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MOVIE REVIEW

'Laws' breaks the rules of attraction

"Laws of Attraction" is like the Hepburn-Tracy movie "Adam's Rib" -- without Hepburn, Tracy, Adam, or his rib.

There's not much of a script. The direction is the pits, and stars Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore, playing dueling divorce lawyers who fall in love, are lousy, too. Nevertheless I saw more than one woman turn to her friend on the way out of the theater and say, "It was cute." In other words, if you tolerated the D-grade screwball comedy of "Ally McBeal," then the D-grade screwball afoot here might hit the spot.

Moore plays Audrey Woods, a tightly wound Manhattan attorney who eats sugar when she's nervous. She tries not to be naughty ("You know I don't like spouse-bashing," she tells one client) and is thorough in her research. She's also the sort of uptight perfectionist who makes gaffes big enough for a man to use against her, which Brosnan's Daniel Rafferty does whenever possible.

He's back on the East Coast after several years practicing law in California. They frequently wind up on opposite sides of the same high-profile marital breakups -- and, inevitably, after a night of drinking, in the same bed. Early in their relationship, Audrey informs Daniel that "there are no psychological shortcuts into my pants." Perhaps, but I don't think the movie used psychology to get him there.

She doesn't believe in matrimony. And he doesn't appear to believe in anything. Yet when they wind up in Ireland to have a look at a castle that two divorcing clients want custody of, they get drunk, then married, and spend the rest of the movie splashing in the puddle-deep irony of whether to get a divorce.

They bicker and banter while we sit around and wait for the obvious verdict. At one point, I forgot where I was and actually reached for the remote.

New York "ethnics" who hover around the fringes of the story are used as wallpaper. Daniel's office is in Chinatown just so Audrey can hate going there to see him. And basketball player Allan Houston turns up for a few seconds as a client. But the movie's chief subplot belongs to a couple on the skids: a fashion designer (Parker Posey) and a conceited English punk rock star (Michael Sheen).

Sheen is a mock-lascivious cartoon Sex Pistol who seems like a classical-music listener's notion of a rock star. Posey keeps her head cocked at acute angles for the whole movie -- reliably disrespectful of the airs of decorum. If only she had played Moore's part instead of Moore. "Laws of Attraction" helps you realize that decent movie stars can make even the most mediocre romantic comedy watchable. Unfortunately, Brosnan and Moore are not those stars.

Grizzled and sleepy-looking, Brosnan never makes Daniel vulnerable enough to be liked. His work in this movie could pass as a failed screen test for the Coen brothers' piquant divorce yarn "Intolerable Cruelty." Five minutes of his cocky, uninflected simpering would explain why George Clooney got the part.

Moore is worse. She swallows so many of her lines it's tempting to think the rest of her performance suffered from indigestion. The movie repeatedly catches her trying to pass bug eyes, fake stammering, and a gaping mouth off as reaction shots. It's as though she'd never done comedy. (Though titles such as "Nine Months" and "Evolution" suggest she's never done good comedy.)

The actress can't fall back on a persona the way most movie stars do. And she doesn't do well when there's no pressure to succeed. This is a throwaway movie for her, so she throws it away. I've never seen an actor play an alleged smart person so stupidly -- which is odd. Moore's great roles are her dingbats -- the hypochondriac housewife in "Safe," the coked-up porn mother in "Boogie Nights," the disillusioned homemaker in "Far From Heaven." Match her with a director who has style, vision, and talent, and she's fantastic. Stick her in a turkey, and she gobbles.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Laws of Attraction
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