*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by James Toback

With Molly Ringwald, Robert Downey, Dennis Hopper, and Harvey Keitel.

Intelligent, light entertainment has long seemed to be beyond the grasp of mainstream Hollywood. The success of The Pick-Up Artist notwithstanding, let’s face it, 1987 isn’t going to go down as one of the great entertainment years in Hollywood history. It seems half the year’s films have been shrill vehicles for comedians like Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg, or Jim Belushi that thankfully sank from sight within a week or two, or else dull thrillers and horror films that seek to bore and stultify the audience in order to set up bloody special effects sequences. But in the middle of all this trash recycling, its advertising looking for all the world like a John Hughes rip-off, comes The Pick-Up Artist, a low-key delight. But don’t get the idea that The Pick-Up Artist represents some kind of resurgence of the Hollywood touch. For this sprightly, optimistic romance wasn’t made by an industry veteran, a film school wunderkind, or a member of the Spielberg coterie, but by James Toback, an emphatically New York filmmaker whose past films (Fingers, Exposed) are as well known for their eccentricities as for anything else.

Of course, in an industry that’s suffered such a radical depletion of talent, one has to wonder whether a unique talent like Toback should be wasting his time on engaging fluff. There have been recent dispiriting examples of talented filmmakers who, feeling the need to assert their commercial prowess, have attempted to demonstrate their ability to turn out run-of-the-mill product. And that usually means–no, that always means–catering to the teen market. Walter Hill tried it first with Streets of Fire, a botched fantasy that so upset his artistic applecart that he stumbled right into another pair of commercially blighted artistic disasters and has only recently begun to right things. John Milius tried to justify his sword and sorcery potboiler (Conan the Barbarian) with some sub-Nietzschean posturing, but it wasn’t long before he was bending his previously engaging right-wing nuttiness into the hopeless compromise of teenage revenge fantasies in Red Dawn. And this summer, Joe Dante, whose high spirits used to seem beyond taint, joined the lockstep parade with Innerspace.

The big difference between Toback and these others, however, is that somehow Toback has actually made an interesting film, while the others did not. And that’s because Toback didn’t completely discard his own interests, but merely leavened them. Ever since he sold his screenplay for The Gambler, Toback has turned his attention to brainy obsessives, characters who are being destroyed by their preoccupations, though not at all blindly. This self-awareness, in fact, is the source of the drama in his films. The only tragedy in The Gambler is that the central character, a professor of literature played by James Caan, knows he’s only fooling himself with his fantasies of finally getting ahead with one big winning streak. The violent lowlifes that menacingly hug the periphery of his life are only the scorekeepers of his despair. Likewise, the pianist played by Harvey Keitel in Fingers, Toback’s directorial debut, works as a hood for his gangster father, even though he knows his mother is right when she insists he can make a world for himself as a concert pianist. But this self-appraisal only leads him into scenes of humiliation and loss; his background dooms him and his intelligence can’t provide him with a reprieve.

Toback’s last film and probably his best (though I have not seen the rarely screened–now legendary–Love and Money) was Exposed, an off-the-wall thriller about a Harvard student turned high fashion model (Nastassja Kinski) who gets mixed up with a terrorist-hunting concert pianist (Rudolf Nureyev) and an Argentine terrorist (Harvey Keitel) who heads a mob composed almost exclusively of beautiful women. Toback’s deliberately overstated melodramatics and his overripe dialogue scared off most audiences and critics, but the film wove rich patterns in its story of Kinski’s attempts to find a way–either through love or art–that would lead her from the melancholy drudgeries of reality.

The central character of The Pick-Up Artist is another obsessive. Jack Jericho (Robert Downey) is a 21-year-old schoolteacher whose real vocation is the seduction of women he meets on the street. But it’s not the semicomatose come-on of singles bars that turns Jack on. His stage is New York’s sidewalks and he attacks in the bright light of day. His glory is the engagement itself, the struggle to attract attention and finally to beguile in the space of a few jocular exchanges. He is a truly happy warrior.

That is, until he meets Randy Jensen (Molly Ringwald). At first her curt dismissal of his come-on line (“Did anyone ever tell you you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?”) seems to indicate that he’s not going to get anywhere. But Randy surprisingly acquiesces to a moment of satisfaction in Jack’s red Camaro, and then, just as surprisingly, straightens her dress and strides off with barely a thank-you.

Jack, the score-keeping Lothario, is of course smitten, and sets out in long-term pursuit, chasing Randy down to her job (as a docent at the Museum of Natural History) and even to her ramshackle home in Coney Island. It’s while he’s there that Jack mixes himself up in Randy’s personal life, which turns out to involve gambling, prostitution, and gangsters. Randy’s father (Dennis Hopper)–once a successful gambler, now an alcoholic loser–is into a mafioso (Harvey Keitel) for $25,000, and the thug wants Randy to pay it off by sleeping with a Colombian drug czar. Randy never mixes money and sex, so she has been trying to raise the money by gambling. Jack tries to horn in on the rescue, but Randy’s segregation of sex and money applies to everyone, and she tells Jack to buzz off. When Jack protests that he loves her, she replies that she doesn’t mix sex with love, either.

What gives The Pick-Up Artist its verve and joie de vivre is Toback’s clever mixture of theme, structure, and style. Thematically, it’s almost identical to his other work. Jack isn’t just a compulsive, he’s a self-conscious compulsive. When Toback first displays him, it’s in a mirror in the steamy bathroom where Jack practices his pick-up lines. Jack is engaged in a deliberate self-construction as he channels his sexual fantasies into a socially acceptable form. Yet even as he works to control and manipulate his desires, Jack sees himself losing control of them. As he moves from the privacy of his thoughts to the reality of Randy, these fantasies don’t diminish; they gather force. Randy’s elusiveness, her sudden disappearances, make her the stuff of Jack’s dreams, and he moves from trying to manipulate women to letting one woman dictate his approach, not just to her, but to the rest of his life.

This development is given an emotional life by Toback’s casting it as a fairy tale–literally. All the characters fall into almost strictly medieval patterns. Jack is obviously the chivalrous knight, on a quest for exalted love, forced to do battle with evil forces to prove himself. Randy is the princess, daughter of an aging king, threatened by an evil warrior who wants to deflower her (even if by proxy).

The film’s climax occurs at an Atlantic City casino controlled by the mob. As Randy attempts to win the money for the debt, Jack turns up with an older buddy (his squire) and Randy’s father, who ends up kidnapped by the bad guys. The casino has obvious castlelike qualities, and the denouement clearly emphasizes that heroes, even when overwhelmed by the enemy’s numbers and home court advantage, can triumph through purity of heart.

These uplifting sentiments, in turn, are kept securely naturalistic by Toback’s gritty realism. The dialogue is natural and unforced, even witty. New York is shot with a native’s casualness, the streets and homes insinuating themselves into the action with unassuming ease. And the performances are knowledgeable and assured, hugging the limits of acceptability. Hopper is almost subdued in a part that could easily have gone overboard. Keitel, as always, finds a breathtaking range within a seemingly limited character, managing to be both threatening and comically impotent by turns. Ringwald shows an intelligence she’s only hinted at before, while Downey’s likability eschews poster-boy coquetry in favor of something deeper, darker, and more appealing.

The Pick-Up Artist is not going to change anyone’s life or deflect the course of film history, but it’s an invigorating and enjoyable entertainment, optimistic and joyous, and that should be special enough these days.