'Scenes from a Mall' is oddly reminiscent of 'Old Woody' movies

February 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Scenes from a Mall'

Starring Woody Allen and Bette Middler.

Directed by Paul Mazursky.

Released by Touchstone.

Rated R.

***

Neither the bazaars of Byzantium nor the markets of Cathay had the majesty and pizazz of an American shopping mall; to begin with, they didn't even sell frozen yogurt. Paul Mazursky's artful .. new film, "Scenes from a Mall" not only understands this but begins with a brilliant conceit: It refuses to take for granted that which has become so ubiquitous that most of us hardly see it any more.

Mazursky's fluid, captivating film uses the mall -- Los Angeles' Beverly Center, a mother of all malls -- not merely as a backdrop but nearly as a third character as it chronicles an almost real-time crisis in the 16-year marriage of sports lawyer Nick Fifer (Woody Allen) and his wife Deborah (Bette Midler), a successful psychiatrist and self-help author. As these two slide up and down the mall's escalators, glide in and out of its shops and cinemas, dodge its fern fronds, wend through its airy glens, and eat its sushi, their whole marriage rocks on the fulcrum of fidelity.

The antecedent here, of course, is Bergman's great "Scenes from a Marriage." It's part of Mazursky's gently satirical method -- is, after all, with "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" and "An Unmarried Woman" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," among others, our premier satirist -- to show us that malls and marriages are intensely symbiotic and that the natural site for scenes from one is the other. Where Bergman's bleeding Scandinavian couple could sit and face a camera for hours explaining the nuances of their failed union for the delectation of art-house masochists, Mazursky knows that the only way to show us the same material is to set it to life and motion in a cathedral of consumerism.

Allen's Nick has cheated (with a woman named "Ed"!) for the usual reasons and he wants the joy of confession and the elixir of forgiveness; Deborah, who has prescribed joys and elixirs for the millions through her book, wants to kick his scrawny butt. Meanwhile, a member of America's last remaining persecutable minority -- mimes -- pursues them, hovering in the background like the spirit of Dada, white-faced and horrid. Why is it so satisfying when Allen dukes this shade out?

Woody Allen, throwing a punch? Yes. Much has and will be written on how wrong Allen is for both the punch and the part. But none of it will be written by me. No, he doesn't quite look the part of a shrewd negotiator who can squeeze millions from Reebok in the endorsement game. If he's an Angelino slickster, wouldn't he be tan?

But Allen grows swiftly into the part and in time we forget it's the great Woody Allen and come to accept that it's the not-so-great Nick Fifer: A whiner, a manipulator, a vain and silly man who is, though guilty as sin of sin, in some fundamental way decent. And always funny.

Yet in an odd and contradictory way, this movie feels more like "Old Woody" than the genuine Woody Allen films that the filmmaker himself has made of late. It's consistently funny, and Allen's performance is consistently funny; it arrives in that almost stream-of-consciousness, that dense, Joycean patois of one-liners and surrealistic images that are the essence of his classic screen performances.

As for Midler, she's terrific. The part -- like the movie encasing it -- veers from the satirical to the sensitive, but Midler is a constant: Her Deborah is funny but real.

Mazursky doesn't push the wide-brush California satire. There are a few clumsy moments at the start, but far more frequently Mazursky loots the mall and the wildly fluctuating fortunes of the Fifers for moments of visual weirdness.

"Scenes from a Mall" is a lightweight pleasure, to be sure, and it's over so soon you're not sure whether you've seen the movie or its trailer; but it's a rare trick, funny-funny and funny-sad, and always amazing.

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