Just Between Friends

January 15, 2013

justbetweenfriendsJust Between Friends seeks to be this year’s Terms of Endearment—last year it was Twice in a Lifetime, you’ll remember—with a similar mix of ordinary people facing up to both ordinary and extraordinary situations.

It’s certainly got the right pedigree. Just Between Friends was written and directed by Allan Burns, who, like Oscar-winner James L. Brooks of Terms, was a staff writer on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burns clearly hopes to strike gold in the same mine.

But Just Between Friends is a strangely flat movie, lazily paced and without many distinguishing characteristics. You can sense Burns trying to wrench it into something more interesting, by throwing in an unexpected death here, a surprise pregnancy there, but the concoction refuses to jell.

It’s about a woman (Mary Tyler Moore, in a tailor-made role) whose neat, ordered life is brightened by a friend she meets at aerobics class (Christine Lahti). What Moore doesn’t know is that her seismologist husband (Ted Danson, of “Cheers”) is having an affair with Lahti.

When Moore invites her new friend over to have dinner, predictable hysteria ensues, as Lahti and Danson uncomfortably discover their mutual acquaintance.

Lahti decides to call off the affair, Danson isn’t sure, Moore stays in the dark—until, that is, the day she looks through her husband’s office and discovers a dime-store photo of Danson and Lahti together.

The film gets more serious as it goes along, although Burns has the good sense to insert a comic scene now and again. And his situation is valid enough, but his languid pace and utterly dull visual scheme damage the impact of the story.

The film was pretty clearly commissioned for Mary Tyler Moore, and Burns knows how to write funny “Mary” scenes, including a reference to her character’s past as a dancer, when she was a dancing peanut in a TV commercial (part of Moore’s actual dues-paying, if I remember correctly).

Moore’s only problem, as it was in Ordinary People, is that she tends to treat her big dramatic moments as—well, big dramatic moments. She loses her subtlety when called upon to emote.

Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for Swing Shift, provides some welcome bite. Just as she stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, so does she grab our attention here. Her performance is more offbeat than Moore’s.

Danson, a likable, light leading man, is oddly unfocused, as though he wished he were getting some direction. Sam Waterston is steady as Danson’s best friend, who harbors a not-particularly-secret affection for Moore.

It’s a perfectly honorable try. There’s nothing cheap about the film’s emotion-tugging. The actors try valiantly to breathe some life into the proceedings, but ultimately the company can’t life the film above the level of a better-than-average TV movie.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1986

I was flicking across channels the other night and came upon the sight of Mary Tyler Moore saying “fuck,” which is, I think we can agree, something that stops you in your tracks. I sat there thinking What the hell is this? and finally figured out that it must be Just Between Friends, a movie I had forgotten all about, for reasons that should be evident from the tone of the review.


Swing Shift

July 20, 2012

Have you ever found yourself sitting on the edge of your seat watching a movie—not because the movie is exciting, but because you’re waiting for it to start? Even when you’re still waiting for it to start after it’s been running for an hour or two?

Somehow, if you lean forward, you can have the feeling you’re going to help the film get in gear. I have found, however, that it doesn’t work that way. The actors might be amiable, the situation might be intriguing, the locations might be beautiful. But, lean all you want, the film just won’t click.

I was doing a lot of leaning during Swing Shift. Here’s a movie with a lot to recommend it: watchable onscreen people, a talented young director, and a potentially rich milieu. But something went wrong with Swing Shift. It suffers from a fundamental lack of focus. There’s no clear answer to the question: What is this movie about?

In simple plot terms, it’s about a meek wife (Goldie Hawn) left behind during World War II. Hubby (Ed Harris) is serving in the Pacific, so Goldie takes a job at the local airplane factory, along with her next-door neighbor (Christine Lahti). Also working there is a trumpet player (Kurt Russell) with whom Goldie will have an affair.

What the movie really consists of is a rather shapeless series of episodes in the lives of the three workers. Part of it is about Goldie’s consciousness-raising. Part of it is about the romance. Part of it is about the friendship between the two women. Part of it is about the women gaining respect in the male-dominated workplace.

There is much to enjoy in all of these parts, thanks to the likability of the actors and director Jonathan Demme’s feeling for the material. One of Demme’s strengths, in films such as Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard, is in taking a bittersweet, generous view of humankind by looking at ordinary people in a deceptively loose, no-sweat style.

