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LATEST AUSTEN ADAPTATION REALLY IS CLUELESS.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

THE BRAINS BEHIND ``Pride and Prejudice,'' yet another adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved novel, get things so disgracefully wrong that not only is the ghost of Miss Austen jolted out of her repose right now, but also the makers of this film should be worried she'll show up on their doorsteps wielding a chain saw.

The thought of transplanting headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, snooty Fitzwilliam Darcy et al. to a present-day college campus isn't, of itself, entirely witless. Even the decision to place the school in Utah and making the characters Mormon - while a bit of a stretch - isn't so off the wall. Indeed, the transplant works particularly well for the marriage-minded missionary, Collins - one of Victorian literature's most supreme blockheads.

Goofiness and lack of charm, however, enchant exactly nobody. In the current ``P&P,'' We have an unknown - and largely untalented - cast that director Andrew Black is guiding through a too-close re-creation of the ``P&P'' plot. Writers Anne Black, Jason Faller and Katherine Swigert may have thought they were paying homage to a classic story. Not so. In fact, here's hoping teachers who run across this movie will steer their students away from Black's movie and toward, oh, maybe Cliffs Notes on tape.

First question: Why straitjacket yourself into such a slavish, follow-the-plot confines of someone else's story unless you're going to make like the earlier version never existed? At one point, Elizabeth ``Lizzie'' Bennet (played by Kam Heskin) takes a class where apparently Jane Austen is the subject of the lecture. Black must have cut the scene where the teacher says, ``Ms. Bennet, isn't it interesting that you have the same name as one of Austen's great heroines?'' To which Lizzie could have replied, ``That is a coincidence, Professor Algonquin, especially since I just met a jerk named Darcy whose guts I positively hate. That's some powerful fate.''

Couldn't the writers simply have changed everybody's name: no Lizzies, Darcys, Janes or Bingleys? It's not as if there's any way it can be forgotten that ``Pride and Prejudice'' began with Austen since Black has quotes from the novel - and their chapters - kicking off every scene. But there has to be a scene where wallflower roommate Mary (Rainy Kerwin) sings badly in public because it's in the book. And there has to be a scene where Mary cleans up and makes herself gorgeous to win a man. Because that's in the movie-with-teens instruction manual.

Anyway, Lizzie's an aspiring novelist who works in a bookstore. Her roommate Jane (Lucila Sola) falls for rich Charles Bingley (Ben Gourley), who has made his fortune developing a line of relaxation CDs for dogs. Lydia (Kelly Stables), the ditzy owner of the house shared by Lizzie, Jane and Lydia's sister Kitty, is hopelessly boy-crazy.

Lizzie takes everything in with a certain serious-minded bemusement. And she dates loser after loser. When she meets Bingley's British chum Darcy (Orlando Seale), there's instant friction. He insults her, she insults him back. Misunderstandings mount. Is Darcy a single-minded relationship wrecker or a white knight dressed in too-stuffy armor? And can Elizabeth shove her pride long enough to see things clearly? Or at least in time to stop a Las Vegas elopement?

Trolling for easy laughs, Black gives Lizzie far too many dream sequences where the character imagines herself hitting someone with a book or dousing someone's face with a water glass. The writers also seem to get a charge out of low-key humor at female characters' expense. If it's not the foibles of Lydia, it's a distraught Jane and Lizzie blowsily dressed and loading their carts with vats of ice cream in the supermarket.

The acting, peppered with performers making their film debuts, is largely awful. Gourley and Sola, in particular, are wooden and charmless. Heskin captures some of Lizzie's spunk, but she's clearly trying to keep this nonsense from sliding into the ooze. No hope there, alas.

One last thing that is funnier than anything up on screen: The press notes for ``Pride and Prejudice'' say that Orlando Seale, who plays Darcy, was ``personally selected by Kenneth Branagh to be his acting understudy in the feature film 'Hamlet.' '' I wasn't aware that film actors used understudies. But if they do, Seale could have used one here. It might have spared him the indignity of having to appear in ``Pride and Prejudice.''

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - One and one half stars

(PG: mild thematic elements)

Starring: Kam Heskin, Orlando Seale.

Director: Andrew Black.

Running time: 1 hr. 43 min.

Playing: Edwards Simi Valley 10, UA Pasadena Marketplace 6, UA Valley Plaza 6 in North Hollywood, Edwards Long Beach 26, Edwards Ontario Palace 22.

In a nutshell: Austen lightened. See any adaptation other than this one. Better yet, read the book.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Kam Heskin plays Elizabeth in ``Pride and Prejudice,'' which sets the novel on a modern-day college campus.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 30, 2004
Words:825
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