April 24, 1989 12:00 PM

Bernadette Peters

As a book, Tama Janowitz’s hipper-than-thou collection of stories about the lifestyles of the poor and wanna-be famous had its moments. Most of the time this adaptation hardly has its nanoseconds.

The lowliest slave of Slaves and its hopeless antiheroine is Eleanor (Peters), who works as a copy editor at an East Village paper and shacks up with the famous Stash Stotz (Adam Coleman Howard), a painter who’s more artiste than artist. As miserable rotten bastards go, Stash is an all-timer, staring dreamily into Eleanor’s eager eyes as he asks, “What is it I hate about you the most?” Eleanor stays with him because she’s in human bondage to the New York real estate market. Stash can afford the rent and she can’t.

Peters plays Eleanor in a choppy style that is less comic than self-conscious and jarring. You wish she’d just stop complaining and get a real life. But then this movie is not about life—it’s about someone’s idea of a transcendent existence, a meta-life. The artists are all crass hypocrites and the downtown demimonders brandish their nonchalance as if indifference were the only thing they care about. Even the dialogue sounds like meta-conversation. A typical exchange: “I was going to ask you to marry me but now I won’t,” he snaps. “How many times can you ask me to not marry you?” she retorts.

It’s a puzzle why filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, whose previous sources of material have included The Bostonians and A Room with a View, wanted to work with this basically tawdry property.

At least they end with a funny bit about a handsome knight in a shining motorcycle helmet who sells horse sperm for a living. Otherwise the most sensible development is a cameo by Janowitz, as a woman who mostly hides in the bathroom so no one can find her. (R)

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