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"U-Turn" is a scabrous dirty joke of a movie from Oliver Stone, who seems to have deluded himself at the time into thinking he was making an all-star film noir. But then, every moviemaker and singer and copywriter in Hollywood these days thinks he can slather the film noir label on anything that involves lust, double-dealing and/or music written before 1954. (Wait until you hear Carly Simon's "Film Noir" disc. If the snippet she previewed on "The Tonight Show" is any indication, it's worse than god-awful.)

Stone's own accidental U-turn toward black comedy is a little like Columbus sailing to the Orient but discovering America instead. In other words, it's good news. Believe me.

"U-Turn" is brilliant and excessive and foolish and obnoxious and darkly funny all at the same time. But then, nobody ever said that Oliver Stone didn't give you a full experience in a movie theater.

It turns out that when he doesn't want to revise American history and think out loud about America's moral character (nobody does his "thinking" louder than Stone when he's in his thinking mode), Stone is a pretty funny fellow in a very dark and nasty and sardonic way. I wouldn't recommend the lowdown dirty laughs in this movie to any church young people's group or Junior League tea, but it's jaunty fun in a kind of draft-beer-and-spicy-burrito way.

This is the one about the stranded motorist and the real estate salesman's wife. It's in the great American tradition of roadside smut (or, to be more accurate in this case, smutty-mindedness).

Sean Penn is the stranded motorist, a Las Vegas gambler with a penchant for blowing off his debts and losing miscellaneous digits to angry mobsters. He needs to leave the tiny, scorpion-filled burg of Superior, Ariz., on the double.

Penn, bless him, has become the new Robert Mitchum, a man who almost always looks as if he's coming off a four-day drunk.

Jennifer Lopez is the real estate salesman's wife, a woman who looks hotter in a dress than a lot of women do in underwear catalogs.

She asks Penn to kill her husband.

Nick Nolte is the wild-eyed, snaggle-toothed husband and real estate man. (At the coastal interviews for this movie, he showed up in pajamas and trench coat.) After a while, he asks Penn to kill his wife. Never mind the "Red Rock West" plot. The resolution that this movie is moving toward is a punch line, not a dramatic climax.

Billy Bob Thornton is the myopic garage mechanic who tells Penn that it doesn't look as if his busted radiator hose will be fixed any time soon. His teeth are a sort of burnt umber shade that indicates they may not have been brushed any time in the past decade.

Jon Voight is a blind old desert buzzard who hangs around saying portentous things that, by and large, have no meaning whatsoever. (Nice fellow, though.)

Claire Danes plays a small-town airhead ready to undress in a flash if only the stranded motorist will give her a ride out of town and into civilization. Joaquin Phoenix plays her jealous boyfriend.

All of them joyously work out their inner ugliness.

Stone had the ambiguous luck early in his career to define history -- literally. It was "Platoon," more than any other single cultural artifact, that, once and for all, codified what has become the mainstream consensus about Vietnam: anti-war but pro-vet. It was "Wall Street" that exemplified the Reagan years.

Defining American history is hard work. It's also addictive.

Stone continued to flail away hammer and tongs at the American Century.

"JFK" was a maddeningly brilliant piece of work, a teeming paranoid nightmare that opened up some minds to the possibility of political conspiracy but also turned its creator into something of a joke.

"Nixon" was an even more quixotic blitz of political revisionism -- a brave, obsessive and deeply foolish movie. "Natural Born Killers" was even worse -- an investigation of the connection between violence and the media that turned out to be symptomatic of the very pathology it purported to be about.

It was that rare film that was ugly to the bone.

"U-Turn" is ugly for the black humor of it all; it's a neo-drive-in movie with a big-time cast and a barstool tone. It's quite likable in its brazenly dislikable way.

I don't know if it's evidence of a new Oliver Stone coming at us or the real Oliver Stone finally revealing himself (see the interview in Saturday's News), but whatever it is, it's a nice development in the creative life of a filmmaker who seemed to have painted himself into a loud and angry corner where he kept drowning himself out.

Rating: ***
Sean Penn is a stranded motorist in a town full of Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes and Julie Hagerty.
Rated R, opening today in area movie theaters.

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