Gaudi Afternoon

on March 21, 2003 by Susan Green
   Beginning with a look of lush magic realism in the animated opening credits, "Gaudi Afternoon" promises the kind of excitement Susan Seidelman has been hard-pressed to deliver since "Desperately Seeking Susan" in 1985. The director's subsequent work ("Making Mr. Right," "She-Devil") seemed to suffer from exhaustion. Happily, her latest effort resuscitates a somewhat tired genre: noir, to which Seidelman has added an exotic setting, a mostly female cast and lots of savvy humor.

   In Barcelona, Cassandra (the always wonderful Judy Davis) translates Latin American literature for a living. This neurotic Midwestern expatriate, who might have graduated from the Woody Allen school of idiosyncrasies, is initially flustered when a mysterious femme fatale named Frankie (Marcia Gay Harden) asks her to find a missing ex-husband. But cynical Cassandra quickly warms to the unfamiliar role of sleuth on a gender-bending adventure that is part "Desperately Seeking," part Pedro Almodovar. Two lesbians (Lili Taylor as a tough "butch" and Juliette Lewis as a neo-hippie dispensing New Age platitudes) and a gay cabaret performer (Christopher Bowen) figure prominently. The story also involves a custody battle for Delilah (Courtney Jines), a young girl whose common sense makes the befuddled adults seem all the more daft.

   Harden gives fashion-victim Frankie an uninhibited persona that's Madonna-like but even ditzier. "Barcelona's so old, so artistic, so Spanish," she says of the city where architect Antoni Gaudi created glorious art nouveau cathedrals, parks and casas around the turn of the 20th century. These surreal, sensuous landmarks almost become characters unto themselves. Although the ending briefly dips into some silly sentimentality, the film as a whole is liberated by Cassandra's sardonic charm and a madcap exploration of the mother-daughter nexus.    Starring Judy Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Juliette Lewis, Courtney Jines and Christopher Bowen. Directed by Susan Seidelman. Written by James Myhre. Produced by Andre Vincente Gomez, Nadine Luque and Susan Seidelman. No distributor set. Black comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 92 min.

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