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ONE THING you can say about Uncle Sammy is that he has a lot of hats. All fedoras, of course. Khaki jobs, felt stingybrims, whatever suits the scummy occasion. He also has a yellow plastic bag containing enough cocaine to amuse an entire corrupt block of Manhattan for an evening.

Before the opening of Matthew Harrison's "Kicked in the Head" is over, he steals a pair of sunglasses and a brand-new boat-size Lincoln.

He is on a roll, literally. He runs into his mopey nephew Redmond, a Gen-X apparition in sneaks and backpack who is, he says, "going through a self-destructive period" but is also "on a search for the truth." Redmond is a mooning and almost worthless little neurotic with nothing visible or audible whatsoever to recommend him to anybody.

He is also the center of the entire movie, a scruffy and appealing low-budget little indie with zesty performances from James Woods, Linda Fiorentino, Lili Taylor, Burt Young and Michael Rapaport.

There is, in fact, a certain sort of performance you see only in low-budget American movies where the actors have highly seasoned words to say, goofball characters to develop, a director with an inclination to have fun and no big-money studio breathing down everyone's neck to keep everything under budget.

Woods, as Uncle Sammy, is delightful. He plays, as Redmond's friend Stretch puts it, "a vortex of disaster," but he's a magnetic one. He's a loser with fast-talking charisma. Even mobsters he owes money to like to keep him alive just to see how he'll screw up next.

Stretch (Michael Rapaport doing his best work yet) is the eloquently stupid beer distributor who provides a crib for Redmond when necessary. (It's like Godzilla, says Redmond. "That apartment ate my life.") Stretch, who accuses everyone he meets of having a drinking problem, is currently engaged in "the beer wars." It seems "this guy who runs Beer-O-Rama is taking a very unfriendly attitude toward my competitive pricing." Stretch lives with Pearl, who, by day, works in a warehouse selling sex toys.

Anyone who saw "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy" will recognize the typical Gen-X blasts of broad, cutesy obscenity, a sort of combination of Henry Miller and a Miller Lite commercial. In fact, there's even a funny scene here where all the guys discourse on the entire "Planet of the Apes" film series that, if cleaned up and vacuumed free of cocaine, could be lifted whole and used as a TV commercial for beer. Or jeans. Or Volkswagens. Or whatever.

Our boy Redmond is the connecting point of two choice women, one an unhappy flight attendant played by Linda Fiorentino with her typical tough-girl cool and very atypical radiance and the other, Lili Taylor, who is adoring and is also, quite atypically, allowed to be fresher and lovelier and far less messy than usual. (Someday the divine powers-that-be may well send this woman a major movie career, even though it's more than obvious by now that she doesn't want one.)

It's impossible not to notice that smack-dab in the middle of this movie as Redmond is an actor, Kevin Corrigan, who couldn't act his way out of a crowd scene in a movie on the Family Channel. The character he plays is a slug -- sensitive to everything, icky-sticky and just aching to be stepped on by something larger. Imagine Benjamin in "The Graduate" without the backbone and emotional stability. Corrigan plays Redmond with even less charisma than is written into the role.

Why would director Harrison cast him in such a central role? Because he's the co-writer of the film, and his presence on screen in every scene, while quite annoying, also seems to bring out the best in all the other actors, who are tickled pink to have such words to say and such riotously flavored characters to play.

It isn't much, but it's peppery and enjoyable and has some winsome notions. It's hard not to enjoy a movie where such actors as these are caught in the act of enjoying their profession.

Kicked in the Head
Rating: ***
James Woods, Linda Fiorentino, Lili Taylor and Michael Rapaport in Gen-X grunge comedy, written by Kevin Corrigan and directed by Matthew Harrison. Rated R, opening today in the Amherst Theater.

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