Swing Shift, although it takes place over four years, should have a leaner, straighter shape than, say, Melvin and Howard. But the movie seems disjointed and fuzzily-conceived.

Take Lahti’s boyfriend (Fred Ward), for instance. The character drifts in and out of the movie, but we haven’t really gotten to know him enough to care about his enigmatic leave-takings.

For that matter, Goldie’s entry into self-awareness is achieved somewhat abruptly. We see a montage of her beginning to hold her own at the factory, and suddenly she’s working her way up the managerial ladder. Some of the jumps in narrative make you suspect that perhaps a portion of the film ended up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe it’s part of the explanation for the film’s odd shape.

The much-publicized behind-the-scenes romance between Hawn and Russell doesn’t really spice up the love scenes, although both players are in good form. It’s Christine Lahti who really walks away with the movie, as the smart, sexy, sympathetic best friend. A combination of intelligence and high cheekbones, Lahti seems very much due for a starring vehicle of her own.

First published in the Herald, April 1984

There seems to be some debate about whether Demme’s original cut (he was involved in the re-shoots, too) survives and is watchable. But the release version certainly goes flat.


June 17, 2011

We have come to identify director Bill Forsyth with the gently peculiar comedy of films such as Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl, and Comfort and Joy. Those movies, and their wonderfully skewed, bittersweet way of seeing, qualified Scotsman Forsyth as one of the current cinema’s most cherishable creators.

We might have suspected that when Forsyth turned his attention to more serious material, his view would be equally offbeat. His newest film is an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and the subject matter is perfectly pitched to Forsyth’s interests: The theme is eccentricity.

The main characters are two adolescent sisters, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill). Orphaned by their mother’s suicide, they take up residence in the fictional town of Fingerbone, somewhere in the wilderness of Washington state (filmed in Nelson, British Columbia, which also served as the setting for Roxanne). This gorgeous location provides the backdrop for the incidents that haunt their imaginations; such as Fingerbone Lake, which serves as a grave for the passengers of a train that went off track and broke through the ice one long-ago winter, or the mountains that drew their famously restless grandfather to the area.

Here they are joined by their Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti, of Swing Shift), and she is the vehicle for the eccentricity.

Aunt Sylvie is different. Her behavior seems slyly whimsical at times; she happily watches television through her neighbor’s window, she collects stacks of newspapers for no discernable reason, and she’s liable to say such subliminally odd things as, “I love traveling by train—especially in the passenger car.”

But Aunt Sylvie is not one of those terminally cute characters who waltz into a child’s life and contrive to change it. She is a darker creation entirely, a perpetual wanderer and outsider who sometimes frightens her teenage charges. At the heart of her, there is something restless and disturbed, although she is caring toward her nieces.

Her presence affects the girls. Lucille, bright and outgoing, is embarrassed by Sylvie’s behavior; she can’t understand why their aunt enjoys sleeping on a park bench in the middle of the day. The more introspective Ruth begins to gravitate toward Sylvie’s method of choosing the road not taken. Their split is exemplified in Lucille’s destruction of some dry flowers preserved in a book. Pragmatic Lucille can’t see the value in a bunch of dead flowers; soulful Ruth looks on in horror.

Housekeeping is a strange movie, in sympathy with those who are drawn to “life’s other side,” in Woody Guthrie’s phrase. But Forsyth refuses to romanticize the call of the road and cry of the train whistle; the stakes are high, the consequences are potentially dangerous. You can’t help but imagine a difficult future for Sylvie and Ruth as they follow their wanderlust; the film’s superb last shot does not present an easy resolution.

But it is natural that Forsyth should cast his feelings with the eccentrics; an indulgence for peculiarity informs his films (provides his governing stylistic method, in fact), and he usually sides with outsiders. At one point the straight-ahead Lucille tells her sisters, “You spend too much time looking out of windows,” as the real world passes. This is a film for people who look out of windows.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

Bill Forsyth: A man who made some lovely films and then apparently got disillusioned with the whole thing. And yet rotten people get movies made all the time. I have to say I have not seen this film since it came out, which is a bummer for me, and it has been gently forgotten in a general way out there. Will a Criterion release change all that? It could, but people say that about dozens of movies (Criterion is the genie’s lamp for cinephiles), and mostly it doesn’t go that way.