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FOCUS IS ON PERFORMANCE, NOT MESSAGE, IN 'BROTHEL'

The Madam's Family: The Truth About Canal Street Brothel ** (out of four)

9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 4

How does a broadcast network handle a movie about a celebrated brothel? Very carefully.

"The Madam's Family: The Truth About Canal Street Brothel" (9 p.m. Sunday, WIVB-TV), should have been a pay-cable movie.

Not because that would have made the suggested sex scenes in the first 30 minutes more provocative, though it certainly would have. But because it could have gone further with language, humor and biting satire.

The truth is that this slow-to-develop story is more a comedy than a drama. It is based on the true story of three generations of prostitutes -- let's call them "Desperate Hookers" -- who become the target of a comical, misguided FBI investigation of a New Orleans brothel at a time when America had much more serious problems post- 9/1 1.

The three pros are played by major league actresses - veteran film star Ellen Burstyn, Annabella Sciorra (one of Tony's crazy women in "The Sopranos") and Dominique Swain ("Lolita"). They all deliver strong performances and make the movie extremely watchable, though it isn't as mysterious, sexy or as funny as the "Desperate Housewives" that is playing at the same time on Channel 7.

The film also has some cameos from President Bush and former Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. One doubts that Sen. John F. Kerry will demand equal time because the government ends up looking pretty foolish. The CBS news series, "48 Hours" did a report about the foolishness this past summer that included interviews with the real-life figures.

Burstyn stars as Tommie, who keeps the brothel books and is constantly on her cellphone with clients. She apparently never has had a serious discussion with her daughter, Jeanette (Sciorra), about the family business Jeanette now runs. Jeanette's beautiful daughter, Monica (Swain), has self-esteem issues that landed her in the business, too. Monica has the additional problem of fighting for custody of her small daughter, a Family Court battle that was started by the family member who was able to overcome her childhood experiences.

In the beginning, we meet many of the powerful clients who are looking for a good time. Unfortunately, one gets in a jam and tries to bring down the brothel to save his neck.

The "Desperate Hookers" are more "shocked" than Sen. Leahy to discover they have become government targets.

"It comes as an enormous revelation that there are hookers in New Orleans," Sen. Leahy says sarcastically in a post- 9/1 1 news clip. "Who knew?"

It is one of the best lines in the movie, which unfortunately is unable to script lines as funny as the real ones. And since this is a network movie, there also has to be some positive moral message.

The result is a schizophrenic film that goes back and forth between ironic humor and real-life seriousness and ends up illustrating that the hookers have more principles than some lawyers, doctors and other powerful clients. Who knew?

The "Desperate Hookers" finally confront each other and embark on a journey of self-discovery that would seem to enable future generations to get the courage and self-esteem to escape the brothel.

To dryly quote Sen. Leahy, "it comes as an enormous revelation" that a CBS movie about a brothel would include such a positive message. It may make CBS feel good about buying the movie, but it certainly makes it considerably less fun than a pay-cable movie might have been. Still, the mediocre movie isn't as complete a waste as the FBI investigation appears to have been. It is to be enjoyed for its performances, not its message.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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