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'Men . . . ,' Wry Germany Comedy, Takes A Walk On The Wilder Side

August 20, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

It's tempting to describe "Men . . . " ( Fine Arts) as one of Billy Wilder's best, so much is it in the spirit of his wry wit and wisdom. But it's the work of young and talented West German film maker Doris Dorrie, and while it could be taken as an homage to Wilder, it's very much her own. (See related story below on Dorrie.)

What's more, it's hard to imagine any man, even Wilder, to be quite so amusingly detached about the foibles of the male sex. Quite apart from the maker's gender, and the film's nationality, "Men . . . " is one of the funniest, shrewdest comedies of the year.

It's the eve of the 12th wedding anniversary of Munich advertising executive Julius Armbrust (Heiner Lauterbach), and his pretty blond wife, Paula (Ulrike Kriener), unintentionally presents him with a wholly unexpected present: a love bite on her neck, proof of her infidelity. A firm upholder of the double standard, Armbrust is devastated, no matter how much his wife stresses that it's just a casual affair that has nothing to do with him.

"Men . . . " turns upon Julius' snap decision to find out where he went wrong by discovering what the competition has that he hasn't. In no time he's using his vacation to drop out and become the roommate of his unsuspecting wife's lover.

Talk about the Odd Couple. The lover, Stefan (Uwe Ochsenknecht), turns out to have stringy blond hair and lives la vie boheme in a quaint garret above a punk club in what looks to be Munich's Schwabing district. Stefan, who seems as self-sufficient as Julius is dependent, is steeped in '60s anti-materialist cant and talks about the need "to center yourself." At first, Julius seems to be indulging in masochism, as he listens in pain whenever Julius mentions Paula, but a friendship--or at least a male bond--gradually develops between the two men. And then Julius hits upon a singularly clever idea about to how to win back his wife, which is too much the cream of the jest to reveal here.

On one level, "Men . . . " is an inspired behavioral comedy, sprinkled with lovely comic asides and sparkling dialogue.

Samples: When Julius asks a taxi driver to follow a car, the cabbie shoots back, "I've been waiting to hear that for years"; when he attracts a young woman she tells him that his mouth has a "divorced look." (The English subtitles are exceptionally adroit.) Dorrie, too, has a classic sense of rhythmic comedy timing and construction, setting up jokes and plot developments that will pay off a reel later.

So skilled and diverting an entertainer is Dorrie that on a first viewing you may not be fully aware of how "Men . . . " in its funny way comments on all sorts of serious issues: about the difficulty in achieving balance in one's life, the seductiveness of success and the price it exacts, the ambiguous nature of relationships, be they between men or between men and women, and the much greater difficulty men always seem to have than women in simply growing up.

Between the jokes, "Men . . . " raises crucial questions about values, priorities and the eternal challenge of what you're going to do with your life and how you're going to do it.

(The last, of course, should apply equally to men and woman, although neither Julius nor Stefan would be likely to agree, for they both subscribe to the male chauvinist remark, "A man is what he does, a woman is what she is"--which Dorrie admits she overheard during some real-life eavesdropping of men's conversations).

There could be no greater praise than to say Lauterbach and Ochsenknecht play off each other like Lemmon and Matthau, while Kriener remains the calm center of the storm brewing around her. "Men . . . " (Times-rated Mature for adult themes, some nudity) looks as good as its people, and its shifting moods are accompanied by Claus Bantzer's richly varied score, at once contemporary-sounding yet echoing at appropriate moments the plaintiveness of Kurt Weill.

In only three feature films Dorrie has managed to move swiftly from outsiders--her people in the stunning, disturbing "Straight Through the Heart" were fascinating, destructive weirdos--to the mainstream without the slightest sense of compromise, but rather with a larger, deeper perspective.

P.S.: Stick around for the end credits, which are as witty and inspired as all that has gone before them. 'MEN . . . '

A New Yorker Films release of an Olga Film production (Munich) in cooperation with ZDF (Second German Television). Executive producer Harald Kugler. Writer-director Doris Dorrie. Camera Helge Weindler. Music Claus Bantzer. Art director Jorg Neumann. Costumes Jorg Trees. Film editor Raimund Berthelmes. With Heiner Lauterbach, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Ulrike Kriener, Janna Marangosoff, Dietmar Bar, Marie-Charlott Schuler, Edith Volkmann. In German, with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hours, 39 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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