the pompatus of love


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What the hell does "pompatus" mean anyway?

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July 26, 1996


By Lawrence Van Gelder

What, you ask, is the pompatus of love?

You won't find pompatus in your office dictionary, but yes, it's in the lyrics of the Steve Miller song "The Joker."

But to really find out, it is necessary to see "The Pompatus of Love," a literate, funny film about men, women and the many mysteries of love in the 1990s.

Richard Schenkman's film is mostly about four white guys sitting around talking in New York City, but since one of them has written a play and another has written a book (so what if it's in the remainder bin at B. Dalton?), "The Pompatus of Love" is that rare modern movie in which recognizable, complicated urban characters actually seem at home with language and ideas, and the film makers have an acute sense of satire.

Sure, the four friends use four-letter words, and sometimes in their rush to express themselves they trip over their tongues. But even when they do, they come out with malapropisms like sickle-cell bulimia; and they are quick-witted enough to produce coinages like faux pas de deux for a confrontation on the subway steps that leaves two people bobbing and weaving but unable to pass each other.

There are lines like "First dates will kill you," and about younger women, "Does she know Ted Kennedy had older brothers?" And there's a young woman in bed who rejects her partner's lambskin condom because she's a vegetarian.

All in their 30s, the principal characters in "The Pompatus of Love" are Mark (played by Jon Cryer), a therapist (look for his book in the remainder bin); Runyon (Tim Guinee), the playwright; Josh (Adrian Pasdar), for whom the word playboy was invented, and Phil (Adam Oliensis), who runs a plumbing business.

They've got problems with women. Mark and his girlfriend (Kristen Wilson), a former performance artist who created a line of unwearable clothing as a joke and saw it become a sensation, are hung up over moving in together.

The lovelorn Runyon is hung up over his old girlfriend Kathryn (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), who has moved to Los Angeles, which is where Runyon is headed to answer to a summons from a sitcom producer. (In a short, sweet scene, the film makers skewer this idiot.)

The womanizing Josh is hung up on Phil's sister, Gina (Paige Turco), who has an abusive husband. And Phil, who is married with children, finds himself hung up on an English interior designer (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has a seductive air about her.

"The Pompatus of Love" deftly, often wickedly cuts among these characters, flashing back to the beginning of some relationships, peeping into bedrooms, eyeing arguments, poking its nose into problems of communication, wondering what words really mean when men and women talk.

The cast is excellent. The actors are good company, and so is "The Pompatus of Love."

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By Michael Wilmington

Tribune Movie Critic

"The Pompatus of Love" is my idea of an American independent sleeper, a fast, funny, low-budget, urban relationship comedy about four caustic thirtyish New York buddies and their romantic flounderings that has terrific dialogue, imaginative direction and a fine ensemble cast.

Directed by first-timer Richard Schenkman, it's a movie that gets the feel of Manhattan, and especially of New York barroom conversation and bungled courting rituals. The dialogue, by Schenkman and two of his actors -- Hollywood's Jon Cryer and off-Broadway's Adam Oliensis -- has just the right tempo, smarts and snap.

"Pompatus" is in the same vein as American indie critical hits such as "The Brothers McMullen," "Metropolitan," "Denise Calls Up" and 'Kicking and Screaming" -- all of which deal with somewhat neurotic urban ensembles talking out their problems, engaging in vertical conversations about the horizontal bop.

But it's better, I think, than any of those pictures (though I rated "Denise" higher at the time). What's most surprising about the movie -- the way director Schenkman gets such a top cast and a slick, confident, Hollywood-style look in his first picture -- may have worked against "Pompatus" in the reviews, especially for critics or viewers who take any glossiness in a movie as a sign of corruption.

Set in bars, lofts, streets and funky apartments, it's about the usual subject: messed-up love lives. We meet the guys, hear their cross-talking banter, then watch them flop around with women who generally seem smarter and more together than they are. In this case, the foursome are all in their early 30s: neurotic therapist Mark (Cryer), over-the-edge playwright Runyon (Tim Guinee), savvy plumbing shop operator Phil (Oliensis) and compulsive pickup artist Josh (Adrian Pasdar).

