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`TAO OF STEVE' A WAY OF LIFE.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Dex (Donal Logue) is the pickup artist of Santa Fe. Any woman who enters his crosshairs - cynical or naive, single or married, doesn't matter - is soon stricken, all thanks to his subtle mastery of ``The Tao of Steve.''

It ain't because Dex is a Greek god, that's for sure. Yes, back in the day, he was quite a handsome devil (the film opens up amusingly with an astonishing chorus of ``I can't believe I fell for hims'' from the female attendees of a 10-year class reunion). But now he looks like Chris Farley's not-so-little brother, possesses few professional aspirations beyond his part-time job as a kindergarten teacher and still shares a house with three equally immature buddies.

Still, he gets just about any woman he wants with a multi-point strategy of passive/aggressive interest/disinterest that's equal parts zen and the result of watching too many Steve McQueen movies. But you'll notice that we said just about any woman, and thereby hangs the tale of this smart, shaggy and often tantalizingly fresh romantic comedy.

The sloppy charmer meets his match in Syd (Greer Goodman), a New York set designer in town to do some staging for the Santa Fe Opera. She strongly resists him at first (there's a reason), but his charm and relentlessness eventually make headway. However, the extra effort takes a toll on Dex; he might just have to attempt a grown-up relationship for a change. Even more alarming, this could be love.

Three elements raise this rather commonplace storyline to intriguing heights. First and foremost is Logue, an actor of prodigious warmth. He never allows Dex to appear either pathetic or overconfident and lends an irresistible, little-boy charm to the large lothario's ceaseless calculating. Recognizable from small parts in ``Runaway Bride,'' ``Blade'' and ``The Patriot,'' Logue is a radiantly intelligent actor who can whip up the most complex emotional cocktails without the slightest aftertaste of strain.

The second plus factor is the unobtrusively educated dialogue that bounces off the New Mexicans' tongues. The three writers - Goodman, her sister Jenniphr (who also makes her feature directing debut with ``Tao'') and Duncan North (on whom the character of Dex is reportedly based) - know their town well, and that (generally) unpretentious intellectualism is the lingua franca of that art colonized community, even among its Frisbee-tossing, poker-playing set. Rare is the movie that can act naturally while sustaining brainy conversation and a sense of humor; even Woody Allen seems arch by comparison.

Finally, the film is cast with real-looking people. Not just the hefty Logue, but his friends and the many unglamorously attractive women who cross his path have such a refreshingly everyday quality to them that you almost don't notice some of the romantic comedy situations they're working are as contrived as anything you've seen Julia Roberts twinkle through.

Still, you do notice, and that predictable business can get a bit annoying. But heck, ``The Tao of Steve'' has smarts, personality and it's own, unique, after-a-few-drinks beauty (director Goodman is no killer with the camera, but happily it's impossible to make the Land of Enchantment look bad).

Heck, nobody's perfect, after all.

The facts

--The film: ``The Tao of Steve'' (R; sex, language, drug use).

--The stars: Donal Logue, Greer Goodman, Kimo Wills, Ayelet Kaznelson.

--Behind the scenes: Directed by Jenniphr Goodman. Written by Duncan North and Jenniphr and Greer Goodman. Produced by Anthony Bregman. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.

--Running time: One hour, 30 minutes.

--Playing: Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Monica, Santa Monica.

--Our rating: Three and one half stars
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Aug 4, 2000
Words:599
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