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Goldberg bends gender till it screams for laughs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Graft "Trading Places" onto "Remington Steele," add a pinch of "Mrs. Doubtfire," and you've got "The Associate," the new film starring Whoopi Goldberg as a Wall Street whiz who realizes she'd be a whole lot more successful if she were a man.

So she becomes one.

Clever? Mildly. But the film hasn't got an original bone in its body. It's little more than a mix of "Steele," the TV series in which a female private investigator invented a male boss to bring in business; "Places," which milked the stock exchange for laughs; and "Doubtfire," which showed how make-up maestro Greg Cannom could accomplish almost anything with the proper prosthetics.

"The Associate" works only because of the considerable talents of Goldberg, a genuine star who's almost always better than her material, and Dianne Weist, who plays the timid, put-upon secretary who helps Goldberg change both her sex and her luck.

It's no accident these two women have three Oscars between them.

Goldberg plays Laurel Ayres, a financial genius whose sleazeball partner Frank (Tim Daly of TV's "Wings") does nothing except hog the credit for their successes. Which is why he's the one who gets the big promotion, and why Ayres quits the firm, sure she can make it on her own.

But she can't -- until, faced with a potential client (gruff but lovable Eli Wallach), she invents a male boss whose name, Robert S. Cutty, she borrows from a bottle of Scotch.

The ruse works just fine. The unseen Cutty is hailed as a genius, Ayres starts raking in the big bucks and Frank gets his comeuppance. But soon, events (and an SEC investigation) force Cutty out in the open -- which is where Cannom's wizardry comes into play, transforming Goldberg into an elderly white man with a ponytail.

The makeup is wonderful and the effervescent Goldberg fun to watch. Weist, playing Ayres' secretary, is as reserved as her boss is flamboyant. The two make a wonderful pair, particularly when they conspire to get rid of Cutty, who's threatening to steal as much of Laurel's glory as Frank ever did.

But "The Associate" just lays there. It's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. The ending, designed solely to make everyone walk out of the theater feeling good, has little to do with the 105 minutes of movie that came before it. And the film seriously wastes the fTC talents of Bebe Neuwirth, whose only function seems to be modeling the latest from Victoria's Secret.

Well, her performance does raise a question. Wonder if Cannom is such a prosthetics whiz that he could make a man good at that?

'The Associate'

Directed by Donald Petrie

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dianne Weist, Tim Daly, Bebe Neuwirth and Eli Wallach

Rated: PG-13 (some mild language and skimpy outfits, but nothing really offensive)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 10/25/96

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