Archive for September 1992

Singles

September 18, 1992

Singles_32Singles, the appealing and long-overdue new comedy from Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…), has the comfortable quality of those unplanned nights when you find yourself with a bunch of people in someone’s apartment and just talk for hours. Almost anecdotal in structure, the movie feels like a series of sketches. Sometimes that can be a problem, but not with Crowe, whose specialty is the telling bit of dialogue, the gesture that expresses more than a whole scene of exposition. Only Crowe could write a film in which a major plot point turns on a character’s failure to say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. (And only Crowe would go on to distinguish between “Bless you” and “Gesundheit.”)

We’re in Seattle, where twentysomethings work at precise, tidy jobs by day and stop off at the local club to catch Soundgarden by night. We meet Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) and Steve (Campbell Scott), both coming off bad relationships. Steve spots Linda at the dance club and makes a move, swearing that he’s not phony and doesn’t have an “act.” Linda sizes him up and remarks, “(A) You have an act; (B) Not having an act is your act.” But she could be interested. He’s definitely interested.

Steve, it turns out, lives in the same apartment complex as Cliff (Matt Dillon), who fronts the local band Citizen Dick, and Janet (Bridget Fonda), who’s in love with Cliff. Maybe. A comically self-absorbed lunk with a goatee and a terminally serene expression, Cliff seems more fascinated by a TV special about the mating habits of bees than by the mating habits of people. Briefly, Janet considers getting breast implants to strike some kind of spark with Cliff, and in one of the movie’s best moments she asks him straight out, “Are my breasts too small for you?” After a bit of hemming and hawing, he gives the perfect Cliff answer.

A weakness of many hip-youth movies is that everyone somehow comes up with the right thing to say. That happens here a lot, but Crowe puts a realistic spin on it: He has the characters stop for a moment, surprised that they actually didn’t say something stupid. Crowe assembles Singles in a pleasantly casual way, with people pairing off and separating according to what they feel, not because the plot demands it. He brings out the tender goofiness in the actors (Dillon might even outdo his work in Drugstore Cowboy, and Fonda gives yet another effortlessly charming performance), crafting dialogue and scenes that feel utterly spontaneous.

Also happily spontaneous. For the most part, Singles avoids real pain. A tragedy near the middle of the movie has little dramatic weight; Crowe takes care of it in one or two scenes and then promptly forgets about it. Romances come to an end and develop seamlessly into friendships, without bitterness. There’s really no tension except in small touches, such as when Janet’s breast-implant doctor (Bill Pullman) delicately suggests that if Cliff doesn’t like her breasts, she should find someone who does (he stops short of clearing his throat and pointing to himself, but she gets the point). The way she lets him down, and the way he nonchalantly backs off, ring absolutely true. But the element of sexual harassment in the scene (is it really the doctor’s place to hit on Janet, however gently?) goes unexplored.

But nobody said a Cameron Crowe film had to be Tension City, and Singles is one of the most accomplished and purely enjoyable movies of the year. Crowe has created a smart, rumpled world where real people relate to each other about real feelings, using real words. That’s not something to sneeze at (gesundheit).

Husbands and Wives

September 2, 1992

Now that l’affaire du Woody has receded into the archives of gossip, we can watch Husbands and Wives with less of a knowing smirk. The uneasy parallels between Woody’s art and Woody’s headlines still exist in the film, and when Mia Farrow’s character tells Woody “It’s over,” the moment has a sharper pang than it should. The furor has not so much ensured Husbands and Wives‘ box-office success as deepened its impact: That which does not kill the film makes it stronger.

All that aside, Husbands and Wives emerges as Woody Allen’s most vital work since Crimes and Misdemeanors. With his last two attempts, Alice and Shadows and Fog, Allen seemed to have lost his way, surrounding himself with New Age whimsy and undigested lumps of other people’s art. Now he’s back in the thick of things, crafting a tale of frustrated love and dashed expectations that has all the messiness of life. And all its bitterness: Compared with the honest but comforting relationship movie Singles, Husbands and Wives looks like Cape Fear.

