FILMS

Transformed by love

Three movies revel in romance and obsession

Brian D. Johnson April 5 1993
FILMS

Transformed by love

Three movies revel in romance and obsession

Brian D. Johnson April 5 1993

Transformed by love

FILMS

Three movies revel in romance and obsession

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Sometimes a movie is so appalling that it evokes pity for its actors and loathing for its creators—emotions that do little to serve the cause of comedy. The stars of Born Yesterday (Melanie Griffith, Don Johnson and John Goodman) have all seen better days. Griffith has never lived up to the promise of her Oscar-nominated role as a secretary who usurps the boardroom in Working Girl. Johnson, her real-life husband, has failed to parlay his charm into significant roles since the demise of Miami Vice, the 1980s TV series that made him famous.

BORN YESTERDAY Directed by Luis Mandoki

And Goodman’s attempts to escape the sitcom ghetto of Roseanne have been largely frustrating. In Born Yesterday, it is hard to say which of the three actors is most cruelly cast—Griffith as an abysmally dumb blonde, Johnson as a sensitive intellectual in horn-rims or Goodman as a crass, pork-bellied tycoon.

The film, based on the play by Garson Kanin, is a remake of the 1950 movie starring Judy Holliday.

Billie (Griffith), a former Las Vegas show girl, serves as playmate to Harry (Goodman), a Chicago scrapmetal millionaire who goes to Washington to buy some congressional favors. When her air-headed ways prove to be a social liability,

Harry hires an investigative journalist named Paul (Johnson) to “smarten her up.” does his job too well. Predictably, the slave girl blossoms into an independent thinker and falls for her tutor.

But most of the comedy is crudely based on the sexist humiliation of its heroine. Billie is a walking blond joke. Asked her opinion about the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, she asks, “How many people were hurt?”—a line painfully reminiscent of Griffiths’s own surprised response when she learned the death toll of the Holocaust during interviews about her role as an Allied spy in last year’s Shining Through (“I didn’t know that six-million Jews were killed. That’s a lot of people.”) As Griffiths appears in one ludicrously lowcut outfit after another, it is hard not to keep thinking of her reconstructive surgery. For his part, Johnson, sporting a George Hamilton

tan, looks more like an Aspen ski bum than a Washington journalist. And Goodman’s performance is a sad, meanspirited self-parody.

All the actors, however, are victims of a shameless script, which fails to provide even the slender thread of credibility required for a farce. The fact that Paul, a journalist of supposedly impeccable ethics, is profiling Harry while on his payroll is presented without a hint of irony. And Luis Mandoki’s clumsy di-

rection, an apparent attempt to mimic a flighty, old-fashioned farce, comes across as simply retrograde—a banal celebration of the obvious. Born Yesterday is rated PG, but its ideal audience is best described in the title.

MARRIED TO IT

Directed by Arthur Hiller

The contrivance clicks in right from the opening credits, which appear with a grossly overproduced orchestral version of The Circle Game, the Joni Mitchell ode to Sixties innocence. Married to It, a sentimental comedy set in contemporary New York City, is a

tale of three marriages. Each couple represents a different class. Leo (Ron Silver), a toy entrepreneur, is on his second marriage, to Claire (Cybill Shepherd), a rich-bitch boardroom princess who lives for champagne, caviar and sex. Chuck (Robert Sean Leonard), a rookie stock analyst, and Nina (Mary Stuart Masterson), a school psychologist, are fresh-faced yuppies who have declared their upward mobility by moving into a Manhattan highrise. Standing for the salt of the earth are John and Iris (Beau Bridges and Stockard Channing), who struggle to support two sons on modest salaries.

Implausibly, the lives of the three couples merge. They meet while planning a Sixties nostalgia pageant at the school that the two boys and Leo’s troubled daughter attend, and where Nina is a counsellor. The couples become fast friends. Then, rocked by sympathetic vibrations, all three marriages suffer crises. Although the story has an awkard setup, once it gets rolling it offers an amusing bumper-car

ride through the straits of marital emotion.

Some powerful acting emerges in the scenes of domestic discord. Bridges is effectively droll as a bored but faithful husband. As his strong-willed wife, who is losing patience with her lackadaisical partner, Channing gives an explosive performance. Masterson, meanwhile, acts with a translucent vulnerability. But Silver creates the film’s most intriguing character, a kept man pleading for real intimacy from a wife addicted to instant gratification.

By contrast, the performances by Leonard and Shepherd seem to lack commitment. The result is an ensemble comedy in need of

a tune-up—one that is firing on four cylinders instead of six. Even the strong performances are muffled by Arthur Hiller’s banal direction and by a fussy script too enamored of its own neatness. The ending is especially cloying. And, ultimately, Married to It is as frustrating as a stalled marriage—one that buries its hard truths for the sake of appearances.

UTZ

Directed by George Sluizer

It is an English-language movie filmed in Prague by a Dutch director with German, British and American actors. But despite that crazy quilt of nationalities, Utz is seamlessly crafted, a self-contained marvel of irony, elegance and wit. Adapted from the best-selling 1989 novel by British author Bruce Chatwin, Utz is a charming tale of art and obsession set in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Baron Kaspar Joachim von Utz, a fanatic collector of Dresden porcelain who also has a weakness for overweight divas. Over the decades, Utz has accumulated more than a thousand pieces—a fortune in figurines. And under the watchful eye of Czech authorities, who plan to seize the collection after his death, he displays his treasures in a cramped Prague apartment that he shares with his devoted maid, Marta (Brenda Flicker).

The story begins in 1989, when Marius Fischer (Peter Riegert), an American gallery owner, learns that his friend Utz is ill. By the time Fischer reaches Prague, the baron is dead and the collection that Fischer has coveted for so long has vanished. Revealed in flashbacks, the relationship between Utz and Fischer is a play of opposites—the matter-offact capitalist assessing art through the cold lens of market value, versus the impassioned collector who reveres his porcelain as a kind of living flesh.

Despite the broadly symbolic brushstrokes, Utz comes across as more subtle than schematic. Dutch director George Sluizer, who made the ingenious thriller The Vanishing (1988) and its 1993 Hollywood remake, leavens the drama with a sly wit. He toys with the perverse implications of Utz’s obsession without dwelling on them. The cast, meanwhile, presents a vivid blend of styles. Acting with deadpan restraint, Riegert creates a sublimely nondescript foil for Mueller-Stahl’s charisma. Paul Scofield is a delight as the collector’s friend, the eccentric Dr. Václav Orlik. And Fricker is suitably opaque as the inscrutable maid.

Utz is riddled with subtext. It is about the futility of trying to possess art—and the passion of being possessed by it. Its ceramic symbolism also offers a telling, if inadvertent, image for the brittle complexion of Eastern Europe, one veined with fractures and easily shattered. But in the end, Utz resists interpretation as stubbornly as art defies possession. It stands as a simple work of beauty, like an exquisite figurine animated by whatever magic lies in the eye of the beholder.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON