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These days, Hollywood sports a surplus of accomplished performers and directors, but the suits are seldom willing to apply their talents to worthwhile projects. The most striking difference between this season’s critical and commercial successes (Face/Off, Air Force One) and calamitous flops (Volcano, Speed 2) is that the former are marginally less preposterous than the latter.

To mark the end of summer’s cinematic tomfoolery, this week two intelligent, entertaining major-studio releases emerge to prove that, given a sharp, well-crafted screenplay, Hollywood can still deliver the goods. Both movies contain startling midpoint surprises that make them difficult to discuss without spoiling the experience for prospective viewers. I’ll resist the temptation to spill the beans in order to shield myself from hate mail, stopping only to alert readers that there’s more to these films than the unwritten rules of movie reviewing allow me to disclose.

James Ellroy’s panoramic 1990 crime novel L.A. Confidential taxes the resourcefulness of screen adapters. His 500-page mosaic of early-’50s police corruption, gangland warfare, and sexual intrigue features dozens of characters—some invented and some taken from the pages of period tabloids—intersecting in a dizzying network of clandestine relationships. Filled with double-dealings and triple-crosses and so intricately constructed that a seemingly trivial detail dropped in an early chapter turns out, several hundred pages later, to be the key to a labyrinth of interlocking subplots, L.A. Confidential is as demanding as novels by Faulkner and Nabokov, albeit considerably less nourishing.

Nothing in the hitherto inconsequential careers of director/co-scripter Curtis Hanson and writing collaborator Brian Helgeland could have predicted their success in translating Ellroy’s book to the screen. Hanson’s best-known efforts include the laughable Meryl Streep-shoots-the-rapids action thriller The River Wild and the meretricious Rebecca De Mornay-menaces-the-baby shocker The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. (His flops, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence, are even worse.) Helgeland’s screenplay credits are equally undistinguished—976-EVIL, Assassins, and the current Conspiracy Theory. Clearly, Ellroy’s writing inspired them to reach beyond their customary grasp. They have condensed and dramatically contoured Ellroy’s anfractuous hard-boiled novel while maintaining the sinuous cynicism of his vision. The notoriously cranky author himself has endorsed their efforts.

A comprehensive plot summary of L.A. Confidential would stretch from here to the sex classifieds, so I can only offer a general overview. The movie opens with a vintage newsreel depicting the prosperous façade of early-’50s Los Angeles—a booming economy, swelling population, Hollywood glamour. Then narrator Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), editor of Hush-Hush, a sleazy monthly based on the notorious scandal sheet Confidential, unveils the city’s netherworld. Mobster Mickey Cohen has been busted by the government for tax evasion, and his lieutenants, scrambling for control of his crime and vice empire, are being systematically gunned down. A bloodbath at the Night Owl diner introduces us to the inner workings of the all-white LAPD, a rogue’s gallery of racist, whiskey-swigging cops who have no qualms about planting evidence and strong-arming confessions.

Three policemen, working on what appear to be unrelated cases, become enmeshed in the Night Owl massacre. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a rakish celebrity cop, technical adviser for the Dragnet-like TV show Badge of Honor and Hudgens’ secret partner in setting up vice busts of Hollywood stars. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the uptight go-getter son of a martyred policeman, is despised by his colleagues, who resent his relentless ambition. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a chivalrous loose cannon who will employ any means necessary to obtain a conviction. During the course of its investigations, this trio traverses the city’s underworld, encountering mysterious, sinister characters including socialite pornographer and whoremaster Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) and Veronica Lake look-alike hooker Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), one of a stable of expensive prostitutes surgically enhanced to resemble movie stars.

Shrewdly, L.A. Confidential has been conceived as an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. The best-known performers, DeVito and Basinger, are relegated to supporting roles, with the leads assigned to relatively unfamiliar players. The large cast performs admirably, with Pearce, the young drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Basinger, who has recaptured the touching, wounded quality of her early screen appearances, making particularly strong impressions. The arguable exception is Crowe, an inexplicably in-demand Australian actor whose lack of authority and charisma are as apparent here as in Virtuosity and Rough Magic. The film’s biggest surprise is James Cromwell’s cunning turn as paternalistic police captain Dudley Smith. Acclaimed for his work as the benevolent Farmer Hoggett in Babe, this tall, crafty actor with the knife-blade profile of a Lautrec dandy triggers L.A. Confidential’s most shocking revelation.

