Twenty years ago, it was likely that a well-made little romantic comedy such as Crazy from the Heart would have been released theatrically to good reviews and done pretty well at the box office. Nowadays, the chances of this are poor indeed; a movie studio today would be exceedingly leery about putting out a silly yet subtle, low-budget, no-special-effects bit of fluff like this, featuring a pair of solid but non-star actors.
In Crazy From the Heart, Christine Lahti (Swing Shift, Housekeeping) plays Charlotte Bain, the principal of a high school in Tidewater, Tex.; Ruben Blades (Mo' Better Blues, Predator 2) is Ernesto Ontiveros, the school's janitor. She's a bit prim and still lives with her mother; he's very earthy and works as a custodian to raise money to prevent a foreclosure on his small farm. They fall in love and one madcap weekend sneak off to Mexico and get married, shocking everyone in their conservative little town. That's the essence of the story a string of movie clichés yet it doesn't begin to suggest the small but significant pleasures of the script by associate producer Linda Voorhees.
Lahti specializes in playing intelligent, middle-class women who are capable of much more than their circumscribed lives have permitted them to reveal. In this sense, her Charlotte is a typical Lahti character, but what's nice about Voorhees' script is that she has surrounded Charlotte with women who are just as smart, acerbic, and frustrated as she is.
These women range from Charlotte's best friend, played by Mary Kay Place with the wisecracking cynicism of an Eve Arden for the '90s, to a school-board president (Bibi Besch) who makes her exit from a meeting by saying, ''You'll have to excuse me I have a group of parents waiting for me in my office who want to burn our biology textbooks.''
Crazy From the Heart is much less timid about issues of class and race than most TV movies, and for a comedy, it minces few words. Summing up Tidewater's objection to the marriage of Charlotte and Ernesto, one character remarks, ''A principal, Southern born and bred, does not associate with a Mexican custodian.'' On the other hand, Ernesto's lawyer daughter (Kamala Lopez) accuses Charlotte and all her friends of racism, and tells her father that Charlotte treats him ''like a nigger''; she is as unpleasant and wrongheaded as any of the other bigots in the town.
Crazy gets a lot of comic mileage out of the disparities between Ernesto and Charlotte's longtime boyfriend, the high school football coach, played by William Russ (Wiseguy). Russ' Dewey Whitcomb is one cheesed-off good ol' boy when he hears of Charlotte's abrupt marriage, and he doesn't want to listen when Charlotte explains that their lengthy courtship has become stale and boring. He likes it even less when Ernesto proves to be such an articulate, sensitive, romantic man everything Dewey is not. ''Quiet yore damn la boca!'' he screams when Ernesto makes an eloquent speech about his love for Charlotte.
As Crazy From the Heart barrels along to its de rigueur happy ending, there's no plot twist you won't recognize a mile away, but nearly every scene yields unexpected details. Ernesto's relationship with his angry, militant daughter is unsparingly painful; so is a subplot involving Mary Kay Place, whose high school-student daughter becomes pregnant by a young man whom Place's character considers beneath their station in life ''white trash'' is her blunt phrase.
Director Thomas Schlamme (Miss Firecracker and Billy Crystal's forthcoming Sessions series on HBO) films Charlotte and Ernesto's Mexican idyll as a vivid dream that avoids Vaseline-lensed sentimentality I particularly liked the way Lahti started howling like a coyote after drinking too much tequila.
As for Blades, he has never seemed more confident on the screen. This singer and songwriter has had a successful but highly uneven acting career over the past decade, but Crazy From the Heart uses the musicality of his speaking voice and the mournful quality in his eyes to great effect. His Ernesto is as believable in a work shirt, pushing a broom, as he is in a suit and tie, wooing Charlotte with murmured sweet nothings.
Crazy From the Heart cannot entirely overcome the triteness of its plot, but most of the time its very familiarity is comforting, its small surprises endearing. B+