A Sorry Affair

A dull script trumps star power in `Town and Country,' turning a tale of infidelity into a comic mess.

April 27, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Once again, the giant Hollywood star machine has labored mightily and coughed up a mouse - or at best, Warren Beatty in a polar bear suit.

He's cute in the suit, like a baggy-pants version of the polar bears in the yuletide Coca-Cola commercials. He should have played the whole picture that way. For Beatty doesn't have a naturally engaging comic spirit. He didn't in those duds everyone has forgotten, like "The Fortune," or in the one no one will forget, "Ishtar," or even in his fading-from-memory hit, "Heaven Can Wait."

In "Town and Country," Warren Beatty can't fall back on playing "Warren Beatty," the rake who turned domestic; he's playing an Alan Alda role from 1978, the solid family man who has a fling or two. This movie wants to be every marital farce rolled into one, but with Beatty as the famous, wealthy architect who turns unfaithful after 25 years of marriage to Diane Keaton, the screwball never gets rolling.

This admirably fit leading man with the trademark perplexed expressions lies back and lets Nastassja Kinski and Goldie Hawn and Andie MacDowell and Jenna Elfman throw themselves at him. He's a blob at the center of a mess.

Before we get to know anything about Beatty's character, we see him in bed watching Kinski, a musician, stroke her cello while nude. He tells us in voiceover that he knows he's making a mistake, but when the action zips to his and Keaton's Paris anniversary party, with their best friends, Hawn and Garry Shandling, we must take it on faith that Beatty's marriage means a lot to him. (Shandling is a successful antique dealer, and Hawn his knockout of a "housewife.")

The film whizzes lifelessly among a half-dozen eye-popping locations. Keaton (as an award-winning fabric designer) and Beatty live in a palatial apartment on Central Park and a big house in the Hamptons. Director Peter Chelsom and writers Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry take pains to establish the apartment as a slaphappy multi-ethnic habitat: The full-time maid lives with a Latin revolutionary, the daughter's sleep-in boyfriend Omar speaks no English, and the son's girlfriend feels free to show off her pierced tongue. They barely get one funny moment per character out of all this.

What's worse, not even Keaton's native exuberance can suggest that this marriage is anything more than an ultra-comfortable arrangement. Her character is as distracted as Beatty's - albeit by a design competition rather than extramarital amour.

The comic pinwheels supposedly start spinning when Hawn spies Shandling with a redheaded woman. Only the audience sees that this fiery gal is actually a transvestite; it takes the rest of the cast an hour and a half to find out that Shandling's character is gay.

The narrative engine has no spark plug. Hawn simply gets tipped to Shandling's cheating by an unseen caller. Keaton is so confident in her own rock-like hubby's honor that she sends him down South to help Hawn inspect a home. Lust ensues. On their return, Keaton is tipped to Beatty's cheating (with Kinski, not with Hawn) - again, by an unseen caller. You know you're in shaky hands when a film resorts twice so early on to "deus ex cell phone."

Is the film called "Town and Country" simply in homage to the magazine? The same thing happens to Beatty in both kinds of locales: Pheromones break out all over, whether in the form of Hawn or MacDowell as a wacky daddy's girl or Elfman as a bait-and-tackle shop owner.

The movie tries and fails to conjure the illusion of a high life where Beatty can meet MacDowell flying first class to Mississippi and then just run into her at a ski lodge in Sun Valley. Still, when he and Shandling go to Sun Valley to clear their heads, their Idaho interlude is brisk and has some laughs. Elfman acts snappy and looks great dressing as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween, when Beatty gets to wear his bear suit. And Charlton Heston pulls off a hearty self-caricature as MacDowell's rifle-toting, Papa Hemingway-loving papa.

Still, rather than develop momentum, the movie simply adds and drops sexpots or eccentrics like so many pick-up sticks. When the many women in Beatty's life end up in the same ladies room, all the filmmakers can think of for them to do is suggest treatments for the wine stain on Keaton's white suit.

The movie undercuts itself throughout. Beatty mounts a Clintonian self-defense to Keaton before coming clean; his rambling about independent counsels and special prosecutors is meant to be pathetic and insane. Yet the only general push behind this picture is to get out the Clintonian message that partners should accept each other's imperfections.

By the time Beatty and Keaton play a scene that convinces us their marriage should be saved, it's too late - they're talking to their divorce lawyer and the movie has been languishing in limbo.

The surprise behind "Town and Country" isn't that the director started filming without a finished script, but that he ever thought he had the start of one.

`Town and Country'

Starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Garry Shandling, Goldie Hawn, Andie MacDowell, Jenna Elfman and Nastassja Kinski

Directed by Peter Chelsom

Rated R (language and sexuality)

Released by New Line Cinema

Running time 98 minutes

Sun score: * 1/2

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