Director Hanson keeps this verbose, densely plotted 138-minute movie careening along at breakneck pace and tactfully avoids graphic overkill in staging violent and erotic sequences. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, and costume designer Ruth Myers evoke a palpable ’50s L.A. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score features a nostalgic collection of period recordings by Johnny Mercer, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and the sublime cult jazz singer Lee Wiley. Make sure to stick around through the end of the closing credits. If you don’t, you’ll miss several tart epilogues that punctuate the crawl of technical contributions.

L.A. Confidential isn’t especially memorable for its content. Its disenchanted depiction of Los Angeles as a spurious Eden is familiar from any number of predecessors, including The Day of the Locust, Chinatown, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? What makes it so compelling is the scope and richness of its design. One leaves it with the sense of satisfaction one feels after snapping into place the last piece of a brain-teasing jigsaw puzzle.

In & Out takes us to another mythic American Eden, the small Midwestern town celebrated by Frank Capra and satirized by Preston Sturges. Its familiar iconography decorates the opening titles: cornfields, white church spires, Main Street. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick employs this comforting Norman Rockwell backdrop as the setting for a hilarious, risk-taking comedy focusing on middle-American anxiety about homosexuality.

A playwright (Jeffrey), novelist (Social Disease), scenarist (Addams Family Values) and, writing under nom de plume Libby Gelman-Waxner, Premiere magazine’s supremely self-absorbed movie-reviewing yenta, the openly gay Rudnick uses Tom Hanks’ impassioned Philadelphia Oscar acceptance speech as his point of departure. Hanks, you will recall, used the occasion to pay a teary tribute to his gay high-school drama coach. Rudnick ups the ante by having Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon, in a malicious sendup of Brad Pitt) out his Greenleaf, Ind., English teacher, Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), on the Oscar telecast. This proves to be an unpleasant surprise for Howard, who is days away from marrying his fiancée of three years, fellow teacher Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack). Overnight, Howard becomes the target of national media, especially aggressive television newshound Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck). The resulting publicity forces Howard to prove his heterosexuality. His failure to do so will jeopardize his nuptials and terminate his unblemished teaching career.

As part of the Oscar ceremony (which features cameos by Whoopi Goldberg and Glenn Close), Rudnick and director Frank Oz include excerpts from a preachy “problem picture,” To Serve and Protect, a parody of Born on the Fourth of July, in which a serviceman’s homosexuality—a videocassette of Beaches is found in his locker—leads to his dishonorable discharge. In doing so, they announce their intention of addressing a controversial topic in a diverting rather than didactic manner. Rudnick’s nonstop barrage of savvy throwaway gags—at least one per minute aimed at such ripe targets as Steven Seagal, anorexic supermodels, Mel Tormé, the wedding racket, Richard Simmons, and, inevitably, Barbra Streisand—keeps the laughs coming and the film’s pro-gay agenda light-handed, even after the plot takes a dangerous, unexpected twist.

Kline, who looks remarkably youthful for a man approaching 50, proves to be a skillful farceur, reveling in opportunities to indulge his flair for physical comedy. Disconcertingly made-up to resemble Meryl Streep, Cusack is kept under wraps until an affecting drunk sequence near the fadeout. Selleck, coarsely aging into Burt Reynolds seediness, proves to be a good sport about engaging in behavior that, just a few years ago, he denied in his highly publicized lawsuit against a gamy tabloid. Debbie Reynolds’ steely sweetness is well suited to the role of Howard’s determined mother. Wilford Brimley, as his father, and Bob Newhart, as a high-school principal, economically recycle performances they have been giving for decades.

Undaunted by the dictates of political correctness, Rudnick and Oz do not falter until In & Out’s climax, a town meeting called to determine Howard’s fate that ends with a gimmick pinched from, of all things, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Having painted themselves into a corner (because of the plot reversal I’ve pledged not to disclose), they have nowhere to turn without engaging their subject with the seriousness they’ve previously repudiated. Until this lumpish finale, In & Out is unabashedly gay in every sense of the word.CP