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One-dimensional characters' conversations fall flat in 'Peter's Friends'



(HBO, rated R, 1992)

Kenneth Branagh has burst into the upper echelons of the international cinematic scene in the past few years with an encouraging sense of intellectual and creative freshness in his films "Henry V," "Dead Again" and "Much Ado About Nothing."

For most of his films, he also writes, directs and co-stars with his wife, Emma Thompson. Such is the case with "Peter's Friends," which he produced and directed and stars in, as a cynical American sitcom writer named Andrew who is unhappily married to a self-absorbed sitcom star named Carol (comic Rita Rudner). Thompson plays a lonely self-help book publisher who is desperately seeking a mate.

But this film is quite a letdown from his other efforts. It has the feel of a film that was hastily put together, perhaps squeezed in during a short period between other larger projects, such as his coming "Frankenstein." In fact, its deadliest mistake is being so similar to "The Big Chill" that it invites comparisons in which it comes out the clear loser on every count.

Like "The Big Chill," "Peter's Friends" is a reunion movie of college buddies who formerly sang and played together in a revue. They have been reunited 10 years later, not because one of the group has committed suicide but because, as we find out near the end of the film, one of them has a terminal disease.

Therein lies one of the major problems with the movie: It has a disappointingly uninventive resolution that unnecessarily brings the film to a close on a downbeat note. (Strangely, in a video promotion to store owners, Mr. Branagh proclaims the film "the feel-good movie of the year.")

But the fundamental shortcomings involve the characters. They are all unfortunately one-dimensional and show none of the depth of those in "Chill," in whom we could sense a bonding sense of history and unity that bubbled to the surface in the form of group discussions of ethics and philosophies and how each of them had reconciled those ideals with their current life styles.

The deepest discussions in "Peter's Friends" involve sex partners, alcoholism and an overly health-and-fitness-conscious TV star.

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