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McElwee's work beckons us to surrender to the experience. Marton's pieces provoke re-examination of vitally sensitive topics. Both programs invite an active viewer to risk, to engage and to explore. It's comfortable lounging in the Hollywood mode, but visiting the extraordinary is exhilarating.

McElwee's work plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 and Marton's work at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 -- with both artists introducing and discussing their programs -- at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

JAWBREAKER
Written and directed by Darren Stein

OFFICE SPACE
Written and directed by Mike Judge

Plot is a central problem in both Jawbreaker and Office Space, two comedies opening this week: The first has too much, and the second (and far better of the two movies) has too little.

Jawbreaker's 26-year-old writer/director, Darren Stein, says he wanted to make an homage to the films he watched in his San Fernando Valley youth. More accurately, however, Jawbreaker seems like an homage to the film he watched -- that is, Heathers. Although there are a few moments invoking Carrie, Jawbreaker owes more to the 1989 Winona Ryder film directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters -- which itself owed at least as much to Renee Daalder's 1976 Massacre at Central High -- than to all his other influences put together.

The movie centers on the Flawless Four, a snotty clique of four girls who are the status queens of Reagan High School. Courtney (Rose McGowan) is the leader, with Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz) and Liz (Charlotte Roldan) her acolytes. When Liz is accidentally killed during a birthday prank -- she chokes on a jawbreaker, hence the title -- the others, with the nauseatingly cool, unaffected Courtney as their guide, contrive to cover up their involvement.

Unfortunately, school geek Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) stumbles on them in midscheme. To assure her silence, Courtney offers Fern a Faustian bargain: They'll give Fern a makeover and promote her into Miss Popularity. She'll even become Liz's replacement in their little circle.

Repulsed both by Courtney's cold-bloodedness and by the horrible changes in Fern -- who, as part of this Pygmalion/Clueless transformation, takes the name "Vylette" -- Julie defects and, together with new boyfriend Zack (Chad Christ), tries to expose the truth.

Because Jawbreaker has thriller elements, the tightness of the plot is crucial. Unfortunately, the plot is full of repeated confusions and inconsistencies, most of them revolving around Fern's identity switch. Somehow she is supposed to have attended school as a new student named Vylette without anybody noticing; but, at moments when it suits Stein's purposes, he suddenly decides that people do know she's Fern. At times, this sloppy vacillation makes a full round trip within a minute or two.

This nonsense is distracting enough, but it's not the film's only problem. Like many a young filmmaker, Stein wants to show off a bunch of stylistic tricks: Jawbreaker is filled with surreal moments. A few work, but many fall flat. One, in which Julie walks through a hallway of frozen students, is confusing and amateurish -- precisely the sort of thing you're supposed to get out of your system in film school.

Be forewarned that several of the better-known players in the cast are barely onscreen, including William Katt, P.J. Soles, Jeff Conaway and Marilyn Manson, all of whose screen time totaled can't be more than two or three minutes. On the plus side, Jawbreaker makes nice, if brief, use of both Pam Grier (as a tough police detective) and Carol Kane (as a dorky teacher).

Office Space, despite its barely existent plot, fares much better. This is the first live-action feature from Mike Judge, the genius behind Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. Oddly enough, for his subject matter, Judge has reached back to his earliest work -- the half-dozen Milton cartoons he singlehandedly produced in the early '90s, before his concurrent Beavis and Butt-head shorts came to the attention of MTV.

The very first Milton cartoon was also called "Office Space," and its content -- a rambling monologue by a pathetically put-upon office worker about how his bosses keep shrinking his cubicle -- has been pretty much assimilated into the new Office Space. But Milton (Stephen Root) is only a minor character here, which is a good thing: He would be intolerable as a protagonist. Instead, Judge focuses on Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a more believable (and probably autobiographical) character.

Peter is a perfectly pleasant, average young man whose life is slipping away in a nowhere job as a programmer for some sort of tech firm called INITECH. (It's telling that neither we nor the characters ever quite seem to know just what INITECH does.) Imploding with frustration over the bureaucratic idiocy inflicted on him daily by his smarmy boss (Gary Cole), Peter decides to go to a hypnotherapist. The therapist puts Peter into a state of completely relaxed inhibitions and then promptly keels over, without having brought him back out of the trance. The new Peter, freed from anxiety, starts blowing off both his girlfriend and his boss. He casually asks out the waitress (Jennifer Aniston) he has long been too shy to speak to. With somewhat predictable irony, his totally honest attitude is so refreshing to the firm's new efficiency experts that Peter starts moving up the corporate ladder.

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