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HOLMES CAN'T SOLVE MYSTERY, BUT NEARLY RESCUES FILM.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

I DON'T KNOW what the movie college placement counselor for ``Dawson's Creek'' is telling these kids, but they sure are making some weird choices.

Last week gave us the spectacle of James Van Der Beek behaving like Russell Crowe's brattier little brother in the cinematic endurance test ``Rules of Attraction.'' Now we have Katie Holmes in the somewhat better but still mighty odd ``Abandon.''

It's about high-achieving Ivy Leaguers cracking under the strain of impending graduation ... which is an interesting subject, when that's what the movie addresses. But then the film turns out to be just another disjointed, fairly predictable psychological thriller.

Even stranger, ``Abandon'' - which marks the directing debut of Academy Award-winning ``Traffic'' screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (he also penned this one's script, which sports the peculiar subcredit ``Suggested by the book 'Adam's Fall' by Sean Desmond'') takes its sweet time even letting on that it is some kind of suspense flick.

A cop just back from the edge, Benjamin Bratt's Wade Handler, is introduced early. And he is asking questions around campus about some wealthy student who disappeared without a trace two years earlier.

But for the most part, the early half of the film is a seriocomic study of the missing fellow's abandoned girlfriend Katie (Holmes). She still feels bad about losing the love of her life (it's pointed out that she hasn't dated since). But Katie is so wound up in writing her troublesome graduate thesis, boldly nailing a job interview with a high-powered investment firm, trying to get the help she needs out of a predatory psychiatrist and maintaining a semblance of social life with her smart circle of friends (Zooey Deschanel, as the most sardonic, stands out in this crowd), that she hasn't really got time to pine.

Until, that is, Handler shows up. In no time, she's convinced that the long-gone Embry (Charlie Hunnam, affecting a junior Jim Morrison stance and best-known for his work on the British version of ``Queer as Folk'') stalking her. Flashbacks to their incendiary relationship - he was the flamboyant, egomaniacal campus theater genius, she the troubled smart girl from the sticks he deflowered - indicate that it was intoxicating but not too healthy. As Embry encounters become more intimate and disturbing, Katie turns to the recovering alcoholic detective for support ... and, perhaps, more.

Cutting across time and subjective frames of reference with, well, abandon, Gaghan drops real clues to the growing mystery and red herrings with equal promiscuity. You get the feeling that the filmmaker is manipulating you as much as Embry does his willing admirers, only you don't feel all that willing about it. We're not talking careful but honest distraction here, like we got from ``The Sixth Sense'' or ``The Usual Suspects,'' but something more akin to deceptive storytelling practices - which, as indicated, aren't all that effective, either.

As a chance for the talented young Holmes to try on a collection of interesting emotional tones and game masks, however, ``Abandon'' is a successful showcase. She proves she's intelligent and versatile every week on the television show, but this film gives Holmes opportunities to go further, and in new directions. Her naturalness is a great aid in often questionable, sometimes ludicrous situations, and it's only when the script completely betrays her that the performance loses credibility.

There's something valedictory about that in a movie as curious as this one.

ABANDON - Two and one half stars

(PG-13: violence, sex, language, drug use)

Starring: Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel, Gabriel Mann, Gabrielle Union.

Director: Stephen Gaghan.

Running time: 1 hr. 39 min.

Playing: Wide release.

In a nutshell: Admirable but not very effective attempt to graft a serious study of college graduation anxiety onto a psychological thriller.

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Photo:

Missing boyfriend Charlie Hunnam re-enters the life of anxiety-ridden student Katie Holmes in ``Abandon.''
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 18, 2002
Words:642
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