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'Mrs. Harris' is oddly entertaining

Before watching a minute of the strange and darkly comic HBO movie, "Mrs. Harris" (8 p.m. Saturday, HBO), I felt like a skeptical juror who was prejudging a case.

It was difficult to visualize someone as elegant and as beautiful as three-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening playing someone so emotionally fragile and insecure that she would stay in a relationship with a two-timing man, even if he is loaded with charisma.

But then again, we're constantly learning that everyone is insecure no matter their looks, power or education. With that in mind, Bening is an understandable casting choice that gives viewers a reason to revisit a 25-year-old murder case.

"Mrs. Harris" is an oddly entertaining movie about a strange relationship that is often played to an ironic and iconic romantic soundtrack that includes "I Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "I'm Crying."

It starts out in the stylish spirit of such other darkly comic HBO films as the Wall Street film, "Barbarians at the Gate," and "The Late Shift" about the late-night TV wars.

But eventually this twisted tale of the relationship between private school headmistress Jean Harris and the lover she killed in 1980, diet author Dr. Herman "Hy" Tarnower ("The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet"), loses much of its comic steam and just becomes a sad story of a powerless woman obsessed with an unattainable man.

By film's end, some may find it difficult to comprehend why either of them wanted to be with each other because their definition of love was so different.

Ben Kingsley plays Hy, a self-assured, selfish ladies man and a man's man who also was a locker room legend. Why he is a legend is revealed in one of the cheaper comical scenes that, along with the romantic musical soundtrack, establish the movie's tone. Legend also has it that Hy, who referred to his parade of women as "streetcars," "could charm the blood out of a stone."

After opening credits featuring old movie clips of famous female shootings, the film starts with the off-center depiction of how the supposedly suicidal Harris claims she accidentally shot and killed her lover. But in this film, nothing is at it seems. Much later on, there is an alternative view of the shooting that makes you rethink much of what you've seen before.

Mrs. Harris and Hy certainly saw many things differently, which makes their relationship and this film so interesting. He was a bachelor who didn't care for kids and didn't hide his view that it was perfectly reasonable to have two lovers and supply Mrs. Harris with prescription drugs. A middle-aged divorcee with two kids, she said she was OK with this arrangement when in actuality her jealousy of the other younger woman and perhaps the pills eventually made her depressed and deranged.

"Why don't you stop focusing on hurting so many women and just focus on hurting me," Harris told Tarnower. She was so in love with him that she prohibited her lawyer from saying anything negative about him during her murder trial.

Their love story is also told in flashback through documentary-style interviews with friends and family members, some of whom realized the relationship was doomed from the start.

Ellen Burstyn (who earned an Emmy nomination as the lead in "The People vs. Jean Harris," which aired in 1981), Frances Fisher, Cloris Leachman and Mary McDonnell are among the actresses who have brief roles as Harris confidantes or Tarnower relatives. None of them do any heavy lifting.

The heavy lifting in screenwriter-director Phyllis Nagy's movie all belongs to Bening and Kingsley, who make a powerful but odd couple. After all, Kingsley isn't exactly Warren Beatty in the looks department.

Of course, power often trumps looks in the romance game so Kingsley's casting is easier to accept initially than Bening's. Undoubtedly, few people will be left "crying" for Mrs. Harris. But few also will be able to "keep their eyes off of" Bening.

It is a testament to Bening's acting ability that she makes Mrs. Harris' obsession become so plausible and the film so weirdly watchable.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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