Steve Daly
January 19, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

WATCHING A Hugh Grant movie these days without thinking about his infamous one-night-only engagement on Sunset Boulevard is like trying not to turn your head after someone says, ”Just ignore that elephant in the corner.” Since the incident — and Grant’s extended acts of eye-batting public contrition — the actor has taken a lot of criticism for his fluffy movie-star shtick. But once you begin directly comparing his roles, it’s startling to see the tonal range this guy builds from a repertoire of stammers, blinks, and brow furrows.

It’s especially easy at the moment, since his new notoriety is being exploited to the fifth power. He’s in theaters as a mischievous painter in Restoration and as a tongue-tied suitor in Sense and Sensibility, while in video stores, his radiant puss now grins from the cover of NINE MONTHS (1995, FoxVideo, PG-13, priced for rental) and two smaller, quieter British imports, THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL, BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN (1995, Miramax, PG, priced for rental) and AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE (1995, New Line, R, priced for rental).

It’s Nine Months that showcases Grant’s megawatt smile most mindlessly, though that’s hardly his fault. He seems quite willing to present the nasty side of a psychologist who wishes his pregnant girlfriend (Julianne Moore) would get an abortion and leave their yuppie lives undisturbed. But writer-director Chris Columbus, continuing the tour of San Francisco he began in Mrs. Doubtfire, punches up all the photogenic elements he can to woo-hoo at the audience and skip over any real tension in the relationship.

It doesn’t help that the video transfer, with images cropped almost in half from their original wide-screen shape, keeps whip-panning left and right. A key hospital scene that in theaters showed Moore and Grant reconciling from opposite sides of the frame is now a ping-pong game of cuts from one to the other. Things turn herky-jerkiest, though, whenever Tom Arnold shows up as a hyperactive dad who epitomizes everything Grant fears he’ll become. As the transfer technicians frantically try to keep the image centered on Arnold’s orbits, Grant gets blurred or cut out and the whole point of these scenes — the contrast between the elegant Brit and the loudmouthed jerk — suffers.

While Nine Months sometimes turns too frenetic, The Englishman never moves beyond the hopelessly lethargic. It’s a glorified travelogue that takes a distended 99 minutes to recount what happens when two cartographers (Grant and the very unfunny Ian McNeice) arrive in a tiny Welsh village circa 1917. They promptly declare that its landmark landmass is not, as the townspeople have always maintained, a mountain — it’s 16 feet shy. So the outraged folks conspire to keep the surveyors stranded while they pile dirt atop the mound to change the judgment. As writer-director Christopher Monger lingers on glowing landscapes and tiresome hicks, Grant’s turn as a tweedy nebbish provides the only interest, mainly because his trademark pompadour is plastered down for the early going. The moment it springs free, expressing his love for a local lass, is the closest this snoozer gets to real drama.

A hair-centered moment works equally well for Grant in An Awfully Big Adventure, a sour survey of bitchery and romantic despair in a late-’40s acting troupe. Eager to savage Grant’s shy-nice-guy persona, the actor and his director, Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), stifle any urge to soften their portrait of Meredith Potter, a vindictive gay impresario who seems to enjoy hurting his longtime lover as much as he fancies seducing and spurning teenage boys.

The movie isn’t really a star vehicle for Grant, and it isn’t really a comedy. It’s chiefly a rude, sad coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl (Georgina Cates) who’ll do anything to perform. The pathetic states of the rest of the ensemble — alcoholic, lonely, and worse — reveal the price of that desire, but the focus is sharpest whenever Grant strides in peevishly. As he acts out the petty jealousies, emotional hurts, and sexual aggressiveness that the movie pictures as the chief motivations of any trouper’s career, Grant seems more than good — he seems inspired. In a delicious climactic sequence, he goes on as a bewigged Captain Hook in Peter Pan, happy to replace, and thereby upstage, an actor (Alan Rickman) whose personal life he’s just destroyed. He’s a lost boy who’ll make you shiver — and make you ponder yet again, How shadowy is Hugh Grant’s psyche? Nine Months: B The Englishman: C An Awfully Big Adventure: B-

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