'The Butcher's Wife' fails to follow through on enchanting premise

October 25, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Butcher's Wife" is the souffle that doesn't souffe, the bouffant that doesn't bouff, and the bubble that doesn't bub. It just sits there, rub-a-dub-dub, dead in the tub.The movie takes off from an interesting proposition, which it then fails utterly to follow through on. It seems that by a warp in the universe's design, among a set of three possible couples, each individual is somehow indexed to the wrong partner, by a factor of one or none (two are alone). The process of the movie is the shenanigans by which each, in his or her way, gets unstuck from the wrong boy or girl or from no boy or no girl, and lined up with the appropriate one.

Moliere could do this. Feydeau could do this. Lubitch could do RTC this. But a director named . . . Terry Hughes?

The mismatching begins when a North Carolina psychic named Marina (Demi Moore) looks down from her lighthouse one morning in the Outer Banks and knows -- having seen a double-tailed comet the night before -- that the next man she sees is the man she'll marry. Imagine her surprise when the first man turns out to be fat New York butcher named Leo (George Dzunda).

As it turns out, Dzundza is a wonderful actor -- he was truly demonic in Kevin Reynolds' "The Beast" a few years back -- but he's completely unmanned by a part that turns him into a large, hairless teddy bear. Without a whelp of protest he agrees to marry Moore on the spot and takes her back to his little neighborhood butcher shop in a friendly New York that hasn't existed since father knew best.

There we meet the rondelet of mismatches: hunk shrink Jeff Daniels and soap-opera actress Margaret Colin, isolated blues-lady and secret chanteuse Mary Steenburgen by herself; and lonely lesbian Frances MacDormand, also by herself.

Once Moore realizes that nobody is where they should be and everybody is where they shouldn't, she sets about to recombine them, assisted in large part by her uncanny and unconvincing ability to make "predictions," a magic trick that has no validity in -- movies and proves only that she's read the script.

However unconvincing the gimmick, her performance comes unhinged on a number of other strange choices. The hair. Why, the hair? Does she really think blondes have more fun? There's no evidence on screen.

But there she is, in somebody else's hair and somebody else's voice. It's actually Dolly Parton's hair and Dolly Parton's accent and you keep waiting for her to belt out "Jolene," which would be an improvement. But no -- she just slinks around barefoot (in New York?) issuing some Hollywood hack's down-home version of Southern dialect and generally humiliating herself.

As for Daniels, he's no better or worse than he always is, which is another way of saying . . . he is exactly the same. If you've seen one Jeff Daniels performance, you've seen the Daniels oeuvre in toto. Of the principals, only Steenburgen manages to manufacture the requisite enchantment. Somebody should make a movie about her, but I suppose they never will, because she wasn't in "Ghost."

'The Butcher's Wife'

Starring Demi Moore and Jeff Daniels.

Directed by Terry Hughes.

Released by Paramount.


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