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MOVIE REVIEW : Down and Out in Beverly Center : A Slice of L.A.--Without the Bite

February 22, 1991|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Mazursky was quoted years ago as saying that if Alexander Solzhenitsyn ever moved to Beverly Hills, it wouldn't be long before he was writing episodes of "Police Story" from his hot tub.

No filmmaker has been wiser or funnier about the L.A. cavalcade than Mazursky. It's not simply a matter of being hip to the scene; what makes such L.A. movies as "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" and "Alex in Wonderland" and "Blume in Love" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" soar is Mazursky's wide-eyed infatuation with the city's rampant pop nuttiness.

Mazursky's L.A. movies are supremely affectionate; there is no malice in his jabs because, as a Hollywood filmmaker, he recognizes, and relishes, his own place in the nuttiness. If Orson Welles once called a movie studio "the greatest electric train set any boy ever had," then, for Mazursky, Los Angeles is the greatest playground that any comic director will ever have.

Mazursky's new film, "Scenes From a Mall," which he co-wrote with his "Enemies, a Love Story" collaborator Roger L. Simon, has moments that are as good as any in his other L.A. films; the knockabout insights and oddball bits of business keep you on your toes. In the course of the film, the city's entire multiracial population pours up and down the escalators; the mall's ethnic restaurants are like portable travelogues. It's a fantasyland for people who want to go around the world without ever moving very far away from the parking lot. The mall as L.A. microcosm is more than a great metaphor; it's also the \o7 truth\f7 , or at least it's the truth for the characters in this movie.

What's disappointing is that the film (selected theaters) doesn't live up to the high style of its premise. Starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler as a couple whose marriage breaks apart during a shopping spree at Beverly Center, the movie is all geared up for grand-scale farce.

But the pairing of Allen and Midler, which might seem like the kind of weirdo match-up that could produce a comedy classic, never takes flight. He is Nick, a high-powered sports attorney, and she is Deborah, a pop psychologist with a marriage self-help guide, "I Do I Do I Do," on the best-seller lists. They're a classic super-achiever L.A. couple, which means that their successes have become indistinguishable from their marriage.

When some real feeling breaks through, when Nick, in the midst of shopping, reveals that he recently ended a six-month affair with a younger woman, their carefully constructed life together suddenly seems like a sham, a sick joke. Since the announcement coincides with their 16th wedding anniversary, Nick's revelation has the force of a confession, and a provocation, too.

Allen and Midler are such highly individual actors that they never quite seem to be in the same orbit; the series of juicy marital revelations that keep perking the movie come across as forced and schematic because we never really believe in the relationship.

Allen and Midler, as performers, seem a tad too wised up for the outrage they're called upon to exhibit over and over again. And the outrage is too often couched in a back-and-forth therapy-ese that grows wearying. Even though the film is populated with a rainbow coalition of Angelenos whizzing in and out of the action, "Scenes From a Mall" (rated R for strong language) is essentially a two-character piece, and the marital nattering isn't as fascinating or original as the background hubbub. The film seems hectic yet closed off.

Midler has some fine, deeply felt moments, and she has a wonderful, swacked look of disbelief whenever Nick runs off at the mouth about his indiscretions. She doesn't goof up the role, and yet, though she shows remarkable restraint, I can't help feeling that a restrained Bette Midler is a wasted Bette Midler. Her performance takes its cue from the film's core of seriousness: the title is an insider's reference to Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage." If the role had been written to accommodate more of Midler's wised-up sass, her sparring matches with Allen might have been like nothing else we've ever seen before.

It's funny for awhile to see Allen traipsing through Lotusland while hauling a surfboard or sampling sushi. This is, after all, enemy territory for him. Allen's put-downs of L.A., in movies like "Annie Hall," always had a masochistic quality; in a land of sun-stroked sensualists, he was so out of place that his only response was to jeer. Surprisingly, Allen moves effortlessly through the mall universe of this film, but, like Midler, he doesn't really interact with it--except, maybe, to slug a particularly irritating mime (Bill Irwin).

Like Allen, Mazursky has often made explicit reference in his films to Bergman and Fellini; the result is that "Scenes From a Mall," with its occasional deep-dish Bergmanesque interactions, with Allen on the screen and Fellini film scores on the soundtrack, seems as much like a Woody Allen movie as a Mazursky movie.

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