Dir: Amos Kollek. US-France. 2001. 98mins.

The closing event at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight, Amos Kollek's new romantic comedy, is a sequel of sorts to his 2000 competition entry, Fast Food, Fast Women. The novelty of his approach may have worn off a bit and the structure may seem at times even looser than it was last time, but for those amused by his wry observations on New York's Lower East Side loners searching for love and understanding, regardless of age, social background or occupation, this will be a pleasant encore.

Victor Argo, already featured in the previous film, is back again, as Horace, middle-aged retired cop quietly killing himself with two daily packs of cigarettes and relying on a shrink to help him cope with his imminent demise. The romantic interest in his life, which shakes him out of his complacent, self-destructive routine, enters at the last moment in the person of Queenie, a 24 years old Jewish princess from Westchester. Queenie's millionaire parents would love to see her married to a nice, successful Jewish stockbroker, but, being a rebel by nature, she prefers to live in an East Village dive to chase the mirage of an acting career, while barely making ends meet in the meantime as a social worker. Wacky and irreverent to a fault, she's up for any prank that will throw off her interlocutors, shocking Horace when they first meet, in the neighbourhood bar, by suggesting that he should crawl under table for some free-of-charge cunnilingus. An unlikely start for what turns out into an even unlikelier affair.

And then, there are the figures in the background. Tzocki (Carr), Queenie's blonde friend, about to be married but not before she sows some of her own wild oats; the horny shrink (Pendleton) who meddles in his clients' lives; a former gangster (Margolis) who was sent away by Horace for 15 years and since his release makes a living of sorts with his female companion (Lasser), who had been patiently waiting for him, by throwing S/M parties for the faint at heart.

There's no point trying to make sense of a script whose vagaries lead the plot astray at the slightest excuse. Kollek prefers to go for performance-driven episodic incidents, at times with remarkable success, like Queenie's hilarious casting sessions, or Pendleton's lecherous enthusiasm with his patients' fantasies. But packing Queenie away for a tour of the Holy Land or drifting into maudlin soap-operatic solutions to resolve the gangster romance does not work out as well.

Valerie Geffner, in her first lead role, has the pert, spunky personality combined with a kind of off-key attractiveness which explains Kollek's fascination with her and her suitability for this part, but also her difficulty to convince others, in the context of the film, of her star qualities. Argo's performance as the grumpy codger with a soft heart is immensely likeable, and the supporting cast seems perfectly attuned each in his or her own way for Kollek's moods of love. Fluid camera work turns this specific corner of New York into an almost cozy, pleasantly livable part of town, certainly less threatening or depressing than some of the references in the dialogues would indicate. Altogether, it's not much more than a whimsy, but a crowd pleasing one, to be sure.

Auteurists may still wonder when will the real Kollek stand up and choose between the grim, downbeat realism of Sue and Fiona and the smiling disposition of his two recent efforts, but he seems quite content to go on his own merry way and keep the followers guessing.

Prod cos Marathon, Am Ko Productions

Int'l sales Marathon, Paris

Prod/scr Amos Kollek

Exec prods Olivier Bremond, Pascal Breton, Jean-Louis Piel

Co-prod Avram Ludwig

Cinematography Ed Talavera

Prod des Brook H. Yeaton

Ed Ron Len

Music David Carbonara

Main cast Victor Argo, Valerie Geffner, Louise Lasser, Mark Margolis, Austin Pendleton, Kris Carr, David Wike