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Film review: 8 1/2 Women

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It's a huge mistake for any filmmaker to invite comparisons to the works of others. And it's doubly so for a would-be auteur like Peter Greenaway to invoke the name of revered director Federico Fellini.

Yet that's exactly what Greenaway has done with his latest film, the stylish black comedy "8 1/2 Women."

Not only does this surprisingly dull sex romp/fantasy get part of its name from one of Fellini's most beloved works, the 1963 fantasy "8 1/2," but it also features clips from that so-much-better movie.

The results will probably have audiences wishing they were watching Fellini's film in its entirety instead of this one. It's just another of Greenaway's pseudo-profound — or, to be more accurate, horribly pretentious — explorations of human nature.

Unfortunately for Greenaway and his talented but embarrassed-looking cast, the film is rarely as insightful or clever as it pretends to be. And it comes dangerously close to being completely unwatchable.

Despite the title, the "8 1/2 Women" actually revolve around wealthy businessman Philip Ementhal (John Standing) and his son Storey (Matthew Delamere). Though the recently widowed Philip is content to wallow in self-pity, his sexual-libertine son is determined to pull him out of it any way possible.

Storey's drastic "cure" for his father's problem includes recruiting a diverse selection of women to live with the two of them in their mansion — a "harem" of sorts that includes their repressed assistant Kito (Vivian Wu), a nun wannabe (Toni Collette), a too-enthusiastic animal lover (Amanda Plummer), a gambling addict (Shizuka Inoh) and the beautiful-and-she-knows-it Palmira (Polly Walker).

All seems to be going well with the new living arrangements at first. However, to the horror of the two men, the women start showing backbone and exerting their influence over the household. They also find that their own petty jealousies have gotten the best of them.

In content, the film is "classic" Greenaway. Among the subjects that are touched on (but thankfully never shown) are father-son incest, sodomy and masochistic sexual practices.

The film is also shamelessly misogynistic (the "8 1/2" of the title refers to the fact that one of the women is an amputee), and the few good bits of dialogue are swamped by lame sex gags and snail-like pacing.

Not that the performers are that much help. While both the male leads are good and Walker is slyly sexy, the remaining harem members are awful. Particularly bad are Wu (as wooden as ever) and the usually dependable Collette, whose ludicrous Norwegian accent sounds like it was inspired by the Swedish chef character on "The Muppet Show."

"8 1/2 Women" is rated R for abundant full male and female nudity, crude sexual discussions and use of sexual slang terms, simulated sex acts (some overheard), violence (some gunplay, brief fisticuffs) and scattered profanity, mostly religious in nature. Running time: 121 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com