[Screen It]

(2000) (Ryan Merriman, Gretchen Mol) (R)

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Drama/Comedy: Sent off to Queens, NY by his newly remarried mother to live with his aunt and uncle, a teenage boy makes it his goal to see a couple having sex before the summer of 1955 is done.
It's the Bronx in 1955 and Lenny (RYAN MERRIMAN) is sex-obsessed eighth grader who's decided that his goal over the summer will be to see two people actually having sex. As such, he attempts to catch his mother, Sylvia (PATTI LUPONE) and new stepfather, Mr. Polinsky (RICHARD V. LICATA), the local butcher, in the act, but fails.

Somewhat as a result, they decide to send Lenny to spend the summer with his aunt Norma (ILANA LEVINE) and uncle Phil (PETER ONORATI) in the "country" - Queens - where he'll get some fresh air and work at Phil's deli. Lenny isn't happy about this decision, but things look up when he meets a local boy, John (JOSEPH FRANQUINHA), who also works for Phil.

Although his chances of seeing his aunt and uncle in the act are squandered when he discovers that Norma is very pregnant, Lenny is delighted when John informs him that he and two local Catholic girls, Alice (AMY BRAVERMAN) and Barbara (ALLIE SPIRO-WINN), belong to a "sex club," where they don't have sex, but certainly discuss it a lot.

Then he meets Hedy (GRETCHEN MOL), a local twenty-something nurse and former bra model whose fetching looks and friendly demeanor further stir up Lenny's hormones. When he learns that she's dating Dr. Donald Flynn (JOHN BOLGER), an OBGYN, he figures his goal is made in the shade and thus sets out to catch those two in the act.

Things, of course, don't work out the way he planned, but while Lenny might not succeed in the way he originally intended, he learns a thing or two about people and life as he spends his summer away from home.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Ah, the teenage years. That "wonderful" time of transformation from childhood into young adulthood where one's mind, body and overall self go through some amazing and wild transformations. Although from a pure biological standpoint such changes occur for procreative purposes, most cultures don't approve of such behavior among their teens - especially in the early years - and that creates an enormous amount of internal conflict within such youths.

Bursting with raging hormones but an inability and/or lack of knowledge of how to deal with them, many young teens develop varying attitudes toward most everything to do with sex, the most obvious being an often rabid curiosity about it.

Such feelings and societal/cultural restrictions obviously provide for some potentially titillating cinematic material - even when occurring in a less permissive, pre-MTV, pre-Internet era - and that's certainly the case in "Just Looking."

Set in mid 1950s era New York - right when rock and roll was beginning to erupt and provided a new outlet for sexuality - and loosely based on screenwriter Marshall Karp's own experiences at that time and age, the film (which marks his debut) is like any number of other coming of age stories that have enticed kids and brought back varied memories for certain adults who went through similar experiences during their adolescence.

Marking the sophomore outing for actor turned director Jason Alexander of TV's "Seinfeld" fame (his first picture, "For Better or Worse" barely made an impression when it was released in 1996), the film - concerning an eighth-grader and his preoccupation one summer of actually observing a couple "doing it" -- doesn't offer any particularly new insights into either the subject matter or setting, but it's a generally enjoyable if lightweight diversion.

For any such film to work, a few requirements generally must be met. Those obviously include a teen who's curious and/or obsessed with the subject. He - and it's almost exclusively always a guy's story - must have friends who are similarly interested and may or may not have some experience in such matters (to serve as a catalyst for comedy, a common bond/goal and/or envy to spur the protagonist into action). Finally, the protagonist must meet an older object of desire who's nice and attractive enough that he thinks he stands a shot with her despite the difference in their age and level of maturity.

All such ingredients are present here, and as such, it - like its predecessors such as "Summer of '42" and even the more benign "Wonder Years" from TV - proceeds in a mostly predictable fashion that's just compelling enough to hold the viewer's interest from start to finish.

As the protagonist, Ryan Merriman ("The Deep End of the Ocean," TV's "The Pretender") does a decent job portraying such angst and youthful exuberance, and while some of his thought processes and behavior is described via voice over narration (that thankfully isn't overused), Merriman delivers a mostly engaging and enjoyable performance.

Playing the parental parts, Peter Onorati ("Goodfellas," "Postcards From the Edge"), Patti LuPone ("Summer of Sam," "The 24 Hour Woman") and Richard V. Licata ("Two Family House," "The Killing") all deliver solid performances with Onorati standing out and Licata getting some good moments late in the film. One can easily see why teenage boys would be mesmerized by and enamored with a character looking and acting like Gretchen Mol ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Celebrity"), and she perfectly plays the beautiful if somewhat flawed "older woman."

Filling out the teen roles, Joseph Franquinha (making his feature film debut), Amy Braverman ("Walking and Talking") and Allie Spiro-Winn (making her feature debut) are all decent, with Braverman getting the meatiest role as a teen who knows she can't have sex (since she's Catholic), but certainly has no qualms talking about it.

While Alexander, production designer Michael Johnston ("Wide Awake," "Hush") and cinematographer Fred Schuler ("Fletch," TV's "12 Angry Men") have captured the look and feel of the 1950s, the film never quite manages to exude the essence and nostalgia that director Barry Levinson ("Diner") nearly always manages to infuse in his period films. Nevertheless, the film is a decently crafted diversion that might not shed any new light on the subject of teens and sex (and will seem positively antiquated to today's teens) but manages to be entertaining and enjoyable enough in its own right. "Just Looking" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 20, 2000 / Posted November 24, 2000

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