SOMEWHERE EN ROUTE FROM NOVEL TO FILM, BRUCE Wagner's blistering leap for the Hollywood jugular, I'm Losing You, changed shape and became heartfelt. Perhaps Wagner felt that The Player had already covered the satirical territory, or wanted to make a film that would have some appeal outside Bel Air, or simply couldn't stretch his indie budget to fit the teeming opulence of his novel. Perhaps he had a peak experience. Whatever the case, in the movie the celebrity high life is pared down to a few plush interiors and the occasional AIDS fund-raiser. Wagner, who directed from his own script, has excised chunks of the book's malicious fun stuff to make way for, near enough, a straight-up melodrama about how a bankrupt, deluded culture deals with the one fact of life over which it has no dominion.

Drawn from the familiar L.A. lament over cell-phone fade, the movie's arch title cues the ordeal by illness, death, adultery, betrayal — the works and then some — of a distinctively Wagnerian family, filthy-rich show-biz types whose patriarch imagines that his obscene wealth will shield him from the inexorable claims of the decaying body and the hollow soul. When Perry Krohn (Frank Langella, oscillating nicely between cool and bereft) receives a terminal-cancer diagnosis from his pricey physician, his first reflexive response is “Jesus! It's like a movie.” His second is “Do you realize how much money I made last year?”

Eight million, but neither that nor Perry's clout as the producer of Blue Matrix, a long-running Star Trek­ish television series peopled by cut-rate actors with cookie-cut dents in their foreheads, will shield him or his good-looking family from the most efficient social leveler of all. This is a reliable enough recipe for populist movies in which Hollywood flogs itself for the anticipated delight of any masses. Still, I doubt any masses will flock to I'm Losing You, a film peering so hard up Hollywood's unprepossessing ass that it's hard to imagine anyone not in the immediate vicinity lining up to take a look. In Perry's world, love's a $200,000 wristwatch and hate the deliberate exposure of a child to mortal danger; AIDS funding becomes just another for-profit enterprise; a gay man knowingly exposes his own sister to the virus to facilitate the dumping of an unwanted boyfriend; an overexcited tot gets the joke when her father laughingly complains that she hasn't taken her Ritalin.

Kids aside, there's hardly a soul in I'm Losing You you'd want to have over for dinner. Perry has spent his life shoring up varieties of deceit which, now that his can of worms has burst open, contaminates his relationships with his chilly wife, Diantha (Salome Jens), a Jewish woman with the soul of an Episcopalian, and his two children — Rachel (Rosanna Arquette), a walking-wounded auction-house appraiser, and Bertie (Andrew McCarthy), a proud also-ran actor and devoted single father raising his daughter on a shoestring.

Wagner has worked in television (he wrote and produced the acclaimed series Wild Palms), but this is his first feature, and he's clearly taken lessons from executive producer David Cronenberg, whose sly hand presides over the movie's discreet dread: the claustrophobic close-ups wreathed in shadow, a willful negation of L.A.'s magnanimous light and space; the hushed tone of the dialogue, hovering between creepy and goofy; the black wit of the editing, in which a little girl goes contentedly to sleep clutching her teddy while Perry doggedly boffs his quiescent wife against a wall. Yet the movie's singular achievement — to enlist our sympathy for this sorry bunch — is Wagner's, and through a surprising source. An Orthodox Jewish woman whom Rachel meets by chance throws her into turmoil by accidentally disclosing the details of a well-kept secret about her past. Then, in a stunning scene as lyrical as it is domestic, the woman literally brings water to Rachel's parched spirit by instructing her in the tahara, the ceremonial washing of the dead. By a ludicrous coincidence that doesn't jar nearly as much as it should, Rachel finds herself washing a body she has known and deeply loved. The ritual at once tests and saves her as it does, indirectly, her brother, whose love affair with a bitter, brave HIV-positive woman (played with lacerating conviction by Elizabeth Perkins, coming on like an angry young Jeanne Moreau) brings him to a sense of the life he wants to live.

For once, Wagner is not making fun. Nor is he jumping on the glam bandwagon of packaged Jewish mysticism to which some of Hollywood's disenchanted have turned for spiritual balm. With Rachel's redemption, Wagner puts his finger on the best tenets of Judaism: Practice makes perfect. In carrying out the rituals of dignity and decency, Rachel learns to act first and let belief, or at least feeling, follow, and the experience liberates her, if only to make peace with her neurasthenic self. Her transformation is an affecting and wholly unexpected article of faith from Wagner, who has built a career on iconoclasm. One takes it on trust, for in I'm Losing You, Wagner hasn't merely warmed to his subject. He's made it holy.

IN LAKE PLACID, A DIGITALLY ENHANCED BUT NO LESS cheesy version of the plastic crocodiles that used to come free with your corn flakes pops out of a serene Maine pond and feasts on cows fed to it by a foul-mouthed rustic played by Betty White. Thus sated, the monster moves on to severing the limbs of minor players in a search party sent to get rid of it. By the end of this mercifully short excuse for a horror movie, you'll be wishing the beast had chowed down on the entire ensemble, even though it includes the excellent Brendan Gleeson (The General) as a trigger-happy sheriff who wants to blow the reptile away, Oliver Platt as a mad scientist, and pretty Bill Pullman as the game warden.

The movie is facetiously directed by Steve Miner (Halloween: H20) from a script by Ally McBeal's David E. Kelley, which accounts for the early appearance of a skinny urban neurotic (in this case a paleontologist, gallantly if implausibly portrayed by Bridget Fonda) who, evidently in the name of feminism, flaps her hands and whines every time man or nature says boo to her. Just as you're rooting for the monster to dispose of this Fay Wray knockoff in the usual manner, earnestness prevails: The crocodile goes all limp and cuddly, and the scenario turns into Wildlife 101. That's no way to run a horror movie, still less one that lacks the courage of its conventions. Wisecracking all the way, Lake Placid twists feebly in the wind. From the conspicuous absence of any activity below the waist, I take it the target audience is prepubescent boys. Even they will pronounce it a croc.

I'M LOSING YOU | Adapted from his novel and directed by BRUCE WAGNER | Produced by CHRISTINE VACHON and PAMELA KOFFLER | Released by Strand Releasing
At Sunset 5

LAKE PLACID | Directed by STEVE MINER | Written by DAVID E. KELLEY | Produced by KELLEY and MICHAEL PRESSMAN | Released by 20th Century Fox | Citywide

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