'Housesitter': lying as an art form

June 12, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

'Housesitter'

Starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn.

Directed by Frank Oz.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG.

***

Do us all a favor and don't tell Dan Quayle about "Housesitter."

It's not exactly the "family values" picture of the year. In fact, its ultimate message to a concerned America is: When in doubt, tell a lie. If caught, tell another one. If you tell enough of them, you'll get what you want. (Only a Hollywood producer could believe that, by the way, and indeed, a Hollywood producer thought the story up.)

This is the universe of anti-morality. All good deeds are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Love is savaged. Lying, as an art and as a form of affirmative action, is always rewarded. The truly psychopathic liar, untrammeled by fears of discovery, is the true queen of the place. The quiet glee of complete subversion runs through it.

Why, I'm shocked, shocked. Ever the guardian of public morality, I'd denounce it if I had the energy, but I spent my energy laughing so hard that I haven't enough left to climb into the pulpit.

Steve Martin plays a somewhat feckless, sublimated Boston architect named Newton Davis, who, foolish romantic twit that he is, builds a dream house for the woman he's loved since a child. When he asks her to marry him and offers up the dwelling as a Taj Mahal to his undying love, she says no. He is therefore stuck with one dream house, decaying majestically in a Massachusetts glen.

In the city a few days later, he bumbles into a meeting with a waitress named Gwen (Goldie Hawn), bumbles further into her bed and, waking in the middle of the night, bumbles out of it, ashamed. She is not the most stable of personalities and manages to figure out from clues where the "dream house" is. For reasons that only the truly unstable can appreciate, the next logical step to her is to move in and tell everybody -- his family, his ex-girlfriend, his neighbors -- that she is his wife. She has no qualms or tremors, no twitches of doubt or meltdowns of confidence. She just wings ever onward.

The movie takes unhealthy pleasure in fable-spinning, particularly as it engulfs the trusting fools of this earth and particularly as the fables spun become more outrageous. The residents of Dobbs Mill, Mass., are so good-hearted and have such a wholesome view of human nature that their victimization becomes a deep guilty pleasure of the film. As Hawn inflates souffle after souffle of fiction, the townspeople gobble it up, and ask for more. It just goes to show: You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but if you're moderately psychotic, you can fool everybody all the time.

But the real core of the humor is Martin's pathetic absorption by this lifestyle, as hooked on the barb of his own greed. He sees that it is to his advantage to play along with Hawn because it might win back for him, on the principle of jealousy, the woman he thinks he loves, Dana Delany, a scrawny WASP twig in Villager clothes who looks as though she hasn't but a thimbleful of blood left in her veins.

He may be the worst liar since Alex Hawkins told his wife he'd spent the night in the hammock and she told him she'd taken the hammock down two weeks earlier and he replied, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it." Each new Hawn invention takes him further into unknown waters; his panic flappity-flaps through his limbs, a tide of liar's phlegm rises in his throat, his pupils dilate to pinpricks, yet he forces himself to play along, mindful of the goal at the end.

The movie moves him with adroit cruelty from ordeal to ordeal as a kind of rite of passage, until he can pass the full test of insincerity by singing, in front of hundreds, a cornball Irish love song to his feared and loathed father (Donald Moffat), as tears of desperate doubt course down his eyes (the audience mistakes them for genuine). It's a gut-busting moment, perhaps the pinnacle of Martin's screen career, certainly his best moment since the famous going-to-the-bathroom scene in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Of course it's no surprise that the nasty director of "Scoundrels," Frank Oz, is guiding this concoction of malice along likewise. What do you expect from a man who used to work under a pig? was the puppeteer literally beneath Miss Piggy.) His sensibility is to be treasured; it never met a man it liked and it has nothing nice to say about anybody. It should sit next to me, always.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.