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Three to Tango

For some actors, the line between performance and personality is a thin one. Even screen greats such as Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino have been hailed for roles in which they essentially played themselves.

On a lesser scale, Matthew Perry is one of these actors. Playing the wisecracking, usually-unlucky-in-love (until he hooked up with Monica) Chandler Bing on NBC's hit sitcom "Friends," Perry seem so in line with his character that he's often referred to by his character's name.

Likewise, in the formulaic "Three to Tango," Chandler – er, I mean Matthew – plays bumbling, wisecracking Oscar, who makes buddies with women but gets tangled in romantic misfortunes. He and his business partner, Peter (Oliver Platt), are vying to design a cultural center for multimillionaire Charles Newman (Dylan McDermott), an oafish tycoon who reclines on gaudy red-velvet beds with statues of Buddha everywhere.

Stemming from a classic walk-in-at-the-wrong-point-of-conversation moment, Charles' secretary mistakes Oscar and Peter's partnership as more than business, and Charles decides to use Oscar's dedication for his own benefit, giving him a spying assignment.

The target is Amy (Neve Campbell), an artist and Charles' mistress, whom he wants monitored for any possible romantic threats. He entrusts Oscar to the task, since it will clearly help them win the project, and it's safe because Oscar's gay, right?

Complications abound, of course, when Oscar meets Amy, and through one mishap-riddled night, the two are deemed soul mates. Of course, her growing affection for him is coldly stilted when Charles gleefully tells her Oscar's gay. Happy then to have a male buddy, Oscar and Amy spend more and more time together, even after she learns of his spy mission. "Don't ever lie to me again," she says perkily, unaware she's in for more secrets.

What abounds is a folly-filled, 90-minute "Friends" episode with elements of 1997's "In & Out," in which politically correct jokes about homosexuality were played to the hilt. No references to Barbra Streisand or Oscar Wilde here, but as Oscar falls for Amy (and vice versa, but she just thinks she's really screwed up), the mistaken-for-gay scenes (he does know how to cook, his buddies reason) snowball into the inevitable, clichéd speech about accepting everybody.

Luckily, Perry knows his ground (Chandler was also mistaken for gay in many a "Friends" episode) and plays it well. His comic timing rises above the material, from flabbergasted expressions to sarcastic quips. He plays his awkward moments to the hilt and brings sincerity to tender moments.

Campbell, whose repertoire ("Scream," Fox's "Party of Five") usually dealt with crying, running or emotional outbursts, gets the chance to let go in a carefree role. The usual grate to her voice lessened, she displays a potential for comic roles. She laughs and smiles wide at Oscar's quips, which make for a good match. McDermott, on the other hand, fails as the villain; there's no real reason why his character calls for nutrient drops at random moments or washes his hands immediately after a handshake. They're meant to be quirks to give him a comedic edge, but his character is so thinly sketched it doesn't matter.

Perry may try to enter new acting territory in the future, but for now he's hamming it up as himself/Chandler, and it works for him. It's not a great film, but fans of "Friends" should find "Three to Tango" pleasant enough, as long as they're not also looking for Joey or Phoebe.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for sex-related situations and language.

'Three to Tango'

Matthew Perry: Oscar Novak

Neve Campbell: Amy Post

Dylan McDermott: Charles Newman

Oliver Pratt: Peter Steinberg

A Warner Bros. presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Village-Hoyts Film Partnership, of an Outlaw production. Director Damon Santostefano. Producers Bobby Newmyer, Jeffrey Silver, Bettina Sofia Viviano. Executive producers Lawrence B. Abramson and Bruce Berman. Story Rodney Vaccaro. Screenplay Vaccaro and Aline Brosh McKenna. Cinematographer Walt Lloyd. Production designer David Nichols. Editor Stephen Semel. Music Graeme Revell. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.