March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

John Hurt, Jason Priestley

This modest independent movie would scarcely exist without Hurt, but in his hands an offbeat tale of sexual obsession is both lightened into a comedy of manners and deepened into a voyage of personal discovery. Hurt plays a British writer, recently widowed and famously aloof from modern culture. One afternoon he buys a ticket at the cinema, expecting a tasteful little film based on an E.M. Forster novel. Only gradually does it dawn on him that he has stumbled into an American jiggle comedy, Hotpants College II. What keeps him riveted in his seat is the movie’s heartthrob star (Priestley). Thinking he recognizes a spark of romantic poetry in this minor talent, Hurt flies to America, convinced he can woo Priestley away from his Long Island, N.Y., home to a career in European “art” films. Of course, Hurt unconsciously has a different sort of wooing in mind.

As the love object, Priestley is likable but opaque and dull, although perhaps this is what writer-director Richard Kwietniowski intended. It’s as if Humbert Humbert had fallen for Marcia Brady instead of Lolita. But Hurt’s performance—impeccably dry, with pleasure and excitement bubbling just below the surface—is worth seeing. The man is a champagne biscuit. (PG-13)

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