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"BETSY'S WEDDING": A "REGRETS ONLY" AFFAIR.

"BETSY'S WEDDING" is cute. But then, so is my cat, and I won't charge you $6 to see him. You can take my word for it, free of charge.

You can envision 80 percent of Alan Alda's newest comic exercise in sociopolitical narcissism from the title, which may well make seeing it downright redundant. Like so: Two young people from opposite backgrounds decide to get married (one, you no doubt guessed, is named Betsy). Familial hell breaks loose on both sides. A case of "Daddy's Little Girl" syndrome develops. Yatta-yatta-yatta.

When it isn't hopelessly mild and innocuous in the blandest sitcom style, the movie seems to consider the family unit little more than an unusually intimate arena for social gossip. And social gossip is what this movie lives for, yearns for and dies for.

If you forget the suburban sitcomminess of it all (I swear TV's "Empty Nest" is funnier -- shorter and cheaper, too), "Betsy's Wedding" is a deeply unpleasant fable about envy and the ceaseless scramble for social control. It's all the more unpleasant because it thinks it's about much sweeter and more sanguine subjects.

That's all Alda's character does in this movie -- scrambles for control of social situations (which are smugly perceived to be the center ring of the well-lived life).

Thereby hangs (or droops, to be more accurate) the tale. For years now, I've been willing to entertain the notion that "sensitive, kind, caring" Alan Alda -- the humanist's home companion -- is full of prunes. I know full well that this is a personal failing of mine. Doubtless it reveals bad character, low morals and a shoddy gene pool besides. But there you have it.

I'm not alone, either. When I muttered this pop-cultural apostasy at a recent movie critics' screening out of town, a fellow I'd never met accosted me out of nowhere, reached over his girlfriend and held up his hand to be slapped. After cackling in merry agreement and high-fiving each other for a few minutes, we suddenly found ourselves getting warm, approving looks from a small, underground cadre of both sexes who've been secretly harboring the same cultural heresy for years.

The notion first hit me with "The Four Seasons," star/writer/director Alda's first inept bid to get into the Woody Allen business. We are repeatedly encouraged in "The Four Seasons" to find considerable humor in the mopiness of a subteen daughter of divorcing parents. I tried as hard as I could to get into the spirit. But I kept on thinking: "What on earth is funny about this? And what kind of jerk thinks that adults have a right to score superior laughs off troubled children who can't help intruding on adult revelry?"

I've been on his case ever since. Let's put it this way, I'm not sure yet that there's enough evidence to convict him of smugness, envy, and the most egregious and rapacious self-love in any cultural kangaroo court, but if the time ever comes when it goes to trial, I'm ready to move heaven and earth to be sitting at the prosecutor's table.

Yes, yes, I know parents bad-mouth their kids all the time. Every parent I know constantly grouses about sloppiness, irresponsibility, etc., etc. The amount of love behind it, though, is an absolute given (in fact, for most of the parents I know, it's something of an embarrassment.)

With all that in mind, take a look at "Betsy's Wedding" if you've a mind to -- a good look. See how much of it is so shallow and reflexive that it couldn't possibly reflect any real feeling.

For the record, "Betsy's Wedding" serves as a kind of reunion for two grown-up stars of '80s acne cinema -- Molly Ringwald (who plays Alda's daughter Betsy) and Ally Sheedy as her unhappy and unpopular older sister. (Alda telling his wife that "Nobody likes her" is one of the things we're supposed to laugh at in the film.)

To give Alda some credit, some of the dialogue moves along at a nice clip. And his lines for Anthony LaPaglia as his older daughter's Mafioso suitor are wonderfully solemn and ornate. Even better is young, unknown LaPaglia's performance, which is like post-teen De Niro in "Godfather II" played for laughs.

In fact, if it weren't for LaPaglia and Alda's lines for him, there'd be almost nothing to "Betsy's Wedding."

Rated R and opening today in the Boulevard, Eastern Hills and McKinley Mall theaters.

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