`Betty Lou's' Gun Misfires

XX "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag," with Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal, Alfre Woodard, William Forsythe, and Cathy Moriarty. Directed by Allan Moyle, from a screenplay by Grace Cary Bickley. "PG-13" - parental guidance suggested, due to violence and mild profanity. --------------------------------------------------------------- There's nothing wrong with "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" that isn't wrong with about a thousand other commercially homogenized comedies of its kind. It's a quite passable slice of fluff entertainment, and in the title performance by Penelope Ann Miller, you can sense a genuine, three-dimensional character struggling to wriggle herself free from the confines of a two-dimensional story.

You can also lament the fact that the story's apparent shallowness cannot entirely be blamed on first-time screenwriter Grace Cary Bickley. Within the parameters of this glossily packaged programmer, the gold nugget of Bickley's premise shines through, hinting at the potentially involving (yet irrevocably lightweight) movie this could have been.

Miller plays Betty Lou Perkins, a part-time librarian in the small town of Tetley, Missouri. She's too timid to get what she wants and too easygoing to be acknowledged by much of anyone - especially her police detective husband (Eric Thal, unrecognizable out of his Hasidic garb in "A Stranger Among Us"), who is too busy and too selfish to recognize her unhappiness.

When Betty Lou discovers a pistol used in a very recent murder, she unintentionally fires a round in a department store ladies' room while indulging in a bit of Dirty Harriet role-playing. (Tossed in a river by the unseen killer, the hefty gun miraculously makes its way to the shore; must be one heck of a current, huh?)

With ties to a murder weapon, Betty Lou confesses to the crime as a way of asserting her validity and finally getting some attention - especially from her dumbfounded husband. With the help of a novice lawyer (Alfre Woodard) and the worldly prostitute (Cathy Moriarty) she meets in a holding cell, Betty Lou becomes a local hero of sorts, only to find herself the endangered target of the Cajun mafia kingpin (William Forsythe) who appears to have ordered the unsolved murder.

These little twists make for a lively movie, energized by the same spiralling pace that director Allan Moyle brought to his previous, much better film "Pump Up the Volume." Here, however, the energy is in service of a plot that gradually neglects its central character in favor of the same chintzy thriller mechanics we've seen at least a dozen times this year.

Moyle could easily have invested more emotion and authenticity in these characters (including some nifty supporting bits, especially by Moriarty), but instead he seems more interested in compiling a best-selling soundtrack. What was entirely appropriate for "Pump Up the Volume" is here an irritating intrusion: incessant, loudly mixed music that overwhelms the movie.

Much to her credit, Miller makes this pop-fodder tolerable with her unique qualities of innocent appeal and brash bravado; she's an irresistible softie with a tiger in her tank. If "Betty Lou" had been allowed to be more about Betty Lou, and less about by-the-numbers brutes (let's hope the talented Forsythe can escape typecasting), this occasionally amusing diversion might have been something more than the moviegoing equivalent of low-calorie Nachos.