With 'Peter's Friends,' contracting a big chill on a British estate

January 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Friends like Peter's might compel a cynic to say: Give loneliness a chance.

A British-American "dramady" opening today at the Charles for three weeks, "Peter's Friends" is a blend of shticky American show-biz humor and treacly Brit melodrama. It's "Masterpiece Theater" as written by Shecky Greene.

Not far from the truth, actually: It's the work of co-writers (and co-stars and co-producers and co-spouses) Rita Rudner (American comic) and her husband Martin Bergman (British producer). I'm only guessing, but I'd bet the Bergmans have seen "The Big Chill" more than once.

The set-up is a Big Chilly scene in winter. At a newly inherited country estate, a sexually ambiguous aristocrat named Peter (Stephen Fry) invites his close college chums from the decade before to celebrate the new year. Each shows up dragging the baggage of his or her life: a wife, a husband, a boyfriend, a drinking problem, a case of sexual frustration, the ghost of a dead child and so forth.

The camera follows this merry crew over a long weekend full of blabbering nostalgia, reverses and soliloquies, miracle cures and full-bore tilts at the windmill of despair. Kenneth Branagh, who has been called the new Orson Welles, mostly by himself, directed, and it's a far livelier job than he brought off in his brain-defunct "Dead Again" and his preserved-under-glass "Henry V."

He also appears in the film (as he always does) as husband of the movie's principal comic attraction: Rudner herself as a "Roseanne"-type American television star, obnoxious, spoiled and demanding. Poor Ken's a bit of a sozzle, his bright light gone out under a decade of hard drinking and self-hatred. He had once been a promising playwright, but he was lured to Hollywood, where he has become a somewhat less-than-successful writer and Rudner arm-piece.

Others include a hopelessly inept book editor named Maggie (Emma Thompson) who has failed entirely to find a mate; a sexually promiscuous actress (Alphonsia Emmanuel) with her married boyfriend; and a married couple (Imelda Stanton, who was so good in "Antonia and Jane" and is wasted here, and Hugh Laurie) who write jingles for a handsome living, though they haven't recovered from the death of a twin.

Assuming that each screenwriter contributed what he or she knew best, Rudner is much funnier than her husband is serious. The movie feels slightly at war with itself, as one very good half of it is about a vain and hilariously callow American television star stuck in the middle of the frosty moors with a bunch of dour, hysterical Brits. The other, not quite so good half is about a bunch of dour, hysterical Brits who have suddenly aged a decade and haven't much to show for all that promise back at Cambridge.

Rudner is the find. She looks like Liza Minnelli on steroids, a great, fleshy abundance of woman, delicate yet vast, with eyes like jujubes and the best drop-dead comic timing this side of Bob Hope. She easily outperforms the next biggest person in the cast, Branagh's real-life wife Emma Thompson, made to play the foolish book editor and wholly unable to rise above the foolishness.

Still, "Peter's Friends" is easy enough to watch. I only wish it were as easy to listen to. Alas, some smart guy, having noted the success of the "Big Chill Soundtrack," has tried to duplicate that gold mine by affixing a brassy, brazen and completely inappropriate melange of American pop tunes to the film that overdoses on irony and amplification.

And one more thing: Who the hell is nostalgic for the Eighties anyway?

"Peter's Friends"

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson and Rita Rudner.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Released by Goldwyn.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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