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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Funny Farm' Needs More Cultivation

June 03, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"Funny Farm" (citywide)--a weak-fish-out-of-water comedy about a New York City couple who see their rural paradise turned into a rustic hell--is a movie with a doubly deceptive title. This movie isn't about a farm, and it isn't very funny, either.

There's some vague justification for the title in the names of the lead characters: Andy and Elizabeth Farmer (Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith). In addition, you can see the bare bones of "The Egg and I"--where Claudette Colbert actually did move to a chicken farm--moldering away somewhere. Perhaps that 1947 movie is the conceptual source of the egg on Chevy Chase's face in the ads.

Otherwise, neither the humor nor the agriculture is well-cultivated. The movie is another parable, like "Baby Boom," about yuppies returning to the safe, rural Middle America of the pre-'60s. It's also a comic nightmare--like "The Money Pit"--about the horrible consequences of answered prayers. And it's stuck between these two approaches: neither celebration nor nightmare enough to churn up any comic intensity.

The Farmers, retiring to the country to write, stumble into numbingly predictable predicaments. Ducks slide on their frozen pond, soporific dogs snooze obliviously, two road-sign collecting delinquents pop up when there's a truck to be misdirected or a car to crash, and a motel fireplace blazes all too readily to receive the unfinished novel being read before it.

Every bit of potential bucolic bliss collapses miserably into a rubble of lame gags and tame comeuppance. When Elizabeth proves a more publishable writer than Andy, they even wage a symbolic struggle over the typewriter. (Couldn't they just buy another one?) By the end, the Farmers are actually bribing the residents of Redbud to model the town after old Norman Rockwell magazine covers--which sounds more like a production design discussion than a legitimate plot development.

The movie begins with a promising scene: a circular track around a smoky table of New York journalists, full of snappy overlapping dialogue. Chase--trying a more laid-back, subtly naturalistic approach than usual--seems on top of his role. And the director, George Roy Hill, is one of those unobtrusive masters of staging and rhythm who can bring a movie alive without showing any seams or strain.

But Hill probably never worked with this weak a script in his entire film career. What can a director be thinking when he realizes that he started out in movies with scenarios by, or based on, writers like Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Dalton Trumbo and Nunnally Johnson--and now, 25 year later, he's graduated to movies where there are gags about eating sheep testicles and where all the best scenes go to the ducks or the dogs?

When Chevy Chase does one of his slapstick bits--stumbling madly across a lawn dragging along a snake on a fishing line--it's both daffily well-executed and a relief from the dialogue. Scriptwriter Jeffrey Boam's lines don't seem to have any hooks.

Boam ("Innerspace," "The Lost Boys") seems incapable of pulling surprises; his jokes are set up laboriously and crash woozily down into place. "Funny Farm" isn't even a good commercial compromise. In this movie, there's no real satiric concept of what small American towns or cities are actually like--as you used to get, in different ways, in the old "Andy Griffith Show" or in recent movies like "The Best of Times." It's an urban nightmare of rural chaos fed by Ma Kettle movies and high-concept conferences, a Redbud more lost than Kane's Rosebud. The town seems untouched by TV or mass media, and the residents are unfunnily cantankerous or eccentric slobs, hicks and weirdos--even in their alleged Rockwell impersonations.

"Funny Farm" (MPAA rated: PG) isn't a total loss. Hill, cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek and designer Henry Bumstead give it a smooth finish and gleam, and Chase has his moments. Smith has even more. Sometimes she's marvelous: waggling frenetically to an unheard stereo or curling in dismay while digesting her husband's unreadable novel. Boam's description of this novel's ineptitude--with its flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sideways--makes it seem more like a movie script, and maybe a more interesting one than his. But Smith plays this vacuous stuff with such style, energy and sexy polish that you wonder what she could do with comic material that was actually good.

'FUNNY FARM'

A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Producer Robert L. Crawford. Director George Roy Hill. Script Jeffrey Boam. Music Elmer Bernstein. Camera Miroslav Ondricek. Editor Alan Helm. With Chevy Chase, Madolyn Smith, Joseph Maher, Jack Gilpin, Brad Sullivan.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

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