Woody plays Gabe Roth, a novelist and writing professor working through a sexless, touchy marriage to Judy (Mia), an art-magazine editor. Their closest friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), have just split up after years of their own sexless, touchy marriage. Husbands and Wives follows these four as they roam Manhattan, searching for … for whatever it is their marriages don’t offer. Gabe becomes infatuated with Rain (Juliette Lewis), a 20-year-old student who idolizes; Jack takes up with Sam (Lysette Anthony), a bouncy aerobics instructor and astrology devotee who can give him a relaxed good time but not much else; Sally begins a shaky romance with Michael (Liam Neeson), Judy’s colleague at the art magazine, whom Judy herself has eyes for.

Whew. It’s a testament to the writing and performances that we don’t need a scorecard. Concentrating this time on the actors as actors, not as fodder for cameos (see Shadows and Fog), Allen lets his eager cast fly. Pollack, far more forceful an actor than a director these days, plays a scene with Lysette Anthony that rivals any film moment this year for sheer agonizing embarrassment (and she matches him step for venomous step). He’s the stand-out, but the others — particularly Davis and Lewis — project volumes of meaning with each nervous twitch. Allen’s cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, puts on his own twitchy (but striking) performance: The camera zooms alarmingly, whips from person to person, fractures the narrative with jump-cuts. At times, Woody’s new cinematic influence seems to be MTV Sports.

Inevitably, the focus swings to … Woody and Mia. How much of the film was shot before Mia’s discovery of the famous nude photos? You won’t be able to tell; their scenes together are all equally edgy and depressed. (Allen reportedly filmed the Gabe/Judy break-up scene only days after Mia found Woody out.) Over and over, they mourn what their relationship was and can never be again. Their split is painless — a relief for both sides. Husbands and Wives gets very deeply into the ways two people can hurt each other, and Gabe/Woody and Judy/Mia seem to call it quits because they just can’t bear to watch their love become a vicious mockery of itself. (As, of course, it did, in real life.)

Judy doesn’t even need to find out about the nubile Rain (and Gabe never gets past a hot kiss with the student anyway). Gabe and Judy grow apart without accusations or fury, just as Woody and Mia grew apart long before the Soon-Yi affair, and that is where art imitates life. This last waltz between America’s most prestigious film couple has a tone of muted regret, not confession or sensationalism. “My heart doesn’t know from logic,” says Gabe at one point. In Husbands and Wives, Allen shows us what — for better or worse — his heart does know.

Mr. Saturday Night

September 2, 1992

Billy Crystal’s labor of love (and directorial debut) died at the box office, possibly because audiences expected it to be funny. It’s not wholly successful, but one can respect Crystal’s intentions. Crystal plays Buddy Young Jr., a character he developed on Saturday Night Live and a few HBO specials. Buddy is your typical Borscht-belt Jewish comedian, in the mold of Alan King or Milton Berle. Like Crystal, Buddy gets laughs by turning his Jewish upbringing — the Yiddish accents, the phlegm-hawking elders — into absurdist shtick. Unlike Crystal, Buddy has an attack-dog persona (he gets his first onstage laugh by ridiculing a fat heckler) and is great at alienating everyone in his life, including his brother Stan (David Paymer in a striking, Oscar-nominated turn), who buries his own life and becomes Buddy’s thankless, long-suffering lackey.

Most of Mr. Saturday Night (the title evokes Berle’s nickname Mr. Television) is told in the present, with the 73-year-old Buddy shuffling around and bouncing the same tired jokes off people who chuckle politely. (The old-age makeup is about fifty percent convincing.) Buddy is the Jake La Motta of stand-up, and Crystal explicitly patterns the film after Raging Bull. (Hey, steal from the best.) He has also, unfortunately, cast himself against type. Crystal just doesn’t have it in him to be a bastard; he always seems to be just doing Buddy Young Jr. Still, there are more than a few moments that achieve the pathos Crystal wants. A little more of the brash young Buddy would’ve helped; a lot more of Julie Warner as Buddy’s loving wife Elaine would’ve been great.


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