`Drop Dead Fred': The Call Of The Loony

XX "Drop Dead Fred," with Phoebe Cates, Marsha Mason, Rik Mayall, Tim Matheson, Carrie Fisher. Directed by Ate de Jong, from a script by Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton. Alderwood, Aurora Village, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Overlake, Uptown. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, due to language, vulgarity. ------------------------------------------------------------ Leave it to New Line Cinema, which made its fortune by peddling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Freddy Krueger, to come up with the looniest of this year's Memorial Day weekend releases.

"Drop Dead Fred" is a manic comedy about a young court reporter named Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) who loses her job and her husband (Tim Matheson) and regresses to childhood excesses when she moves back in with her tyrannical mother (Marsha Mason). No sooner does she return to her old haunts than she finds herself haunted by her imaginary childhood playmate, Drop Dead Fred, who quickly makes even more of a shambles of her life.

He tracks dog dung into the living room, breaks windows, sinks a barge, throws food and makes unwieldy mud pies, but no one but Elizabeth can see him. Does he exist or has her personality split? Is this "Harvey," or a slapstick farce about mental illness? Except for a couple of questionable point-of-view lapses, the movie is deftly ambiguous.

Its talented young director, Ate de Jong, is making his mainstream American debut. A decade ago, he visited the Seattle

International Film Festival with his Dutch comedy, "A Flight of Rainbirds," and went on to develop a comedy show for National Public Radio, "The Flying Dutchman," about his adventures in Hollywood.

"Drop Dead Fred" isn't the most exciting introduction to his work. It tries too hard to mimic "Beetlejuice," especially in British comic Rik Mayall's frantic performance as the title character - Mayall is no Michael Keaton - but it has a whimsical comic energy that's missing from such big-studio misfires as "Hudson Hawk" and "What About Bob?"

Whether or not you're a fan of De Jong's earlier work, "Drop Dead Fred" is clearly an extension of it. There's even a touch of Peter Pan and Wendy in the relationship between Mayall and Cates ("He's like my best friend, and yet I'm scared to death of him"), who has a ball with the role.

While the vulgar script by executive producers Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton isn't much like the wry comedy of De Jong's radio show, he's found a way to have fun with it. It's not much, but for De Jong it's a start.