December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

The last scene in this beguiling film version of Beth Henley’s 1980 Pulitzer-prizewinning play shows Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek merrily grabbing at chunks of a birthday cake, gorging as if a prize awaited the one who gobbled the most. These powerhouse stars—playing sisters from Hazlehurst, Miss.—go at the movie in the same way. If the Academy doesn’t want to see Oscar chewed and mangled, it had better find a way to give three Best Actress statuettes next March. In a year parched for all-out acting gusto, Crimes delivers a triple-threat display that fully deserves applause and awards. Okay, you can carp. The seams in Henley’s play (she did the adaptation) show up more glaringly when blown up to wide-screen size. Soap opera contrivances, crude flashbacks and curdled whimsy also blot the Southern Gothic landscape. But Henley’s saving grace is her antic humor. Her MaGrath sisters laugh to keep from toppling into an abyss of misfortune. Keaton, offering her strongest work in years, is the eldest sibling. She alone takes responsibility for her hospitalized granddaddy (Hurd Hatfield) and bemoans the “shrunken ovary” she thinks has shrunk her chances with a mail-order beau. Lange, never sexier, is the middle sister, a failed singer just returned from Hollywood and a psychiatric ward. Spacek, wonderfully funny and touching, is the baby, who has just shot her politician husband in the stomach because she “didn’t like his looks.” (He didn’t like her sneaking off with a 15-year-old black boy.) The girls’ problems are complicated by the memory of a mother who hung herself and the family cat with a note explaining, “I had a bad day.” Director Bruce (Tender Mercies) Beresford expertly builds the film so that we come to care for these oddballs. We cheer when Keaton tells off her pushy cousin, played to a bitchy fare-thee-well by Tess Harper, and takes charge of her life. We’re moved when Lange spends a night with her old boyfriend, acted with devilish charm by her real-life housemate Sam Shepard, and finds he doesn’t want her back. And we’re tickled when the guileless Spacek starts up a flirtation with her straight-arrow lawyer (David Carpenter), while facing a rap for adultery and attempted murder. As long as you don’t expect miracles (it’s a good, not great, movie from a good, not great, play), you’ll find Crimes of the Heart a tangy movie treat. (PG-13)

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