Great escapes

As cheap and predictable as a discount package tour, "Six Days, Seven Nights" is still a terrific getaway.

Published June 11, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The new romantic comedy "Six Days, Seven Nights" is throwaway fun, the kind of lightweight summer movie that's more rare these days than it should be. It's not completely watertight -- it bogs down in the middle, making the wait for the romantic leads to finally get together seem interminable -- and yet there's something appealingly game about it. The director, Ivan Reitman, makes no excuses for recycling an ancient premise (two people who can't stand each other get stranded on a remote island) because he trusts us enough to groove on its ridiculousness. In fact, he's shameless about pushing the limits of its absurdity. What does he do when things threaten to get dull? Bring on the pirates. I mean, if you were a director, what would you do -- find an excuse to showcase some scantily clad Polynesian cuties?

Reitman does that too, because, well, he can. And part of what's so entertaining about "Six Days, Seven Nights" is the way Reitman happily mixes all the conventions of the stranded-on-an-island motif -- unpleasant encounters with creepy-crawly nature, the building of stuff out of bamboo and found objects, the first kiss in paradise -- as if he's seen them all before but is still glad to have them back, often just tweaking them slightly to freshen them up. The dialogue in Michael Browning's script may not crackle as much as it should, but it springboards off a good balance of warmth and edginess. And the picture looks gorgeous: Veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman gives us jungle foliage made translucent by sunlight, and buxom gray storm clouds illuminated by lightning. In one scene, the castaway lovers enjoy a night picnic against a sea of glittering stars and a rolling blanket of ocean. The movie simply looks like a vacation; it almost makes you feel as if you've actually been somewhere.

It doesn't hurt that all the actors seem happy to be along for the ride. Robin (Anne Heche) is a crisply efficient fashion magazine editor who's flown to a remote island paradise -- complete with hotel rooms decorated in Gilligan Luxe -- by her boyfriend, well-meaning and slightly schlubby Frank (David Schwimmer, whose hangdog dorkiness is more amusing than usual). Quinn (Harrison Ford) is the manly-man pilot -- grizzled, sozzled and flirtatious -- who transports them on the last leg of their trip. Later, when Robin is directed by her pushy boss (Allison Janney, doing a wickedly funny Anna Wintour) to use one of her vacation days to supervise a photo shoot in nearby Tahiti, she hires Quinn to get her there, leaving Frank behind to mope and drink silly drinks. A storm brews just as Quinn and Robin are finally airborne. The plane goes down, crash-landing on a lush, deserted island, forcing Robin and Quinn to spend the rest of the movie bickering endlessly, trying to get back to civilization, fighting nasty pirates (really) and falling in love, all pretty much at the same time.

As Quinn, Ford is more likable and more lively than he's been in years. For one thing, he looks right at home: His face has the chiseled dignity of a Tiki mug. But the role works for him, because it allows him to poke fun at himself. His lines slip out with ease and playfulness, and when he flirts with Heche, he shows some of the appealing boyishness that won so many of us over in "Working Girl" -- a quality that seemed to have been sapped out of him once he developed a reputation as a stolid and eminently bankable leading man and started playing that role over and over again in every movie.

Jacqueline Obradors as Angelica, Quinn's sometime squeeze and a Polynesian dancer on the resort island, is another one of the movie's unexpected delights. With her skimpy halter-and-flared-shorts outfits and her Rita Hayworth hair, she looks like a walking, talking Vargas girl (although, unlike most of Vargas' girls, she'd probably spill out of a D-cup). At one point, she tries to comfort the troubled Frank, who believes Robin might have died in a plane crash but who has nonetheless succumbed to Angelica's innumerable charms. She opens her brown doe-eyes wide and in an unidentifiable island accent says, inexplicably, "It is like, when after a funeral, everybody has sex."

But of all of them, it's Heche who's most fun to watch. She was terrific as Johnny Depp's wife in "Donnie Brasco," all nervousness and knife-edge resolve, and "Wag the Dog" proved how comfortable she is with comedy. But her snap-tight timing and her flair for subtle physical comedy have never been more evident than they are here. Her snaggle-tooth sharpness is, almost paradoxically, part of her charm. (Maybe she needs that little bit of prickliness to offset the winsomeness of her incredibly blue almond eyes.) But if Heche can be brittle, her warmth can almost shock you: When she finally finds herself falling for Quinn, she speaks to him in a throaty purr that you don't expect, and it's a wonderful touch. (One that, incidentally, exposes the question of "Can a lesbian play a 'straight' romantic lead?" for the absurdity that it is. It's as if nobody has ever heard of acting before.)

Heche's stylishness carries lots of little moments: When Frank presents her with the tickets for their trip, he wants to surprise her, so he asks her to close her eyes. She hesitates just a second before she opens them, her kidlike anticipation lighting up her face. When Quinn's plane encounters serious trouble en route to Tahiti, she responds by popping tranquilizers; before long, she's become a blipped-out pixie in the face of danger, grabbing the radio to sing, "Mayday, Mayday" like an extra from South Pacific. After they've crash-landed, she argues with Quinn about how they're going to get back to the real world, and with city-girl impatience, she grabs her cell phone and tries to make it work. As she holds it to her ear, she struts on the beach with a straight-legged walk, looking like the statue of an Egyptian queen come to life. Her body language is at once nerdy, stubborn and stately. No lights, no phone, no motor cars, but who cares? "Six Days, Seven Nights" gets you away for a few hours, and sometimes that's all you need.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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