Because of their widely varying professions, it seems obvious this is a bunch that's been tight since college -- or even high school. They're buddies who grew up watching TV sports together, digging rock 'n' roll, serious literature and Marx Brothers movies. Now, they gather for barroom rap sessions and try to scorch each other with offhand Groucho-style zingers.

"Pompatus" is a "guy talk" movie -- like "The Brothers McMullen" -- but the talk is cleverer, the guys quicker. Schenkman captures the rhythms and slambang one-upmanship of this badinage. And he also uses a clever, elliptical '60s-style editing that links everyone for ensemble choruses of phony New York relationship lines.

Except for the consistent crackle and surprise of the dialogue, it's not really an original movie. We meet the guys, hear their testosterone-loaded confabs, then watch them screw up with women for a couple of hours, while the women take their measure and gradually humanize them.

Here, as usual, the women are formidable -- including Mia Sara as Cynthia, one of Josh's pickups; Paige Turco as Mark's beleaguered girlfriend Tasha; Arabella Field as Phil's wife, Lori; Kristin Scott-Thomas as flirty Brit plumbing customer Caroline; and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson as Kathryn, the dream-woman Mark can't get out of his system. All give as good as they get, putting the guys in their place with ease.

That might be the one real flaw in the movie: the fact that the men are allowed to be goofed up and fallible, while (with one exception) the women are mostly exemplars of common sense and moral rigor. Maybe that's the trap of the post-feminist age. In movies like this, we tend to falsely heroize women where we used to falsely heroize men. The exception, the one lady ditz, is an L.A. lady Tarzan and Mark's plane-to-California companion, played by the modern queen of this kind of role, Jennifer Tilly.

The title refers to the barroom badinage. "Pompatus of Love" is a quotation from the Steve Miller song "The Joker" in which Miller briefly mentions something that sounds like "Pompatus of Love." But are we hearing him right? Did he really say "Prophetess?" "Impetus?" "Profitless?" "Impotence?"

The guys chew over this conundrum with the same deadpan free-for-all erudition that accompanies similar barroom symposiums on the real words in The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie." At the end, gathered around a campfire near a half-completed house, they're still discussing it.

Many recent low-budget relationship comedies leave me cold. But "The Pompatus of Love" is a movie I enjoyed. And, ordinarily, I don't like American indie low budgeters that look like auditions for major-studio movies.

But "Pompatus" is a successful audition. All the actors are fine -- especially Cryer, Oliensis and Scott-Thomas. Even the weaker scenes have a certain snap and intelligence.

These guys really do prove they can do as slick a job as the big guys. Why not give them their due? Whatever this movie is, it's not what you usually get from these New York wise-cracking indie relationship experts. It ain't "The Pompous Ass of Love."

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"[From] the new crop of American independent movies... Richard Schenkman's The Pompatus of Love was among the most successful... [a] satisfying comedy."

The Miami Herald

"Engagingly Lighthearted, with a polished look that belies its low budget origins, and some hilarious discourses on the nature of modern relationships. The cast works well together. Richard Schenkman isn't afraid to try a few things; his enthusiasm keeps the film going at a nice clip."

Gannett Suburban Newspapers

"The Pompatus of Love is at once bittersweet, knowing and often very funny... this story tries to tackle the relevant issues with unique style and brash wit... one of the more winning little comic treasures of the summer."

The Sydney Morning Herald

"The Pompatus of Love bristles with ideas and crackles with humor... a spunky, sexy funny movie... Never superior or falsely wise, [it] is refreshingly open-ended - and smart enough to know it's limits. Low-budget film-making at its best."


Rating: This film is not rated.

Cast: Jon Cryer (Mark), Tim Guinee (Runyon), Adam Oliensis (Phil), Adrian Pasdar (Josh), Kristen Wilson (Tasha), Kristin Scott Thomas (Caroline), Paige Turco (Gina) and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (Kathryn).

Directed by Richard Schenkman; written by Jon Cryer, Adam Oliensis and Schenkman; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by Dan Rosen; music by John Hill; production designer, Michael Krantz; produced by D.J. Paul and Jon Resnik; released by In Pictures. Running time: 99 minutes.

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All photos by Tom LeGoff