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MOVIE REVIEW

Hapless 'Kettle of Fish' proves far from fine

In "Kettle of Fish," Matthew Modine is a sax player who sublets his apartment to a British scientist played by Gina Gershon.

In "Kettle of Fish," a fumbled attempt at modern romantic comedy, one of the characters gets lost in Central Park. How do you get lost in Central Park? The same way you squander movie conventions that are more than a half-century old. You work at it.

Writer-director Claudia Myers , making her first feature after a run of short films, throws a lot of ingredients into her pot: Woody Allen-style Manhattan romance, Cary Grant screwball, runaway bride farce -- there's even a character named Kelp, after Jerry Lewis's " Nutty Professor. " The result is movie goulash: made with love, impossible to digest.

Matthew Modine , looking vaguely angry over the way his career hasn't gone, plays Mel, a free-spirited jazz saxophonist wandering from woman to woman and true only to his pet goldfish, Daphne. Hitting the mid-40s panic wall, he moves in with his latest fling, a pneumatic Swedish meatball named Inga (Ewa Da Cruz , who's just terrible), subletting his apartment to a British scientist named Ginger Thomas (Gina Gershon ).

Why is Ginger British? Apparently so the normally tough-talking Gershon can show her way with an accent. Why is the character an amphibian biologist? So that her lab frog, Casanova, can harbor cross-species affections for Mel's fish while the two humans sort out their feelings for each other. First, though, Mel has to get over his crush on Diana (Christy Cashman ), a bored Upper East Side beauty who literally jumped into his arms on the way to her wedding.

"Kettle of Fish" is the kind of movie that requires its characters to behave more stupidly than they need to just to forward the plot. Why else would Mel take a job as an elevator man to be near the charmless Diana? And why else would he and Ginger be drawn to each other despite their own sizable lack of cross-species charisma? These two go together like ham and egg creams.

Myers believes deeply in the old verities of movie love in the big city, and thank God someone does. You can't approximate classic style without a style of your own, though, and the filmmaking in "Kettle" is relentlessly pedestrian, the dialogue painfully banal. Modine's a decent actor but not even he can get off a line like "I know it sounds kind of kooky, but [her smile] makes the whole day worthwhile." Not in this century, anyway.

Undaunted, Myers keeps stirring her stale glass of seltzer, hoping for bubbles. Toward the end she gets her leads on all fours, hopping around the lab looking for Ginger's errant frog. "Casanova's stimuli response is low," says the amphibian biologist in alarm. Yours may have flatlined.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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