Meg Ryan, America’s sweetheart? Not in this one.

Below: He’s a suspect! Sharrieff Pugh stars as Meg Ryan’s perverse, sulking writing student.

Photos by Screen Gems

Queasy & uneasy

Meg Ryan gets down and dirty -- but not sexy -- 'In the Cut'

Perky Meg Ryan gets all drabbed down and sexed up for "In the Cut," a lurid, noirish thriller that manages to make Manhattan's trendy Soho neighborhood look like one of the drearier circles of Dante's hell.

This odd, jagged and claustrophobic film represents a most unlikely collaboration between Ryan, whose pixyish cuteness has made her a sweetheart of frothy romantic comedies, and Australian director Jane Campion, an arty provocateur whose fascination with repressed female sexuality has fueled such compelling works as "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Piano."

Clearly, Ryan is stepping outside her comfort zone with this role, which demands stark nudity and rather graphic sexual escapades, yet dulls down her glowing beauty and turns her into a kinky, boho basket case with stringy hair and poxy complexion.

Give her credit for daring, but even this radical rebellion against Ryan's iconic wholesomeness isn't enough to save the film from Campion's muddled, self-consciously surreal vision of Susanna Moore's 1995 novel, adapted for the screen in raw and raunchy fashion by the director and the novelist.

"In the Cut" presents a scrupulously grim and sordid portrait of life in lower Manhattan as it opens with Ryan's ironically detached writing teacher Frannie Avery meeting in a dingy basement bar with one of her weird students -- an intense young man fixated on the innocence of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy.

There, searching an eerie hallway for a ladies room, Frannie stumbles upon a cigarette-puffing man in the dark shadows being sexually gratified by a young woman. Later, that woman is the victim of a grisly murder, and one of her severed arms turns up in a garden outside Frannie's apartment window.

That's when a crude, cunning NYPD homicide detective named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo in bushy caterpillar mustache) shows up at her door asking questions. He's a dogged street cop who plays outside the rules -- and who looks troublingly like that smoking man in the basement to Frannie.

Nevertheless, she quickly gives in to Malloy's macho, seductive patter and falls into a sultry affair with him. It's an affair of heat without passion, of sex without love, of obsession without involvement.

It's here that the movie strays away from the simple murder mystery plotline into some very frank if emotionally vague psychosexual territory involving the mongrel childhood of Frannie and her desperately needy sister Pauline (a pudgy Jennifer Jason Leigh muttering and displaying her signature wounded vulnerability) and featuring loads of explicit sex and the odd decapitation here and there.

And it's here that the movie loses its dramatic focus. In attempting to be a murder mystery, an erotic thriller and a dense psychological character study all at once, it fails to fully succeed at any of them.

The murder mystery has its requisite roster of red herrings and obvious suspects: the mysterious, emotionally cruel Malloy; Frannie's perverse, sulking writing student (Sharrieff Pugh); an uncredited Kevin Bacon as a jittery ER doctor obsessed with Frannie, and a few others.

The erotic thriller has its creepy mood lighting and shadowy atmospherics -- lingering camera shots of dead flowers in vases; overflowing garbage cans in dank alleys; grinding in seedy strip clubs; treks down damp, neon-lit side streets; steamy sex in bleak, ramshackle apartments.

The character study has its muffled secrets -- especially in dream sequences that seem inspired by Orson Welles and that hint at something violent and perverse in Frannie and Pauline's relationship with their father, something that skewed their views of sexuality and intimacy forevermore.

But all of it seems filtered through cracked funhouse mirrors and none of it ever emerges as fully coherent or satisfying narrative (even the solution to the murders seems tired and contrived).

Ryan turns in a muted performance that's brave but not terribly resonant. Ruffalo gives rough approximation of a world-weary knight errant in a battle with evil, but ultimately his character remains a detached enigma. And Campion succeeds in making us feel queasy and uneasy without ever informing us of the reasons.

"In the Cut" might be most distinctive for pulling the curious into theaters to see Meg Ryan get down and dirty. But there's nothing sexy in her performance, and there's nothing terribly involving or enlightening in this brooding fever dream about life and death on the dingy margins of the city.

"In the Cut"

Stars: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Theaters: Palace 12, Tulsa and Starworld 20

Studio: Screen Gems

Running Time: 113 minutes

Rated: R (strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language)

Quality: * * (on a scale of zero to four stars)