During the opening moments of Fast Food Fast Women, the camera follows very blond, very thin Bella (Anna Thomson) as she teeters down a New York City sidewalk on absurdly high heels. Stepping into a crosswalk, she gingerly lies down. When a cab driver leaps out of his vehicle to ask if she’s okay, she grins up at him, “I’m trying to put some excitement in my Sunday morning.” This setup is fair warning of the forced eccentricity and strained charm that writer-director Amos Kollek will serve viewers in this urban fairytale about a quartet of lonely New Yorkers looking for love. It’s too bad the film is frequently cloying, because there’s a fascinating, inadvertent space between Thomson and her character, in which we register the collision — and truce — between caricatured female beauty and sly subversion of the dumb blond.

Bella is a motherly waitress in a busy diner whose booths are filled with old regulars whiling away their days. When her overbearing mother sets her up with cab driver and struggling novelist Bruno (Jamie Harris), a womanizer whose ex-wife has just dumped their two young kids on him, the waitress and cab driver click despite the fact that Kollek throws so many contrived obstacles in their way. Bella is forced to take stock of her 12-year affair with the much older George, played with deft sleaze by Austin Pendelton. Meanwhile, another couple, Emily (a terrific Louise Lasser) and Paul (Robert Modica, also very good) are struggling to figure out how to be sexual, romantic and trusting after 60.

Despite some lovely moments (Bella dancing to rap music with a neighbor’s son, Paul and Emily waltzing to classic jazz), Fast Food Fast Women operates like a sitcom: Bruno is too quickly transformed from lout into loving dad and romantic; Bella has a stroke of luck that undercuts the lessons in independence she’s learning. Some secondary characters — a stuttering hooker with a heart of gold, a stripper who is also a Jungian psychologist — simply grate. The women are either defined by their sexuality or are childlike creatures: Bella is both, and the pity is that Kollek skirts the productive tension between actress and character.

Thomson is clearly a few birthday candles past Bella’s age — closing on 35. The actress has that self-starved, too-much-hair, unnaturally big-breasted figure of so many aging starlets. Yet there’s a creeping intelligence in Thomson’s huge eyes, and a sliver of steeliness in her carriage that’s at odds with her blow-up-doll outline. Her babyish voice belies an unexpected bite, as when Bella tells the self-satisfied Bruno, “You are truly God’s gift to the universe.” Bella is a big-hearted optimist struggling to reconcile life’s harsh realities with her receding dreams. There’s something poignant in watching an actress trying to fool the audience about her age while playing a character whose upcoming birthday forces her to be honest about who she is, about what she wants and can no longer have or be. The film’s power lies in the fact that the façade is crumbling on the actress even as she clings to it. That this is not a pathetic sight is due to the grit that we glimpse through the cracks. It’s Barbie, becoming human.

Produced by AVRAM LUDWIG and HENGAMEH PANAHI | Released by Lot 47 Films | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Playhouse 7

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