October 2, 2007

Old movie review: Warren Beatty in "Town & Country"

Here's another of my long-lost (and, admittedly, little-missed) UPI movie reviews from 2001:

Town & Country

April 26, 2001

In one episode of "The Simpsons," long-suffering Marge throws an elegant dinner party. Attempting to start a sophisticated conversation, she asks, "Did anyone see that new Woodsy Allen movie?"

Her neighbor Ned Flanders replies: "You know, I like his films except for that nervous fellow that's always in them."

"Town & Country," an amusing new sex farce starring Warren Beatty ("Splendor in the Grass"), Diane Keaton ("The Godfather"), Goldie Hawn ("Cactus Flower"), and Gary Shandling (HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show"), would definitely satisfy Ned's needs for a Woody Allen movie that didn't actually involve Woody Allen in any way.

"Town & Country" recycles most of the elements that have become so familiar in the dozen or so remakes of "Annie Hall" that Allen has churned out. Keaton, veteran of eight Allen movies, is only the most obvious connection. "Town & Country" reproduces precisely Allen's fantasy world of Manhattan married couples with artsy jobs that pay implausibly well, yet also allow them time to spend their days sitting or strolling in fashionable locations while worrying over their adulteries.

Like Allen's movies, "Town & Country" emphasizes the "adult" in adultery. Beatty is now 64, Keaton and Hawn are both 55, while the stripling Shandling is 51. Granted, handsome Warren Beatty makes a somewhat less creepy romantic lead than the 65-year-old Woody Allen would. Yet, somehow, I doubt that the public has been yearning to see a movie with two moderately explicit sex scenes between Beatty and Hawn (total age: 119).

Beatty, Keaton, and Hawn have been movie stars for a combined 101 years. Although people play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with this cast a mere Three Degrees ought to suffice to connect with just about anybody in Hollywood history, even, say, Jean Harlow, who died in 1937. (Beatty to Vivien Leigh in 1961's "Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" to Clark Gable in 1939's "Gone With the Wind" to Harlow in 1932's "Red Dust.").

Hawn is shot so she looks eerily like the same sex kitten who go-go danced on "Laugh-In" in 1968. In contrast, the gracefully aging Keaton seems much more at ease with being over fifty.

One big difference between "Town & Country" and Allen's movies is that the frugal and superbly organized Woody could have made it for 10% of the $80 million or whatever this film, which has been in production on and off since 1998, cost.

Not surprisingly, this protracted pregnancy has attracted negative buzz in Hollywood as horrible as that attending "Heaven's Gate" or "Titanic." Interestingly, "Town & Country" turns out be neither a classic catastrophe nor a historic hit. Instead, after all the agony, it's just a nice little picture that some people will find funny and some won't.

Many rumors claim that the final budget reached $120 million. Yet, when gossip columnist Liz Smith printed that number and implied that Beatty's demands for control was to blame, Beatty's lawyer Bert Fields extracted a retraction from her. Still - and please don't sue me for this, Mr. Fields - but I've got to believe that when brutish, brooding French legend Gerard Depardieu had to drop out of the cast after a motorcycle accident, and Beatty's pal Shandling took his place, a certain amount of expensive reworking must have been required in the script.

Like "Seinfeld," Shandling's "Larry Sanders" demonstrated that a truly great sit-com doesn't require much of an actor in the title role. Here, Shandling plays a rich antique dealer who is Hawn's husband and Beatty's best friend. Early on, the movie reveals that he is gay. While Shandling has a rather gay-looking face, the highly heterosexual comic isn't a talented enough actor to suggest any other signs of sexual ambiguity. In fact, Shandling's interpretation of his role seems to equate "gay" with "happy." Shandling just plays Larry Sanders, but with a more upbeat mood.

Still, despite lacking in acting skills, Shandling gets most of the laughs in the first half of the movie. Is this because all the various screenwriters who took a whack at the script couldn't come up with any gags for the other characters? Or did the three famous movie stars simply not read their lines as well Shandling?

In the second half, as the movie turns from a mild comedy of manners into an absurd farce, Beatty finally starts earning his pay.

Beatty must be an extraordinarily charismatic man in person. That's the only way I can explain how he has managed to seduce so many women, producers, critics, and even political journalists, who took his trial balloons about running for President last year half-seriously. Yet, the public has been much less impressed than the insiders by what Beatty's actually put up on the screen over the last 40 years, as his many expensive flops attest. ("Ishtar," anybody?) Beatty's a perfectly adequate generic leading man, but hardly more memorable than a Jeff Bridges or a Dennis Quaid.

Fortunately, the contrast between Beatty's megalomaniacal self-regard and the ridiculous embarrassments that his character must put up with adds much to the appeal of the film. If you'd enjoy seeing a man who is convinced that he's Presidential timber dressing up in a polar bear suit to please Jenna Elfman or being chased around by a shotgun-wielding Charlton Heston, then "Town & Country" is your movie. (The NRA president has a great time playing a deranged patrician out to gun down Beatty for sleeping with his "precious princess" daughter, Andie MacDowell.)

The British are generally much better at plot-driven farces than Americans are. Our mainstream Jewish-American comic tradition relies less for laughs on absurd but logical situations and more on one-liners. ("Seinfeld" was the great American exception.) Rather than bring in waves of Hollywood gag-writers to try to come up with gag-lines that not even the pompous Beatty could foul up, the producers should have hired in the first place a top British farceur like Alan Ayckbourne. He could have constructed a plot that would have subjected the legend-in-his-own-mind leading man to nonstop indignities. Now, that might almost have been worth $120 million … oops, forgive me, Mr. Fields, I meant $80 million. Don't sue. Please!

"Town & Country" is rated "R" for sex scenes and bad language. No nudity or violence.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

A better question would be how many degrees of separation there are between Diane Keaton and Buster Keaton?

Alex said...

"L.A. Story" was Steve Martin trying to do a Woody Allen film in his own beloved city.

I don't really know why I'm bringing that up. Pretty good movie though, especially early on.