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Filmmaker Finn Taylor’s promising 1997 debut, Dream With the Fishes, had a stylish, slightly morose sensibility and what may be—though, admittedly, this isn’t saying a whole lot—David Arquette’s finest performance to date. Now that Cherish, Taylor’s somewhat belated follow-up, is appearing in theaters, no one is likely to accuse him of trying to hit the same note twice. Mr. Courteney Cox is nowhere to be found, for one; Taylor probably can’t afford him anymore. More important, Taylor has sent the moroseness packing: Even the darkest moments of his new picture are filmed through a honey-colored haze.

Set in San Francisco, where Taylor lives, Cherish is the sweetly jumbled story of a 29-year-old office drone named Zoe Adler. She’s played by Robin Tunney, an underrated actress who has bounced between Hollywood actioners (End of Days, Vertical Limit) and indie films (Niagara, Niagara) and looks a bit like an athletic, American version of Helena Bonham Carter. Zoe is a woman with a taste for ’80s pop songs and a psychological dilemma: She tells her therapist she’s terrified of being alone yet seems entirely incapable of dealing with other people. The first time we see Zoe in her office, her boss, Brynn, played in full whip-smart mode by musician Liz Phair, does her best to humiliate her. Zoe can only stammer back, “Uh, you have really great clothes.”

But we know that Zoe aims for better things, because we get to see the inside of her new condo, which is full of cool, bright-orange furniture; we can imagine the kind of life she imagines living as she plies the wide aisles of Ikea. The woman has gumption, at the very least: At the end of another disastrous run-in with Brynn, she plucks an invitation to an office party at a local bar from the shredder, where Brynn sent it to keep it out of her reach. There she shares a couple of dances with Andrew, her company’s gold-chain-wearing heartthrob. In a nice twist, he’s played by Jason Priestley, good-naturedly sending up his old 90210 persona—and, thank God, having brought his hair down from the skyscraper heights it occupied for much of the ’90s.

At the end of the night, Zoe stumbles to her car to retrieve her cell phone before heading back into the bar for a promised ride home from Andrew. But there’s a stalker waiting for her in the car, and he forces her to drive away—even though she’s had three martinis. She winds up running over a bike cop and killing him. The carjacker escapes, of course, and because there’s nobody else at the scene, Zoe winds up charged with the crime.

Despite being accused of killing a police officer and already having a DUI on her record, Zoe is allowed to avoid jail time before her trial by agreeing to house arrest, which requires wearing an electronic bracelet around her ankle. And for some reason, she gets to live not in her cramped condo but in a huge, photogenic loft, with concrete floors and high ceilings, provided by her lawyer, played with altogether unconvincing seriousness by former Saturday Night Live regular Nora Dunn. Her friends drag over the orange furniture, which, naturally, looks even more chic in the loft. Though the setup is a little contrived—OK, a lot contrived—it gives Taylor a substantial psychological theme to play around with: a woman terrified of solitude forced to live by herself in a cold, gigantic space that threatens to swallow her whole.

Because she has no one to talk to—except for a wheelchair-bound gay dwarf (the awful Ricardo Gil) who lives downstairs and can’t come up to visit because there’s no elevator—Zoe becomes busy as a bee up in her loft: She roller-skates to the Human League. She tries to use a stick of butter to grease her bracelet and slide it off. She figures out how far she can stray from the black box that monitors her movements and climbs toward the roof. This inventiveness is highly distressing to Deputy Bill Daly (Tim Blake Nelson), the man charged with monitoring Zoe’s compliance. But the poor fellow—predictably smitten by his scattered charge—arranges to tamper with the bracelet software and allow Zoe to roam free on the last day before her trial so she can run around looking for the

mysterious carjacker.

After living with Zoe indoors for three-quarters of the movie, Taylor seems overwhelmed by the possibilities of setting her loose in the city, and he flubs his big climax, swerving wildly into thriller territory. It is not a good sign that these scenes gain almost all of their tension from the fact that Zoe has to be back in her loft by 6 p.m. and somehow loses track of time. It’s all very much like Run Lola Run, but drained of both panache and suspense.

Indeed, though Cherish does a very good surface imitation of an edgy indie effort, it winds up relying on a long list of stock elements. There are musical montages, including one in which Zoe tries to straighten her hair on an ironing board accompanied by a happy pop number. There are the tried-and-true ways Taylor tries to hide Tunney’s yogafied body and beautiful face, including putting her in bag-lady outfits in the early going and forcing her to wear retainers on top and bottom. There is the stalker who hangs an artfully skewed, overlapping collection of photographs of Zoe on his wall, the better to symbolize his obsession.

Of course, if you were to bring all of this to Taylor’s attention, he’d probably argue that his film is a good-natured send-up of cheesy formulas and tired genres. And he wouldn’t be completely wrong. Cherish has a basic intelligence and is filled with canny little clues—Zoe’s therapist is played by Lindsay Crouse, for example—that suggest hidden depth. Some of Barry Stone’s cinematography, too, is clearly aiming more for ironic homage than naive copying. And terrific performances by both Tunney and Nelson redeem long sections of the film.

On the whole, however, Taylor, despite having no shortage of anti-Hollywood tendencies, seems to be trying to become part of the machine—if only to land one really big paycheck before heading back north to the Bay area. And maybe the director hasn’t really traveled so far: Ultimately, Cherish comes off like Taylor’s feel-good bid to direct the next David Arquette vehicle. CP