'Mistress,' at times an amusing glimpse at film culture, lacks necessary edge

MOVIE REVIEW

December 05, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Mistress," which plays for the weekend at the Charles, i "The Player" without the edge -- that is to say, without the reason for existing. Edge is everything in these matters.

It's an occasionally amusing look at film culture, which watches as a small-time producer and a wannabe director, probably too sensitive for the game, try to hustle three wealthy men into putting up some dough for their marginal production. Their central ploy is to offer the rich guys' mistresses fat parts in the film, whether it needs it or not.

Of course that's only the first meaning in the title: the second is that art is the true mistress of the piece and our hero, the feckless Robert Wuhl playing the director, just isn't quite man enough to bed her. He tries, but those damned philistines just won't let him. The movie invites us to shudder at his victimization.

This is really quite irritating. In fact it's genuinely annoying. The movie is constructed on the vaguest of whimsies, which is that the original movie that poor Wuhl wants to make (it's called, preciously, "The Darkness and the Light," or, possibly, "The Light and the Darkness") is worth the effort. I don't think so: it's a grotesquely sentimentalized fable about an artist who doesn't want to compromise and ultimately commits suicide and turns out to have a special nugget of meaning for this dolorous slugabed, since one of his actors once committed suicide. My bet is that the guy had read the script!

"Mistress" is at its most amusing before it makes the mistake of getting serious. It watches as Martin Landau, unctuous and shallow but somehow goofily good-hearted as the producer, tries to navigate the irksome Wuhl script into reality by schmoozing a trio of truly revolting men who are special only because each has a few million bucks. The three are played by Eli Wallach, Danny Aiello and Robert De Niro (whose company Tribecca Films produced "Mistress"), each in a high pitch of oily sleaze and grumpiness and they are far too good for the movie they find themselves in.

It's pretty funny to watch as compromise-master Landau sells out Wuhl's wispy construction to the director's utter squealing horror; but as the process continues and the movie project swims toward reality, Wuhl gets with the compromising himself, and how. But unfortunately for everyone, Wuhl has a crises of conscience and, like the typical passive-aggressive he is, sabotages his own shot a success. This is a tragedy? I think it's a blessing in disguise.

'MISTRESS'

Starring Martin Landau and Robert Wuhl.

Directed by Barry Primus.

Released by Tribecca Films.

Rated R.

... **

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