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Aching for passion in 'Forty Shades of Blue'

''Forty Shades of Blue" is a drama that wants us to care about its trio of achy characters. But I couldn't muster any affection for them. Everyone's estranged and seemingly depressed, moping from one Memphis location to the next in what should be called Sundance drift.

The movie won the top prize for feature films at last January's festival. What the judges saw, aside from some heavenly clothes (Diane Von Furstenberg is one of the producers), is unclear.

Directed by Ira Sachs, the film gives us a typically bullish Rip Torn as Alan James, a celebrated R&B songwriter, who's tantrum prone, a little alcoholic, and likely to stray on Laura (Dina Korzun), his striking Russian girlfriend.

She's the center of this movie and also its biggest drifter. Even when Laura is sitting at a bar or gliding in a swimming pool, she appears to be floating away to the moon.

We're meant, I think, to find her beauty fragile and her obvious displeasure sad, but the movie doesn't go deep enough beneath her skin. Often, she seems like a figurine turning slowly in a music box, an idea that the movie's lullaby of a score supports.

Korzun was wonderful with a similar part in Pawel Pawlikowski's ''Last Resort," and she certainly holds the screen here. But there's not enough in the script (by Sachs and Michael Rohatyn) to support her. When Michael (Darren Burrows), Alan's married professor son, arrives, Laura shows flashes of happiness. He seems more miserable than she does, and she tries to bring him cheer. An affair quietly ensues, and this development promises some intrigue. Melodrama, however, is not on the menu.

Sachs gives the material adult treatment, which is certainly noble. Laura and her dilemma faintly echo those of another tragic Russian heroine.

Yet while the mind takes in the accomplished screenwriting, the heart goes hungry for passion. Sachs takes us to a nightclub where Michael gets into a drunken fight that's meant to show us and Laura how much like Alan he is. And the film lets us in on climactic bedroom conversations that end in stalemate: ''What do I want? What do you want?" There's no emotional texture to bring us into the character's inner lives, particularly where the broken bond between Alan and Michael is concerned.

What ''Forty Shades of Blue" has going for it is Memphis and the city's vast musical history. Alan is feted at a banquet where artists perform his songs. Afterward, he stumbles into a hotel suite full of his peers on the rhythm-and-blues scene. I was sad to leave them. Those are people who seem like they know how to have a good bad time.

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