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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Ripple Effect": Nice try, but a little self-awareness goes a long way

"Ripple Effect": This ultra-low-budget indie film is simultaneously annoying and sincere in its attempt to grapple with complicated emotions and spiritual malaise. Writer-director-producer-star Philippe Caland plays a tortured clothing designer convinced that his bad karma is connected to a hit-and-run accident that left his victim (Forest Whitaker) paralyzed.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Ripple Effect," with Philippe Caland, Forest Whitaker, Virginia Madsen, Minnie Driver. Written and directed by Philippe Caland. 83 minutes. Rated R for language. Uptown.

It's oddly reassuring that a flawed, ultra-indie feature like "Ripple Effect" can still find a fleeting release in today's corporatized film market. It's a reminder of the 1980s, when niche distributors could wedge personal movies into art houses along with the latest from Merchant-Ivory. The downside of those "better days" was that self-absorbed mavericks like Henry Jaglom could find a theatrical audience for their feature-length self-therapy sessions.

Writer-director-producer Philippe Caland works in the Jaglom tradition, and "Ripple Effect" (his second film, after 2003's "Hollywood Buddha") shares many of Jaglom's annoying attributes. It gives a bad first impression as a glorified home movie about successful Los Angeles whiners too immersed in their own desperate ambition, numbing domesticity or self-help platitudes to notice they're spiritually rotting from the inside out.

At the center of it all is Caland himself, playing an unbearably trendy Lebanese-American clothing designer named Amer Atrash (read into that what you will) on a quest for self-

redemption. If it weren't for a brief, flashback appearance by Forest Whitaker in the opening scene, everything about the beginning of "Ripple Effect" would scream "run from the theater!"

Fortunately, patience is rewarded. After a bumpy start, "Ripple Effect" begins to show why Whitaker, Virginia Madsen and Minnie Driver signed on as executive producers and co-stars. As it gets under the surface of shallow Hollywood parties, lonely billionaires and Amer's spiritual need to reconnect with the man he accidentally paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident 15 years earlier, Caland's drama evolves into a sincere attempt to grapple with complicated emotions and spiritual malaise.

Philip (Whitaker) is Amer's victim from the past, now paraplegic and teaching New Age philosophy while his wife (Driver) croons torch songs in a local bar and lures men for sex with her husband's tacit approval. Convinced that he's trapped in a karmic tailspin, Amer feels compelled to confess his role in Philip's fate, prompted by the threat of financial disaster, while his wife (Madsen) and young daughter grow increasingly distant. When Amer and Philip finally meet, "Ripple Effect" takes a quiet, introspective turn as personal histories reveal unexpected truths.

Tolerance for Caland's simultaneous preening and soul-searching will depend on your appetite for a rather infamous, sunbaked variety of California spiritualism, as practiced by Los Angelinos far too comfortable to earn our lasting sympathy. But credit Caland for self-awareness with good intentions; he draws authentic emotions from a talented cast, and he understands that suffering is as relative as it is universal. We all need help sometimes, and "Ripple Effect" acknowledges that as the first step toward healing.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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