By Tom Gliatto
Updated November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito

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If only Holly Hunter could learn to relax. Of course it’s unfair to expect any actress to relinquish her technique, and in Hunter’s case it would have to be pried away from her. A strong, tightly coiled performer, she’s right at home in something as intense as The Piano, for which she won the Oscar as a mute outcast in New Zealand. But plopped down in this vague, soft Manhattan comedy in which she plays a wealthy doctor’s wife dumped for a younger woman, she’s like a panther in a petting zoo. Even doing a multiple-martini drunk scene, Hunter looks as if she could still spike a volleyball. She seems most comfortable shredding a muffin and throwing the crumbs at her ex-husband (Martin Donovan).

Suddenly alone and trying to make sense of her pampered Upper East Side existence, this fresh divorcee works as a day nurse, occasionally visits a West Side nightclub and develops a friendship-bordering-on-a-relationship with her building’s lonely doorman (DeVito, subdued—and good). But first-time director Richard LaGravenese, screenwriter of The Bridges of Madison County and the current Beloved, seems perversely determined to damp down the sparks, keeping major twists discreetly offscreen. When Hunter moves out of her Fifth Avenue co-op and into a simple apartment, why don’t we see how she reaches the decision and how DeVito reacts? When he takes her out to the nightclub (presided over by rap star Queen Latifah, who makes a charming chanteuse), shouldn’t we see how their night ends? This amounts to a blind date. (R)

Bottom Line: Romance with too many missing pieces