This adaptation of Honoré de Balzac's novel Cousin Bette would seem to have a good deal going for it, not least of which is Balzac's mean-spirited text itself. Like the work of an anti-Austen, Cousin Bette (the movie) is a welcome but uneven antidote to the giddy matchmaking movies that clutter the screen. Jessica Lange plays an aging spinster whose contempt for her wealthy relatives, coupled with her abject loneliness, leads her to embark on a bitter campaign to ruin them all. Directed without much style by first-timer Des McAnuff (best known for his Tony-award winning theater work), Cousin Bette is a nasty if fitfully funny Parisian romp that's a little too venomous to work as farce, but too farcical to convey much menace. Elisabeth Shue's turn as a burlesque performer, who is at one point slathered in chocolate, adds an element of bawdy interest, and Hugh Laurie and Bob Hoskins are fine as lovestruck aristocrats, but, for the most part, the cartoonish behavior of everyone involved is more off-putting than appealing. It's tough to like anyone in Cousin Bette, least of all the sour-faced Lange, whose virtually unprovoked vengeance is presumably meant to be entertaining. While watching rich people unravel can provide an enjoyable diversion, it's not terribly engaging, and the protracted shenanigans get old fast.

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