'The Favor' is flighty farce that is, sadly, too familiar

April 29, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

You've seen "The Favor" maybe a million times, but never quite from this angle. Usually -- the world being what it is, and Hollywood being what it is -- it's told from the male point of view. Once upon a time it was called "The Seven Year Itch," and it was about a middle-age man whose fires had cooled and who felt the urge to look outside the marriage contract for a quick taste of flesh to convince himself that he was still alive.

Now it's women -- wives and mothers, even -- who can admit to that secret longing for the validation of a new partner's body, even if only for a night. That's the thrust of "The Favor," which begins in a married woman's dream of longing and proceeds to work out permutations from it in a key of farce. The movie isn't very dangerous: Like all the ones that preceded it, it climaxes with the wanderer realizing that home, hearth, kids and mortgage responsibilities are far more meaningful than a hard-bodied new lover. ZZZZZZZZZZ.

The movie, more of the flotsam of the ruined Orion Studio, has a curiously dated feel to it, as it is only popping to the surface now, when it was made in 1990. Unlike wine, it has not aged particularly well. For one thing, its feminism feels curiously meek. For another, it insists that Harley Jane Kozak, who became briefly famous after "Parenthood," has the stuff to be a movie star. Unfortunately, too much of Kozak's performance is gross face-making rather than acting. She distances us with her dithering, rather than drawing us in to make us care about her dilemma.

We start in her dream of consummating her unconsummated relationship with her high school quarterback boyfriend. But even that's a little smarmy, because in the dream she plays her 30-something self, and the object of her desire is just a kid. Anyway, in the movie's best moment (alas, in minute three), she is jarred from her sleep by her daughter. It develops that she's married to a nice-guy math professor (perennial nice guy Bill Pullman), who isn't exactly a great big American sex machine. His idea of foreplay: to play the harmonica. On a harmonica.

What tantalizes her more than the mere memory of a tryst that went un-trysted (no tryst and shout for her!) is the counter-life of her best friend, Elizabeth McGovern (also a near-star in 1990), a single woman who has had many lovers. So the movie is sited at the edge of the great abyss that separates the singled from the married, and from which each gazes longingly at the lifestyle of the other.

Its first twist is provocative. Kozak learns that the ex-boyfriend is in Denver and implores McGovern to go there and look him up, just to feel his proximity vicariously, without risking anything. Of course McGovern does more than look him up, a development that causes a nuclear envy bomb to detonate somewhere in Kozak's deep cerebellum. But then the movie gets cute.

The themes the film has invoked, it just as quickly abandons, as it pursues the who's-on-first whirligig of farce, with misunderstood eavesdroppings, people running in and racing out of rooms and missing each other by fractions of seconds -- all of it laborious, all of it wheezy, none of it particularly funny. The other players are Pullman, McGovern's hunky boyfriend, Brad Pitt (that blasted younger man thing again, which obviously doesn't threaten me one *$#*#! bit!), and Ken Wahl as the ex-QB turned into full-time pig man.

There's not much more to say except that Pullman has played one nice guy too many. He ought to get a role as a psycho-killer with a whole closet full of .44 Magnums, or he's going to find himself subbing for Mr. Rogers.

"The Favor"

Starring Harley Jane Kozak and Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by Donald Petrie

Released by Orion

R-rated

**

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