'The Cemetery Club': a love story buried just as it reached its prime

February 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There's too much sound and not enough fury in "The Cemetery Club." It can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a love story about a widow and a widower who fight through class differences and the prejudices of friends to have a mutually satisfying relationship, or a Neil Simon roadshow full of zippy one-liners to keep cheap seats tittering.

So, basically, it just doesn't work.

Of the two themes, I much preferred the first. Ellen Burstyn and Danny Aiello are two performers who have always carried with them an unusual patina of authenticity, and as they grope toward this thing called love they're quite impressive.

Burstyn is the widow of a prosperous music store owner; her life has been wonderful, genteel and filled with love; she has a beautiful Tudor home (inside it looks like the Hasty Pudding Club) in one of Pittsburgh's tonier suburbs. Aiello, on the other hand, is an ex-cop, a much rougher sort of guy, with a kind of chaotic personal life behind him, including a late-in-life seven-year marriage. The two meet in the cemetery where their spouses are neighbors.

That far, that good. The two performers are delicate, awkward and convincing; they really do a good job of getting at the terrific shyness and vulnerability that two long-time marrieds would feel when bumbling toward their first post-marital relationships.

But then . . . ladies and gentleman, it's show time! The crass edge of professional show business completely destroys the delicacy of the piece by clubbing it to bits with a big shtick. Playwright-screenwriter Ivan Menchell thinks he's the young Neil Simon. Please! One Neil Simon is enough! He gives Burstyn's two friends, played by Olympia Dukakis and Diane Ladd, the kind of phony, quippy patter that needs a rim shot from the drummer to make it work. It's so cheesy.

It seems that the three women have buried their husbands and formed a loose survivors confederation. The problem they deal with is preserving their beloved hubby's memories but getting on with their lives. This they handle by cracking wise. Such quips, I'm telling you. Billy Crystal, they're not, if you know what I mean. Take this script . . . please.

The film is so front-loaded with coarse ethnic stereotyping that had the playwright been named Von Bruckner or Ritzenhaus instead of Menchell, B'Nai B'rith would go nuts, and rightly so; one more joke about vulgar Jews stuffing themselves at weddings and I would have bolted the theater into the next one down the line where . . . AGGGGHHHH!! . . . "Used People" was playing. Are we talking double feature or what?

"The Cemetery Club"

Starring Ellen Burstyn and Danny Aiello.

Directed by Bill Duke.

Released by Disney.

Rated PG.

... **

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