lewis' take on the "Jekyll/Hyde" story, "The Nutty Professor."

As Dr. J., Malkovich is shy, introspective, generous, graying and in need of a shave. As Mr. H., he becomes dashing, charming, vulgar and has long, flowing black hair. Of course, he's also psychotic.

Things really get weird, though, when we meet the flamboyant madame Mrs. Farraday (Close), all thick makeup, bold teeth and snarling attitude.

To get us through this, director Frears takes us down long corridors, across creaky chain-linked bridges and through huge cement bunkers - all on Jekyll's estate, which must take up a couple of city blocks. And he does so with dark, gloomy, almost black-and-white (if there were any white) cinematography.

Instead of the desired creepy ambience, however, it just causes eyestrain.

Add to that Frears' penchant for gore and all those long, languid camera shots of Roberts' face in closeup, as she looks nervous or sad or scared or any combination of those emotions, and the result is one dull movie.

In fact, the only aspect that builds suspense comes as audience-members try to anticipate when Roberts will try that tentative cockney accent or simply let her own Southern drawl take over.

In the end, Roberts should probably be commended for trying to stretch her abilities. Too bad the film instead demonstrates her limitations.

"Mary Reilly" is rated R for violence (including child abuse), gore, profanity, vulgarity, brief partial nudity (a topless prostitute) and sex.