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`September' finds Woody Allen in a serious, even somber, mood

Woody Allen has been widely hailed as the best comic filmmaker of his generation. Yet he has a broad streak of seriousness in his personality. It shows up even in some of his comedies - remember ``Manhattan'' and ``The Purple Rose of Cairo,'' to mention just a couple. Twice in his career, Allen has plunged all the way into straight and even somber drama - when he made ``Interiors'' a few years ago, and now with ``September,'' his latest film.

Allen himself doesn't appear in either of these movies; he knows his range as an actor is limited and suited best for comedy. But he takes care to fill the screen with a superbly chosen cast. While the result is not a major Woody Allen film, it's marked by sensitive performances and revealing moments.

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The action of ``September'' takes place at summer's end in an old New England house. Some characters are members of an unusual family; others are neighbors who live nearby.

In the early scenes, we learn that the family is haunted by an incident from the past - when the teen-age daughter shot and killed a man her mother was having an affair with. We also see present-day tensions among the characters. The daughter is self-destructive; the mother is overbearing; her husband is timid. Worst of all, the daughter is deeply in love with a man who'd rather have a romance with her best friend.

This is a pretty tangled web, and it takes a lot of talky exposition just to introduce the facts and get the story going. Once it is going, it seems more like a play than a movie: Everything happens in one location, and the scenes are neatly separated by blackouts, as if a curtain were falling at the end of each act. The material of the film is often stagy, too. Plot twists are sprung on us in little bursts of melodrama that aren't quite as convincing as they ought to be.

Despite these problems, I enjoyed ``September'' for two reasons. One is the very modesty of the picture. It's refreshing to find a movie that puts full value on words and emotions, rather than the action and special effects that obsess most filmmakers these days.

The performances are also marvelous to behold. True, as a longtime admirer of Mia Farrow, this moviegoer found it hard to believe that Sam Waterston would reject her for Dianne Wiest. Wiest has such quiet assurance, however, that she makes the situation seem reasonably credible. Elaine Stritch, Jack Warden, and Denholm Elliott are all first-rate as the older generation. As a bonus, the sound track pulses with some of the greatest jazz ever played - by giants like Art Tatum and Ben Webster.

``September'' is a small film that only hints at Woody Allen's comic brilliance. But its acting and its autumny mood give it a modest luster all its own.

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