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Comedies Taking It On The Chin

October 27, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The director of a gentle comedy currently in release called in after I did a recent column worrying about the continuing abundance of screen violence.

Couldn't agree more about the violence, the director said. But he wondered--just speculating out loud--if the critics hadn't played a role in the situation, finding more to enthuse about in the films of violence than in the comedies.

Do a quiet comedy, silly even, he said, and the critics may pat you on the head but in a rather distracted way, perhaps even complaining that the comedy doesn't seem to be about anything (not that it's easy to say what the violence is about). And nobody bothers to say about the comedy that you've done a film that is without violence and that celebrates positive human values.

The result, the director noted sadly, is that your comedy is trampled, symbolically, by the customers rushing to the kind of films that feature flashing knives and heavy weapons in the display ads.

The director requested anonymity, incidentally, because his worry about the fate of comedy was general and not specifically about his own film, which was nicely reviewed although it has not done runaway business at the box office.

In a way, it would be comforting to think that the matter of successful violence versus ill-attended comedy was influenced by the critics and could therefore be corrected by the critics. And it may be that the critics don't often enough write, "Hey, note the absence of violence in this picture." Critics are more apt to write about what is present in a film, for better or worse.

Still, you have to agree with the director that there are comedies in the marketplace that, on their merits, would seem to deserve to do well. What is encouraging is that they're not doing badly at all.

"Baby Boom," the Nancy Meyers/Charles Shyer-comedy with Diane Keaton as a career woman inheriting a baby, does a sweeping bow to the madcap romances of the '30s and '40s, with an updated sophistication and a feminist point of view. It is a very affable diversion, and in its first engagements, it has begun well.

"In the Mood," the Sonny Wisecarver story as written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, is a funny, sexy, affectionate telling of the true story of a teen-ager's elopements with two older women in the late 1940s. It avoids all the temptations to be exploitative, and the bawdiest sequence is lifted straight from court transcripts. Its Ralph Burns big band score is an attraction all by itself and the film is off to a sprightly start.

"Like Father Like Son," directed by Rod Daniel from a script by Lorne Cameron and Steven L. Bloom, is a sort of in-family "Trading Places," and has been called Dudley Moore's finest hour since "Arthur." After a slow start, it is finding its audience.

It will be interesting to watch how the just-opening "The Whales of August" does in the theaters. It is as warmly sentimental as anything you'll see all year and it offers Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price, with Harry Carey Jr. in a cameo part and Lindsay Anderson as director. The mood is more autumnal than August and the pace and the acting are, for want of a better word, deliberate, but the film is indubitably a film-buff event.

In its own way, Nikita Mikhalkov's "Dark Eyes" is also a piece of film exotica, a wonderful character study with a performance by Marcello Mastroianni whose equal you won't see all year. It is as if Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti had collaborated--Fellini with his feeling for the sadly absurd and sympathetically grotesque, Visconti with his capacity for re-creating the textures of another time, another place. It is spacious and deliberate in different ways from "The Whales of August," and it too is an event: a quiet, nonviolent event.

"Fatal Attraction" continues to do tremendous business, now fed by its own notoriety, because people either love it or loathe it; there seems to be no middle ground.

The question is: What conclusions--if any--can be drawn? One simply--but inescapably--is that a sizable audience likes the excitement of violence, especially when it is well packaged (as it often is) with interesting and usually (but not always) sympathetic characters and suspenseful plots.

The nice little picture, beloved of film critics and film enthusiasts, is embattled as always, but it continues to fight back.

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