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CRITIC AT LARGE

4-Letter Words Don't Spell Good Comedy

August 04, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The terrible thought afflicted me the other evening that I might be turning prude in my senior years. I worried earlier about never making it as a curmudgeon, but that may have been because I've seldom been sufficiently inspired.

Yet I've been to two new comedies, both enormously popular with audiences and with critics and--possibly, of course, because I was overexpectant, which is always a danger--I wondered if the national taste had changed while I was looking the other way.

"A Fish Called Wanda," despite the presence and the authorship of Monty Python's John Cleese, seemed to me to be about as British as Reno, Nev.

There is a revered English tradition of low comedy, presently exemplified by Benny Hill, which is somehow so outrageously and cheerily simple-minded that it gives the smutty double-entendre and bosom worship a good name.

"Wanda" has some delightful moments, most of them provided by Cleese himself in his tender bafflements, providing a roundness of character allowed to no one else in view.

But Michael Palin in full stutter is an affront, so I felt, to everyone who suffers from that awful affliction. Equally offensive is the treatment of gays who take such a beating that it's hard to say where good fun stops and homophobia starts.

The Kevin Kline character is the ugly American revisited, loud and gross and dumb, like most of the film, with negligible redeeming comic value as I watched it.

Inside Jamie Lee Curtis there appeared to be an amusing comedian struggling to be free, and playing the villainess you love to love and are glad to see win. But what she was called upon to say and do made you--all right, made me --wince for the actor's life.

I keep thinking that the screen's adolescent infatuation with the more conspicuous four-letter words will ease off one of these days. I am wrong. For a time they produced a certain nervous laughter, but in their overuse they seem equally to defeat charm, character and credibility.

Having taken human congress seriously this last quarter-century--all that photographic foreplay, the camera crawling slowly over unidentifiable curves of flesh made to resemble sand dunes, proceeding to the grimaces and the sweat--the films have evidently now decided that the whole procedure is comical .

This may well be true, especially if you're a witness instead of a participant. But on screen it is as unsatisfactory as the serious stuff. It still invades the privacy of the most private act of all, and the dominating aroma is the stale grease of exploitation.

The great postwar English comedies--"The Lavender Hill Mob," directed by the same Charles Crichton who did "Wanda"; "The Man in the White Suit," "The Lady-Killers" and "Tight Little Island"--all had greed, in one manifestation or another, at the heart of the plot, just as "Wanda" does.

But what a difference three or four decades have made. The gifts of needlepointed wit, understatement, the awareness that the best comedy lies only a tick off center from reality, have been lost in a thunder of hobnailed excess. In the midst of it, Cleese allows us occasional glimpses of a Guinness-like figure, a silly but decent chap in a dreadful marriage and dreaming of escape. Not quite enough glimpses, however.

It is depressing to speculate that the audience has become as inured to subtle comedy as it has to violence, but it may be so.

I'm a lifelong baseball fan who grew up worshiping at the shrine of the Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, and there was much about Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham" that I loved, as I loved his earlier film about high school football, "The Best of Times."

Despite the engaging presence of Robin Williams, "The Best of Times" was evidently not a success. It was also largely sexless, a lesson that may have been taken by all concerned. The accurately observed and rather innocent baseball stuff in "Bull Durham" is incidental music to Susan Sarandon's purposeful nymphomania.

As if he well understood what the verities actually are, Shelton makes an ultimate statement in favor of monogamy over unlimited substitutions. It is the leaping catch at the fence, the homer in the bottom of the 12th. Unfortunately, it plays a little more dutifully than credibly in the context of all that has gone before.

I liked "Bull Durham" a good deal more than "Wanda," in part because it was affectionately set in a real world. Sarandon's role as a sort of super-groupie with her own approach to coaching is thoroughly commercial sexual farce, wishing everybody bon voyeuring. I found it unattractively explicit, but there you are.

At that, and in her wide-eyed intensity, Sarandon conveys a kind of half-hidden sadness, as if her bed games with the annual proteges are not so much a noble effort as a recurrent fever that leaves her used and spent, and alone with her yellowing mementos. As with Cleese's unhappy barrister, there is the sense of some other story--not tragic and indeed not less comic in its potential, but more affecting--waiting to slip past the exploitative grapplings.

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