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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Eating': Rich Tale of Being Too Thin

November 16, 1990|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With "Eating" (only at the Park Theater in San Diego) the ever-idiosyncratic independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom continues his intimate, spontaneous, witty but always compassionate observations of compulsive, neurotic human behavior--and reveals his ongoing fascination with women. He clearly has always inspired great trust in actresses, and in this instance his all-female cast rewards him with some shining portrayals.

Mary Crosby reveals depths heretofore unsuspected, and from Gwen Welles, one of his regulars, he elicits her most harrowing, complex performance yet. But if "Eating" had accomplished nothing else, it would have been remarkable for the performance of Frances Bergen, one of Hollywood's enduring, elegant beauties, in what is surely the best part of her career.

In essence, "Eating" is "The Women" of the '90s. The Norma Shearer role of the perfect wife goes to capable Lisa Blake Richards as an attractive Hancock Park matron who decides to throw a party to mark her 40th birthday, then expands it to celebrate the impending birthdays of two of her best friends: Crosby, a happily married housewife who is about to turn 30; and Marlena Giovi, a Hollywood agent who is fast approaching 50. By the time the party and the film are over, no less than 38 actresses (and no actors) will have appeared on the screen.

When one of the women remarks, "Twenty-five years ago the secret subject of women was sex . . . today, it's food!," she's hit upon the heart of the matter. Except for Bergen, who plays Richards' serene mother, virtually every woman present is obsessed with dieting, in at least one instance to the point of bulimia.

In this group, thinness has become the absolute measure of desirability and self-worth, even for the women who know better intellectually, but remain vulnerable emotionally to this rigid standard. Who can deny that the anxiety of these by-and-large sophisticated, highly attractive women mirrors our society's distorted values, reinforced so intensively by messages in the media? This is scarcely news, but what is new is the way Jaglom makes this phenomenon so personal; serious, yet occasionally so funny.

Around the issue of food, the usual storylines start unreeling, involving acts of infidelity and betrayal as well as gestures of loving support. In order to thoroughly--one might well say exhaustively--explore women's attitudes toward eating and dieting, Jaglom has given Richards a house guest, a French documentarian (Nelly Alard) who questions Richards and her guests on those very subjects under the guise of making a study of what she calls "Southern California behavior."

Ironically, this voluptuous beauty herself finally reveals a terrible, wildly distorted self-image. However, as the film's various storylines take hold, the constant cuts to the documentarian's question-and-answer sessions become intrusive, repetitive--how many things can you say about eating and dieting?--and tend to make the film seem long and drawn out. Yet, on balance, amid so many glancing insights and so many radiant presences, this is not a serious flaw. Resolutely chic and contemporary, "Eating" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) really isn't, in its grasp of human foibles, so different from "The Women" after all.

'EATING'

An International Rainbow Pictures presentation of a Jagfilm production. Producer Judith Wolinsky. Writer-director-editor Henry Jaglom. Camera Hanania Baer. Associate editors Michelle Hart, Mary Pritchard. With (in alphabetical order) Nelly Alard, Frances Bergen, Mary Crosby, Marlena Giovi, Marina Gregory, Daphna Kastner, Elizabeth Kemp, Lisa Richards,, Gwen Welles.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (adult themes).

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