'Used People' squawk, blather and resolve things in Queens

January 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Horrible old aunts sometimes pinch the cheeks of children to make them rosy for photographers. I thought of that in "Used People," not because it's full of horrible old aunts -- although it is -- but because each character seems to have had his or her

cheeks pinched by the director.

Everybody has been brought to the fullest red-cheeked bloom of "character" and behaves with madcap zaniness throughout. There's not a moment of stillness or repose: It's all squawk and blather or tinpot tragedies playing out in badly decorated living rooms. It's one of those extended "magic" family things, full of spats and reconciliations, shrieks and giggles, slaps and hugs, as set against the glorious Camelot of Queens in the summer of 1969, when the Mets were heroically scrambling for their magic pennant.

Yeah, right. To begin with, stuff the Mets.

The central issue involves Pearl Berman and her daffily tragic divorced daughters. One is fat, and Pearl doesn't mind saying so. The other, having lost a child, is busy imitating the movie stars of 1969 while her only surviving child drifts off into madness. Meanwhile, Pearl, who's just buried a husband, is being romantically pursued by an aging Italian Lothario.

The keynote emotion is meant to be "warmth." Over the long course of the film (two very long hours), Pearl learns warmth and forgiveness as her own heart is thawed from chilliness to the temperature of a pot roast. And who plays Pearl? Excuse me, but it's Shirley MacLaine.

Shirley MacLaine! Wow, whatta concept. Fresh from Los Vegas, it's Shirley MacLaine as Pearl Berman! In truth, MacLaine the actress isn't as grotesque as MacLaine the concept. She's in icy control -- regally beautiful and imperious even if her Queens accent is pretty much a sometime thing. (The daughters are played by Kathy Bates and Marcia Gay Hardin, and compared to them, MacLaine seems like Molly Goldberg!)

The director, disappointingly, is the Beeban Kidron who made such a wondrous debut in "Antonia and Jane," a witty British film about the competitive friendship between two private-school young women. It had exactly the kind of verve and edge that this stew of family bromides and coarse ethnic stereotyping lacks. I grew tired of being asked to snicker at old Jewish men squabbling about the best way to get through New York traffic.

The Italian suitor is played by the great Marcello Mastroianni, so cosmopolitan and urbane in most appearances, but here a soul of simple sincerity. He's the best thing in the movie.

One of the most unsettling things about the picture is the stale way the script pushes each character through the same arc: comic bad behavior, emotional meltdown, self-forgiveness and miracle regeneration. As always in movies and never in life, everything is neatly settled in time for the next show. It is to drama as cheese whip is to cheese: all bright artificial colors and textureless.

"Used People"

Starring Shirley MacLaine and Marcello Mastroianni.

Directed by Beeban Kidron.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

R-rated.

** 1/2

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