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Oliver's Story

Waiting for a Gentleman Caller: Lisa Harrow in 'Sunday.'

A simple tale of love gets inflated

By Richard von Busack

OVERLONG MOVIES are a cross critics must bear. Too many films bring their stories to the perfect climax--at which point the music ought to rise and the credits ought to roll--and then saddle us with 10 more minutes repeating (and diluting) what we've already seen. The cop movie that ends and ends and ends again is like the explosion we get to see from this angle, that angle and the other angle (in slow motion). Wow! What a fireball! Wouldn't want to be near that! In intimate movies like Sunday, based on a question of identity, the repetition takes a short-story twist and stretches it like taffy.

The simple setup focuses on a tryst between two lonely rejects: a homeless man living in a shelter and an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actress. Coming home on a miserable winter day in Queens, Madeleine (Lisa Harrow) encounters a balding, shaken man whom she mistakes for a famous director she had met years before at a film festival. Actually, Oliver (David Suchet) is not the director but a 20-year veteran of tax accounting at Big Blue who was purged during the layoffs and ended up homeless. Suchet's Oliver has a prim, disapproving mouth, thick, cheap eyewear and a lumpy plaid muffler knotted tightly around his throat--Jonathan Winters with his sense of humor lost forever.

Madeleine's unwillingness to realize that Oliver is not the gentleman caller she expected isn't enough to carry a full-length movie, so director John Nossiter fills up the story with piercing details. He gives incisive sketches of the homeless shelter--the disgusting bathroom that Oliver tries to disinfect with spray-on Lysol; the AM radio, blaring Limbaugh or one of his clones, that hectors the dozing, snoring men. Nossiter also scopes out Queens, locked up tight on a dripping, sunless day. The camera drinks in the metal shutters, the dung-brown brick buildings and an overhead subway train roaring like Godzilla. Nossiter is also careful to catch the details of Harrow's aging face and fine-boned jaw, the bleeding neurosis in her eyes.

There is not a moment of ecstasy in Sunday. Even during an uncontrollable moment of sex at the top of the stairs, Madeleine makes the convulsive sounds of a sick cat. Oliver's dilemma--having to get back to the shelter in time--is even less of an issue than the central question: Does Madeleine know that the little man is the big director, doesn't know, or does know and just pretends she doesn't? At an hour, Sunday would be unforgettable; at 93 minutes, it wavers. Nossiter deserved his Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. But Sunday, although it has integrity by the barrel, is relentless. All mischief has been pressed out, leaving a depressant strictly for the most serious-minded.

Sunday (Unrated; 93 min.), directed by Jonathan Nossiter, written by James Lasdun, and photographed by Michael F. Barrow, John Foster and Dan Lerner.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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