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MOVIE REVIEW : Lives Trapped in Melancholy of 'September'

December 18, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

In "September" (selected the aters) Woody Allen traps us in a summer house as autumn closes in, leads us into golden interiors that echo with jazz piano and the ghosts of love and regret. It's an invisible autumn. We never see a single tree, a piece of lake or sky. Inside, in rooms built on a New York sound stage, the collective suppressed passion beats and wails like the unseen elements.

Allen hasn't made this consciously dramatic a film since "Interiors"--an equally Chekhovian, Bergmanesque chamber work. And, like "Interiors," "September" shows strain at the joints; it's not as vibrant as his last four movies. But there's something fine and brave about the attempt, and his touch for straight drama has gotten warmer and surer. Whatever its flaws, "September" may lead him into richer areas, just as "Interiors" led to masterpieces like "Manhattan" and "Hannah and Her Sisters."

There are wonderful things here: Elaine Stritch's blowzy, brassy, bravura performance as an aging movie star, the delicately balanced ensemble interplay, the elegantly unobtrusive long camera takes, a panicky seduction scene between Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest. There's also a sense, at times, of overreaching and over-oppressive confinement.

As in "Interiors," the focus is on upper-class women: the fragile, desperate Lane (Mia Farrow)--her life shattered by an adolescent scandal involving her mother Diane (Stritch)--and Lane's less neurotic friend Stephanie (Wiest). Around them, revolving like Chekhov's male satellites, are Diane's growly physicist husband, Lloyd (Jack Warden), and two neighbors: the failed, self-indulgent writer, Peter (Waterston) and the worshipful Howard (Denholm Elliott.)

The story--which unfolds with the afternoon-night-morning structure of the average O'Neill-cum-Albee stage drama--pins us into the psychic pain of the younger women. Farrow's Lane has been devastated by the past; Wiest's Stephanie is under siege by Peter, who represents perhaps Lane's emptiest dream.

Meanwhile, Howard, the old man out, moons sadly over Lane, and Lloyd and Diane, the pragmatists, punch through the gloom with gravelly bite and show-biz sass. Lusty, free-wheeling Diane--who continually breaks up the mood of summer's end melancholy--seems to feel no pain at all. The ensemble neatly divides in twos, though the passions crisscross among them. Lane and Howard are suffering romantics; Peter and Stephanie are more calculated role-players; Lloyd and Diane are a pair of "What-the-hell" realists.

As these people spin subtly through their rondelet of guilt and frustration, the rooms, shot by Carlo Di Palma, glow with the magical tints of woody sunsets. Languorous jazz ballads are the underscore, including a record of Art Tatum's cat-fingered piano virtuosity and Ben Webster's breathy sax romanticism on "My Ideal." (Early on, the power fails and returns suddenly; several crises are played out between two Tatum notes.) There's a disjunction here. The surroundings are rapturous, and only the least sensitive characters can enjoy them.

"September," is a film Allen shot twice--first with a cast that included Maureen O'Sullivan, Sam Shepard and Charles Durning. It's obvious he felt some strain too. But, despite this quixotic effort, the second version doesn't quite jell either. Allen's glibness, the keynote of his comic delivery, can work against his purely dramatic scenes. They don't have the broken rhythms, charged spaces and bursts of spontaneity they often need; glibness bends them toward the comic.

Allen deals here with many of his usual subjects: erotic desperation, show-business dreams, sexual stratagems and guilt, intellectual puffery, false appearances, the inability to experience pleasure, and the inability of the present to match the ideals of the past. But vital moments sometimes seem missing: perhaps a crucial one between Lane and Peter, balancing her ecstatic, self-deluding love against his sly evasions.

Allen skews a lot of scenes toward Dianne Wiest and that's perhaps a mistake--not because Wiest doesn't shine, but because Stephanie is the least frustrated character, the only one with more love than she can handle. "September" would be better balanced if it revolved around its two self-sabotaging idealists: Lane and Howard. And the film really needs a few trips outside, even some empty landscape shots like the ones that begin "Cries and Whispers."

Allen's detractors often argue that pretensions to WASP gentility kill his work, freeze his humor and creativity. But the new directions he keeps seeking are a sign of honesty, recognition of change.

"September" (MPAA rated: PG) isn't a full success on its own terms--which is certainly why Allen shot it twice, and why he says he'd like to try a third time. But it's a mistake to deem it a failure. As with all great film makers, Woody Allen's work is continuous. Parts may dazzle, but it's the whole that's most important: the growth from film to film. The obsessive perfectionism which makes him rework his movies somehow echoes the wistful dreaminess and sad romanticism of his characters. Trapped in September, they yearn for the freshness of spring, the fire of summer. Yet it's autumn's chill and the threat of winter that keeps them alive.

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