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If you can face the prospect of sitting through a 131-minute comedy-drama featuring Juliette Lewis as Diane Keaton’s retarded daughter—a challenge that few, I suspect, will be up for—you won’t find the experience as gruesome as anticipated. Please do not mistake this for an endorsement. In his quest to elicit guffaws and sniffles, writer-director Gary Marshall lards his screenplay with Gumpian gags and blatant bathos. But Lewis’ and Giovanni Ribisi’s bravura performances provide some unexpectedly arresting moments that illuminate this otherwise irredeemable project.

Lewis plays 24-year-old Carla Tate, returning to her upscale suburban San Francisco family after a long stint at a boarding school for mentally challenged students. Radley (Tom Skerritt), her supportive dentist father, and her Breck-blond sisters—a schoolteacher engaged to a preppie and a lesbian businesswoman—warmly welcome her home, but Elizabeth (Keaton), her artsy, guilt-ridden, overprotective mother, stifles Carla’s attempts to forge an independent, dignified life. Stubbornly battling Elizabeth’s skepticism every step of the way, Carla successfully completes a computer science course at a vocational school and moves into her own apartment. But when she falls in love with Danny (Ribisi), a mentally disabled classmate, Elizabeth’s efforts to hem her in gather full force.

Since her breakthrough appearance in Cape Fear, Lewis has specialized in playing offbeat, often psychotic characters, notably serial killer molls in Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers. Increasingly tic-ridden, self-indulgent performances such as the rock singer in Strange Days and Shirley MacLaine’s rebellious daughter in The Evening Star threatened to terminate her career. From a professional standpoint, Lewis was ill-advised to make her comeback of sorts as Carla, rather than in a change-of-pace role. I doubt that many moviegoers look forward to watching her impersonate yet another mentally disadvantaged character, but The Other Sister contains her most impressive work to date. She convincingly nails Carla’s liabilities, both physical (stiff movements) and vocal (slurred speech), but many hard-working actors have carried off similar tasks—recently, for example, Val Kilmer’s blind masseur in At First Sight and Helena Bonham Carter’s Lou Gehrig’s disease sufferer in The Theory of Flight. Lewis’ special achievement is to inhabit her character’s skin, succeeding—where Kilmer and Bonham Carter failed—in making us respond to her as something more than an ambitious performer angling for a statuette.

If Lewis can be faulted for failing to expand her range, what’s to be said about Keaton, who has given the same performance, in a string of comic and dramatic roles, for nearly three decades? Now closer in age to Granny Hall than to Annie, she continues to trot out her threadbare bag of tricks (the flustered stammer, the anxious smile) clad in passé Fashion Statement getups (floppy hats, lounging slacks). It’s hard to think of an actress with fewer resources or less interest in developing her craft. As comforting in its sameness as a Big Mac in Beijing, Keaton’s star turn fails to sound a single unexpected note.

Unlike his female cohorts, Ribisi has successfully attacked a spectrum of roles, on big screens (Saving Private Ryan, SubUrbia) and small (Friends). Because he is less familiar to audiences than Lewis, his work as Danny comes as something of a revelation; he is physically and emotionally persuasive without a shadow of affectation. Heading the supporting cast, Skerritt supplies some welcome moments of quiet amiability, though he is getting a bit long in the tooth to be believably cast as the father of 20-something children.

I have focused on the performances to avoid engaging Marshall’s screenplay, a duty I can no longer shirk. In 1990, the writer-director made Hollywood’s A-list with Pretty Woman, a surprise hit followed by a trio of flops: Frankie and Johnny, Exit to Eden, and Dear God. He now attempts to regain his erstwhile status by bombarding audiences with brazen contrivances and devices pinched from other hit movies. He lays on Cute with a trowel. Carla attends a Halloween party clad in a symbolic swan costume. Danny, a marching-band enthusiast, has a groupie gig retrieving marshmallows from the bells of tubas. Prior to their sexual initiation, the pair study a copy of The New Joy of Sex and debate which activities they would like to emulate. (“I don’t want to do page 155,” Carla announces with a grimace.) Elizabeth and Carla share the now-ineluctable two-generations-grooving-to-a-vintage-pop-record scene (in this instance, “I Feel the Earth Move”) and, in a Nora Ephron-ish touch, Danny and Carla watch the ending of The Graduate as a foreshadowing of their own relationship. Presumably, Marshall hopes we won’t notice that whereas Mike Nichols’ movie ends on an ambiguous, bittersweet note, his own potboiler bulldozes us with a half-dozen shameless happy endings.

In one of his most memorable poems, Philip Larkin asks, “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?/Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork/And drive the brute off?” Writer-director Mike Judge poses the same question less grippingly in his first live-action feature comedy, Office Space.

Judge, of course, came to prominence as the creator of Beavis and Butt-head, a canny fusion of hormone-crazed adolescent-male humor and recycled music-video clips. Residual admiration for this brainstorm may explain the friendly notices that his latest effort has received. Although Judge never stoops to Marshall’s manipulative contrivances, his film is disappointingly flimsy, aiming at a series of familiar targets, proceeding by fits and starts, and then collapsing in a muddle before the fadeout.

Ron Livingston stars as Peter Gibbons, a young man bored silly with his soul-draining computer-programming job at Initech, a company whose purpose is never disclosed. He and his programmer pals Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman), whose name is the subject of endless japes, are partners in discontent, victimized by their smarmy middle-management supervisor, Bill Lumbergh (snakily played by Gary Cole). Peter is reborn following a session with an occupational hypnotherapist. Liberated from job-related anxieties, he comes to work whenever he pleases, pursues a perky, equally disenchanted fern-bar waitress (Jennifer Aniston), guts the gleanings of fishing trips at his desk, and topples the walls of his cubicle. Peter’s cavalier indifference impresses a brace of addled efficiency consultants brought in to downsize Initech. They recommend him for an upper-management promotion while pink-slipping his line-toeing buddies. Avenging themselves, Samir and Michael—with Peter’s help—introduce a virus into the company’s computer network, diverting corporate funds into a collective private bank account.

Judge tilts his blunt lance at targets—traffic jams, workplace conformity, corporate back-stabbing, balky office equipment—more keenly satirized by other filmmakers, including Billy Wilder (The Apartment) and Jacques Tati (Playtime). His rudimentary visual style and shambling sense of structure (characters and subplots are developed, then casually abandoned) yield a movie that is pleasant enough to sit through but makes little impact, with one striking exception:

Office Space evolved from three Judge television cartoons about a beleaguered office drudge named Milton. Creepily embodied by Stephen Root, Milton returns here in a series of discrete vignettes that illustrate the oppressiveness of work more vividly than the film’s central characters. Emitting weird, sonar-like bleeps, the plump, embattled Milton, his broad face speckled with liverish spots, is Initech’s resident scapegoat, festering with resentment about his mistreatment but too timid to stand up to his oppressors. Condemned to ever-smaller, less hospitable work stations and, ultimately, denied salary, he persists, his fury approaching but never quite reaching the breaking point. Judge should be encouraged to focus his next project on Milton—Going Postal.CP