Making Mr. Right

April 18, 2012

Making Mr. Right carries all the funky earmarks of a New Wave comedy; it’s full of bright Miami colors, hip turns of phrase, and wacky fashion. Just what you would expect, in fact, from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman.

Seidelman revels in trash chic. But for all her ’80s credentials, Seidelman has now filmed a pair of stories that recall nothing so much as the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Making Mr. Right is like a classical old structure jammed to the rafters with rubber chickens and X-Ray specs.

It’s all about the perfect man: Ulysses, an android created for long-term space flight. He performs human functions, and (this is a plus) he lacks the feelings that would create loneliness on a long voyage.

The only thing Ulysses needs is public relations; the flimsy plot excuse is that this will make him attractive to members of Congress who can fund the project. So his creators hire a public-relations expert (Ann Magnuson) to make the android cuddly.

This leads to the predictable conclusion that Ulysses begins to develop feelings for this human woman, thus short-circuiting his supposed heartlessness.

There are a bunch of nutty sidebars to this, including the woman’s erstwhile boyfriend, a politician (Ben Masters), and her oversexed girlfriend (Glenn Headley, in a very funny performance) who introduces Ulysses to the joys of uncomplicated sex. Except that sex becomes complicated for Ulysses, because it makes his systems overload and his head rotate.

And of course there’s a lot of fish-out-of water stuff with Ulysses’ discovery of the outside world (he’s been cooped up in a research lab). His rovings through a modern mall provide the most amusing adventures.

John Malkovich, who plays both Ulysses and the android’s egghead inventor, is a gifted actor. He isn’t a conventional leading man, but he is inventive; in the early scenes of Ulysses’ education, he uncannily recreates the look and movements of an infant. All the performances are good, notably Ann Magnuson, who has just the right combination of smarts and adorability.

It’s a charming little movie. But Seidelman’s heart doesn’t quite seem in the machinations of the screwball plot. She can’t quite resolve the split: Her attitude is Andy Warhol, but her story is Frank Capra. For instance, a wedding scene puts all the principals together, and begs for comic collisions. Seidelman gets the tacky look right, but the scene barely touches the possibilities.

She’s better at catching little offbeat details: a wedding picture taken in front of a painted seaside backdrop, which is perched in front of a real seaside; Magnuson shaving in the car on the way to work—her legs and underarms, that is; and poor lovestruck Ulysses getting a dreamy look in his undreaming eyes as he sighs, “I guess I’m just not interested in space travel anymore.”

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1987

By “New Wave,” of course, I refer to the cultural movement of the 1980s, not a cinematic cycle from France or any such place. I’m too far away from the movie to know whether I was right about Seidelman being closer to the downtown hipster world than the spirit of screwball, but I will say that her 2005 film Boynton Beach Club was a warm and generous comedy about the sex lives of older people that didn’t condescend to its subject.