The first rule of writing romantic comedy is to make it somehow impossible, for a while, for the romantic leads to get together. So, okay, let's say the female protaganist thinks the male protagonist is gay, even though he isn't. It's a device that's worked before. But it doesn't work in Three to Tango, simply because all involved in making this film forgot the second rule of romantic comedy: The couple falling in love must be likeable before an audience will believe they're loveable.

Take the character of Amy (Neve Campbell), who's introduced as the playful bedmate of a very rich, very married man, a Chicago real-estate mogul named Charles (Dylan McDermott). She apparently regards the affair as a lark in the park-an attitude not likely to endear her to female viewers, married or single. Then, there's Oscar (Mathew Perry), who'll do just about anything to become a success in the eyes of the world. He'll even pretend, privately and publicly, to be a homosexual when, in fact, he's very hetero. Now, whether you're straight or gay, male or female, it's hard to sympathize with a wimpy guy like Oscar. So the only possible reason why audiences would want these two to get together is because, frankly, they deserve each other.

Oscar's gay masquerade begins when Charles, the evil mogul, challenges him and his partner and fellow architect, Peter (Oliver Platt), to come up with a design to renovate and revitalize a Chicago arts center. A rival designer drops hints that Oscar and Peter are romantic as well as business partners, and this gives Charles an idea. He needs someone 'safe' to keep tabs on his jealously guarded mistress, the free-spirited Amy. (Why is she free-spirited? Because she's an artist, of course.) A puzzled Oscar agrees to take the assignment-although it promises to be, at best, distateful and, at worst, disastrous to his love life-because he and Peter badly need to win Charles' design competition. Oscar and Amy are destined to 'meet cute,' and it happens at an art gallery opening when he saves one of her glass sculptures from being smashed to smithereens. The evening ends with both of them getting food poisoning from tuna melts and upchucking on the curb. Really cute.

The Three to Tango plot follows a convoluted but predictable path, punctuated with a passel of jokes about who's gay and who's not. A few of these jokes are truly funny, as when Amy and her girlfriends let Oscar in on their girl talk about real men. But poor Mathew Perry simply doesn't know how to react to such a perfect setup; his comedic range seems limited to looking either helpless or panicked. McDermott, on the other hand, does show versatility and romantic-comedy potential, but he should shoot his agent for letting him take an unsympathetic role like Charles. Campbell and Platt would also do well to more carefully vet the scripts offered them. But these two do create the liveliest, funniest and most complex characters in Three to Tango-an achievement which proves they deserve better.

--Shirley Sealy