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Film review: She-devil

Published: Thursday, Dec. 14 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

The big question with "She-Devil" is whether Roseanne Barr can act. The answer is no, not really. But "She-Devil" has enough going for it that she's not a major liability either.

Adapted from Fay Weldon's searing novel "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," the film has Barr in the title role as a woman scorned who seeks revenge. And she gets it in a most creative and satisfying manner.

Barr is Ruth Patchett, the heroine of the piece, an awkward, overweight, clumsy housewife with a large mole on her hairy upper lip who has little control over her own life and whose husband Bob (Ed Begley Jr.) married her because of pressure from his parents when she became pregnant.

Bob is a true male chauvinist who has stuck out the marriage more for the sake of his own romanticized notion of what the ideal family should be like than for his wife or children. And, of course, part of that notion is that he should be able to cheat anytime, anyplace, with anyone.

But when he strikes up an affair with high-society romance novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep), he goes too far. Eventually he abandons his family, moves into Mary Fisher's plush pink mansion, and Ruth decides enough is enough.

Upon leaving, Bob recites to Ruth the four assets in his life — home, family, career and freedom — and claims Ruth is his only liability. So Ruth decides to destroy each of those assets one by one.

To describe how she goes about this in detail would spoil the fun of seeing Ruth wreak havoc on Bob's life, but suffice it to say her revenge is sweet.

Roseanne Barr is adequate in her role, and director Susan Seidelman is smart enough to use Barr more as a presence and to have her explain her motives in a voiceover narration, thus preventing any need for dramatic dialogue exchanges. The overall film probably would have benefited from someone with dramatic range in the part, but Barr does OK.

Ed Begley Jr. is quite good as the dense womanizing husband who never catches on to what's happening to him, and Linda Hunt has a nice cameo as a woman who finds meaning in her life when she encounters Barr. Sylvia Miles has a few laughs as Streep's bombastic mother.

But the performance that really holds the movie together is Meryl Streep's. After years of playing tortured souls, Streep finally gets an opportunity to be farcical and she's more than up to the task. Her Mary Fisher is a pseudo-sophisticate whose carefully cultivated lifestyle begins to crumble as Ruth Patchett begins seeing the fruits of her vengeance. And Streep is hilarious as she starts to fall apart. There are many little moments with hilarious bits of physical business that Streep handles quite deftly. Let's hope we see her doing comedy again soon.

The script, by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns ("Married to the Mob"), cleverly condenses Weldon's novel, and director Susan Seidelman handles most of the proceedings quite well, continuing her string of delightfully eccentric comedies ("Desperately Seeking Susan," "Making Mr. Right," "Cookie").

"She-Devil," though rated PG-13 for sex, nudity and profanity, none of it extensive, is really closer to R-rated territory in its sex scenes.