"Mr. Wrong" checks in somewhere between a bad situation comedy and a good Jim Thompson novel, but unable to chose between them, ends up in the movie desert of Nowheresville.
Ellen DeGeneres, trying to re-create the magic of her TV and stand-up appearances, plays Martha, a single 31-year-old professional woman (a TV talent coordinator) who has pretty much given up on waiting for Mr. Right. She's settled into a nexus of comfortable platonic "friendships" with office friends (Ellen Cleghorne is the most amusing; John Livingston the most annoying) and has steeled herself for her parents' snippy inquiries as to the state of her romantic life.
Then, in cowboy boots, a buckskin jacket, with dreamy blue eyes, a flat belly, a rag-top Jag and great hair, Whitman Crawford arrives. Well, it's actually Bill Pullman doing one of his wacky charm routines with the glittery but dazed eyes and the odd little half-smirk: he's instantly attracted to her, instantly attractive to her. You've seen it in the movies a hundred times: eye contact, easy laughs, the crash of the surf on the beach (the site is San Diego) and the crash of loins between the sheets (though the PG-13 movie is discreet in this respect).
Her friends light up in delight: Whitman's the one. But Martha begins to notice small weirdnesses, like an insistence on whimsy so rigid that it feels pathological, or a predeliction for little pranks that have a truly nasty edge to them. Then she meets his mother (Joan Plowright) and they play a game that might be called "Fascist Charades," one of the movie's funniest sequences but in essence an ordeal by humiliation for him. That's when she realizes that Whitman's not the one.
For a while, the film is funny: It plays off DeGeneres' wry deadpan ways, her subtle little double-takes at this or that idiocy, and her low-key way with a wisecrack. Her rationality plays nicely against Pullman's signals of irrationality and her friends' deep case of denial.
But the movie soon abandons what might be called the TV-scale of quasi-realistic comedy, and becomes increasingly manic and physical. There's a lot of falling and bopping, some nasty violence disguised as nasty humor as the whole thing spins drearily and almost laughlessly out of control, reaching an absurd fiasco of a climax in Mexico.
Most peculiarly, it never appears quite ready to face its own meanings. This is really an ugly, bitter story, about a wealthy man who harasses a woman viciously with the apparent connivance of her friends because they are so blinded by his wealth and style. Almost without noticing it, it moves into criminal territory, depicting crimes such as kidnapping and assault and what appears to be attempted murder.
Poor DeGeneres. With those opaque eyes and that slightly dazed, slightly cynical look, she might segue into a nice film career. But this is no way to treat a lady.
Starring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Pullman
Directed by Nick Castle
Released by Touchstone
Rated PG-13 (psychologically intense)
Sun score: **