'Summer House' has a fine foundation, but one too many stories

December 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The producers of "The Summer House" are comparing it to "Enchanted April," the breakout art hit of last year, for the usual mercenary reason: by capitalizing on the magic of "April," perhaps they can goose "Summer" into some kind of vivid commercial life.

Who can blame them? That's what producers do. That's why they're producers.

But the contrasts are far more telling than the comparisons. Where "Enchanted" was gossamer and romantic, "Summer House" is raunchy and coarse. It's not a dream of love, an encomium about seizing the moment before passion flees, but something a good deal thornier: a dirty joke.

It's set in the dreary English suburbs of the '50s, amid elaborate wedding plans that are acquiring the momentum not only of propriety but also the sheer ingot-dense weight of a mother's fondest wishes for her daughter.

Lovely 20-year-old Margaret (Lena Headey) is about to marry Syl (David Threlfall), which everybody agrees will be just swell. The fact that Syl is a dreary bachelor of 40, self-important and petty in small, irritating ways, seems to bother no one, except Margaret. But who cares about her? Events take on their own thrust, and mother (Julie Walters) is so excited about the nuptials she blithely pushes aside Margaret's confession that she doesn't love Syl. "Oh, what do you know?" she says.

Enter, stage right, accompanied by the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning, Aunt Lili. Think of Rosalind Russell's Mame, Carol Channing's Dolly or Beatrice Arthur's Maude. Or, just think of Jeanne Moreau.

Ah! La Moreau! Charming, sensual, imperious, smoking like the stacks of Gary, Ind. As theatrical as Truman Capote and $H Tennessee Williams at a drag ball, she's less a woman than a force of nature. Who could stand against her magnifique forces of femininity and intuition? So it is Moreau's Aunt Lili who takes one look at the misery into which Margaret is being consigned and says, this shall not happen.

One formidable obstacle in her path is Syl's mother, played by another force of nature, Joan Plowright. Oh boy, you think, this is going to be good: It's like the Monitor and the Merrimac squaring off at Hampton Roads.

But one of the movie's most delirious surprises, which I hereby ruin (it comes too early to preserve; plus, there's a much better one at the end, I promise) is that Plowright's Mrs. Monro has also figured out what a mistake Margaret is making to marry her lunk of a son.

So that's the movie, almost: Lili and Mrs. Monro merrily conspiring to derail the wedding as it approaches, knowing that they and they alone have the boldness to bring it off. They wage a wonderful campaign, particularly the great Moreau, whose ultimate solution to the problem, in the film's last seconds, qualifies "The Summer House" for the movie with the absolutely best ending of the year. It is a delicious gambit that only one such as Moreau could bring off.

But when I say, "That's the movie," you'll note I add, "almost." There is a perplexing subplot in which young Margaret recalls her romantic entanglement the summer before in Egypt. This one is a little hard to figure out, and, turning grotesque, somewhat diffuses the prankish spirit of the piece. Why is it there? This I cannot say.

"The Summer House"

Starring Jeanne Moreau and Joan Plowright

Directed by Waris Hussein

Relesed by Goldwyn

No rating

***

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