Alley whines as 'Sibling Rivalry' wheezes into mediocrity

October 26, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Sibling Rivalry'

Starring Kirstie Alley.

Directed by Carl Reiner.

Released by Castle Rock.

PG-13.

**

There's a delirious moment in "Sibling Rivalry" that conjures up an even more delirious moment on a recent "Saturday Night Live" where guest host Woody Harrelson and regular sex object Victoria Jackson took part in a game show called "Who's Dumber?" (It was Woosy, by a splinter).

In the "Sibling Rivalry" variant, Kirstie Alley as a married woman whose first-time lover has just died in their love nest, and Bill Pullman, as a Venetian blind salesman who thinks he's killed the poor schlub (Sam Elliott as the hapless corpse), try and figure out what to do with the body. So who's dumber?

Alley is letting her eyebrows do all the work; this actress' idea of "acting" is to squinch them up like coiled Slinkys, and then let them go crazy. They bounce all over the place, leading her face through some revolting contortions. She's like the fourth Stooge.

Meanwhile the dim Pullman is acting with his hair (he's underequipped in the eyebrow department). He's meant to be a dippy loser, a fact he makes us aware of by letting his hair flop down in his face. He's also dithering. He hems and whines and perseverates and noodles. It's pretty horrifying. He's the fifth Stooge, but Stooges 4 and 5 aren't much fun without Stooges 1 though 3.

Here's the answer: They're both dumber.

The movie is a wheezy, laborious farce that telegraphs its moves hours in advance. If you don't know who the mystery lover-corpse turns out to be, you ought to give up movie going and concentrate on Saturday morning TV. And, for the record, though it boasts three sets of sibling, it's only incidentally about sibling rivalry.

Alley is married (unhappily) to a doofus doctor played by Scott Bakula in his big-screen debut (he's wasted); he's part of a dreadful all-doctor family that sports Carrie Fisher as a sister-doc (another waste), Matthew Laurance as a brother-in-law doc, and mom and pop docs played by John Randolph and the luminescent Frances Sternhagen, here slumming for bucks and I hope she got lots of them. The family is cold, competitive and creepy, and they treat Alley like Cinderella before she became a princess; the big deal, as the movie opens, is the pending arrival fTC of a long-lost brother, yet another doctor, from an illustrious overseas career.

Meanwhile, Alley herself has a sister, a bad girl enacted without much energy or distinction by Jami Gertz, an always beautiful, never-distinguished performer. Finally, Nick, the industrial-strength nerd who gets so confused over the body of Alley's one-afternoon lover, is the brother of the investigating police officer Ed McNeill, he of the cartoon face (he could guest star on "The Simpsons" without alteration), who in turn falls in love with . . . Jami Gertz!

Round and round it goes; why, nobody knows.

The great Carl Reiner directed this movie and it takes all of a lifetime spent in professional entertainment to keep it from collapsing into rubble. Reiner once made a brilliant, scabrous comedy called "Where's Poppa?" with George Segal. But since, working with much safer material such as this, his career has not prospered (though his less gifted son, Rob's, has). That this movie is even watchable, however, is testimony to his professionalism.

Alley's allure remains mysterious. She whines, she rants, she panics; her movie persona is firmly located on the edge of hysteria. She seems to have chronic PMS. Perhaps it's the guilty pleasure of seeing a truly beautiful woman humiliate herself that gives her film performances a special, mesmerizing intensity. Perhaps it's that weird fleshiness, that vulgar voluptuousness of her physical presence, all those arches and flairs of brow, nostril and cheek. Her face is like an Alexander Calder mobile. Perhaps it's her brazen willingness to give when she has nothing to give. Who knows?

The movie, for all the bad judgment and lack of talent and script that went into it, still fails to achieve distinctive awfulness. It's strictly mediocre.

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