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'Pool' Is All Wet

[whitespace] Hugo Pool
Melrose Misplaced: Alyssa Milano plays a harried pool keeper during a drought in 'Hugo Pool.'

Robert Downey Sr. gets lachrymose in 'Hugo Pool'

By Richard von Busack

SINCE THE NEW FILM Hugo Pool is a memorial to director Robert Downey Sr.'s late wife, I feel like a bastard talking about what a waste of time it is. Laura Downey, who co-wrote this strange movie, perished in 1995 of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. Hugo Pool features a character named Floyd (played by Patrick Dempsey), in the end stages of ALS, who is wheelchair-bound and communicating with a voice-computer, like Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. Laura Downey's case should be known upfront, because otherwise you'll have no idea what this picture is doing up there on screen.

Hugo Dugay (Alyssa Milano of Melrose Place) is the title character, a pool cleaner in the L.A. County countryside. Her father, Henry (Malcolm MacDowell), is a polydrug abuser in recovery; her mother, Minerva (Cathy Moriarity), has a severe gambling problem. On the day the movie's action unfolds, Hugo has 44 pools to clean; she's also been threatened by the mobster "Chick" Chicalini (Richard Lewis, doing a funny Al Pacino imitation): if she doesn't find water for his pool, it's curtains. (The film takes place during a drought, which, after months of El Niño, is pleasant to imagine.)

Henry is dispatched to the Colorado River with a tanker truck. On the way, he picks up a hitchhiker (Sean Penn) whose ultramarine loafers, buckled on the side, become an object of desire for Henry. Henry says they're "Ring dang doo," private code for heroin and anything else a man wants wants wants but can't can't can't have. (One clue: the phrase turns up in numerous bawdy songs, of which the R&B singer Little Esther's "Ring a Dang Doo" is a prime example.) Watching this absurdist business with these loafers, Penn's detractors will grunt, "I always knew he wore girly shoes."

The (naturally futile) trip to the river is intercut with Hugo's rounds, taking care of her customers, falling for Floyd and minding Minerva, who rides shotgun in Hugo's truck. One of the clients is a Dutch film director, played, with much stubble, drool and prop vodka bottles, by Robert Downey Jr. The unhappy actor is greeted by Hugo with the line "How did you get out of jail?" There's the biggest laugh in the movie.

Physically, the scantily clad Milano is as tasty as the cookie that bears her name. Downey Sr. serves her up on a platter, zooming in on her butt. But shape isn't everything. My wife, grousing about the cheesecake, muttered, "She looks like she would go out with Keanu Reeves." Milano doesn't move well. When her new friend in the wheelchair types out, "I dig the way you walk," the reply "like Marcel Marceau pretending to be caught in a windstorm" came to mind. The well-fed Moriarity can mime sex better with one plucked eyebrow than Milano can with her whole body. By the time this thing is over--with all of the due pathos a memorial entails--you've heard at least a hundred rehab jokes. Was this picture nothing but on-screen family therapy?

Hugo Pool (R; 92 min.), directed by Robert Downey Sr., written by Robert and Laura Downey, photographed by Joseph Montgomery and starring Alyssa Milano, Patrick Dempsey and Robert Downey Jr.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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