The Out-of-Towners (1999)

It’s possible to endure The Out-of-Towners by distracting yourself with memories of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in better movies, but you may end up depressing yourself even more. For to watch this movie is to learn, once again, what Hollywood does with aging comedians (Martin and Hawn are both 54 this year): tame them and make them ready for a sitcom. The Out-of-Towners, a remake of a largely forgotten, Neil Simon-scripted comedy from 1970, is written and directed on the level of a made-for-TV remake; the film has its moments, but Martin and Hawn seem held back, imprisoned by the dumb mechanics of the Murphy’s Law scenario.

We’re to believe that Steve and Goldie — who never quite seem plausible as a 27-year married couple — have just shipped their youngest off to college, and that the resulting void forces them to stare their future (both as a couple and as individuals) in the face. The script pays lip service to this every so often, but the real plot motor is what happens when this upper-middle-class Ohio couple find themselves stranded in New York City. As they miss trains, get mugged, are refused entry into a swank hotel, and devolve to the point of Goldie trying to get Steve out on bail, we’re aware of the conflict between what this story used to be about and what it’s trying to be about now. In 1970, it was hip to put comfortable married couples through the wringer just for the sadistic pleasure of watching the older generation writhe around in the muck; today, they’re put through it in order to grow closer and stronger.

I will admit a certain degree of impatience with comedies like this, in which the protagonists are kept from achieving a simple goal (getting home safely, etc.) for the length of a film. Such premises only work if handled as sinister black comedy, with a parade of intriguing characters along the way — Martin Scorsese’s After Hours pops to mind. In The Out-of-Towners, Steve and Goldie are expected to carry the movie without much help from supporting wackos. There’s a neat appearance by Christopher Durang and Mo Gaffney as a stereotypical paranoid New York couple, and John Cleese brings some snap to his scenes as (the comparison is inevitable) a Basil Fawlty-type hotel manager. But these interludes are too brief, and the movie seems to think that the mere idea of John Cleese furtively dancing around in drag is comedic genius. The drag scene just reminded me of Monty Python, all six of whom did drag, and remembered to write funny things to do and say while in drag. A man in a dress is not automatically hilarious, though this movie certainly seems to think so.

Long before the end credits, I lost all patience with the movie, which treats comic originals like Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn (yes, her — go back and rent The Sugarland Express or even Death Becomes Her) like wind-up toys chugging through contrived complications. We don’t believe in the couple’s love for each other — the two actors’ styles don’t mesh, and so their characters seem to have nothing in common. Therefore, we don’t care about their future, or whether they pull off any of their highly implausible schemes. We do get some vintage Steve silliness near the end, when he’s tripping on LSD, but even this seems meant as a comforting laugh for the aging baby boomers in the audience (See how wild we were back in the ’60s! See, we turned out respectable despite all that!). Still, with the market overrun by soulless action and mindless teen flicks, The Out-of-Towners looks to be this month’s grown-up movie by default, though I know of no mature person of any age whose intelligence it would not insult.

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