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ODD COUPLE

MY FIRST MISTER ***

STARRING: Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks, Mary Kay Place and Carol Kane

DIRECTOR: Christine Lahti

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

RATING: R for language and sex talk

THE LOWDOWN: Odd friendship between a conventional 49-year old man and a 17-year-old goth girl.

Her whole face seems to be pierced - nose (both nostrils), chin, eyebrows. The black makeup around her eyes seems to have been applied with a trowel. We're talking definite raccoon eyes here.

She likes to dress in black and while away the hours in mausoleums when she's not writing eulogies to people she doesn't know (and to herself, whom she doesn't really know, either). She's "technically still a virgin," and when she's terribly depressed cuts and stabs at her arm.

She calls her mother a Shirley Partridge wannabe and can't stand it when, in the car, her mother sings along with her cherished tapes of "I Enjoy Being a Girl." But this confused 17-year-old also tells us in a voice-over "vintage TV rocks. What I wouldn't give to live with the Partridge family."

Her teen friends would, no doubt, consider her a standard 17-year-old "goth chick" - a combination of Holden Caulfield, Marilyn Manson and Christina Ricci in an "Addams Family" movie.

Her first real friendship in life is with a 49-year-old guy with his own clothing store in L.A.'s Century City. He's got the middle-aged belly, the weary, middle-aged shuffle and a benevolent smile that comes from the middle age of a life that has been spent without children.

Somehow, the two of them connect. He hires her for his store, at first as a stock clerk. She - sort of - fantasizes about him as a lover. She's at the age when she likes to have a lot of inappropriate thoughts. He - sort of - fantasizes about her as a daughter. He's at the age when nurturing comes naturally, even in men. They're at slight cross purposes, but not so much that they don't connect in a deep and very strange way. Reverse the genders of "Harold and Maude," bring the ages down a bit, eliminate sex and you've got their "romance."

What makes Christine Lahti's movie "My First Mister" so appealing isn't the odd semi-romantic friendship but that the principals - Leelee Sobieski and, yes an unusually touching and poignant Albert Brooks - are as affecting as you've ever seen them on film. In fact, if I hadn't seen Brooks - American cinema's poet laureate of comic desperation - do this I'm not sure I'd have known he had it in him.

It's certainly funny enough and charming and tender in its eccentric way. But it doesn't seem to quite know the difference between whimsy and ickiness - or, for that matter, between tear-jerking and jerkiness. Compare it, in fact, to the wildly eccentric sentimental directorial effort of another superb actress - Diane Keaton's magical "Unstrung Heroes" - and you realize how far Lahti still had to go.

Still, even though the movie is far less affecting than it could have been, it's nothing if not sweetly affecting.

Consider it, in fact, as lovable in its clumsy and eccentric way as its clumsy and enervating heroine.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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