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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Beethoven': Lightweight Tail-Wagger

April 03, 1992|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Beethoven" (citywide) is a medium-level comedy about a lovable Saint Bernard, a dog-loving family and a dog-phobic dad. It's a consciously naive movie--big, bright, cartoonish and kind of empty--but it isn't the doggy dud that "Bingo" was. It isn't another slap-happy, yuppie-puppie milk-bone of a movie, sentimental and nasty by turns.

There's some feeling in it, enough, for the right kind of undemanding audience, to make it a pleasant time-passer.

The movie is about the way pets humanize uptight suburbanites. And the suburbanite here, Charles Grodin as George Newton, is a good part of what makes "Beethoven" work. Grodin's mastery of uptight types is always apparent. As George, he has his usual sick-silly grin, his self-righteous tantrums, the whiny, buttoned-down, eternally squelched air.

His humanizer here is Beethoven himself: a big, sloppy, lovable Saint Bernard (played by canine actor Chris, 12 doubles and a score of adorable puppies) who leaves muddy footprints everywhere and tears the furniture to shreds--as well as inspiring ersatz Beethoven piano riffs on the soundtrack and frequent renditions of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."

Beethoven is trouble's pup, dogged by catastrophe. Ground-level camera shots keep putting us in his dog's life: his escapes from the brutal minions of the evil veterinarian Dr. Varnick, who kidnaps him from the pet store, his adoption by the Newtons and the chaos when Varnick returns to kidnap him again.

The Newtons are the sort of corny, glossily idealized family known to us from TV commercials: blustering dad, blond wife Alice and three winsome tykes. But Bonnie Hunt expands her part; she gives Alice sturdiness. And Varnick, in a way, is George's nastier alter ego. He's played, in a sly casting stroke, by Dean Jones, the bright-as-a-button hero of '60s Disney Studio comedies like "That Darn Cat" and "The Love Bug." Twenty or 30 years ago, Jones would have been playing George.

Jones' presence indicates the airy unreality of the style, a style based almost completely on other movies and TV. The movie is fun when it focuses on its simple, sentimental viewpoint, on the collision between fussbudget George and his overwhelming dog. It's bad when it tries to turn Beethoven into a super-dog, capable of spectacular stuntwork, comprehending English and even second sight.

"Beethoven" was directed by Brian Levant, and it's a big improvement over his first movie, "Problem Child II." There was a gross, raw edge to the "Problem Child" movies that typified many '80s sitcoms. But "Beethoven" isn't nasty. There's something a little goofy and sweet about it--and that probably comes from the writers, Amy Holden Jones (who wrote and directed "Love Letters") and the mysterious Edmond Dantes (who uses the same name as the Count of Monte Cristo).

Despite its crudities, overstatement and predictable plot, "Beethoven" (MPAA-rated PG) isn't obnoxious. It's not for cinematic gourmets and probably only part of the mass audience will like it--the more tolerant, dog-loving part. It's a shopping mall movie. But the world should have a place for shopping mall movies--as much as it should for lovable, messy Saint Bernards and their fussbudget masters.

'Beethoven'

Charles Grodin: George Newton

Bonnie Hunt: Alice Newton

Chris: Beethoven

Dean Jones: Dr. Varnick

A Universal Pictures presentation of an Ivan Reitman production. Director Brian Levant. Producers Joe Medjuck, Michael C. Gross. Executive producer Ivan Reitman. Screenplay by Edmond Dantes, Amy Holden Jones. Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper. Editors Sheldon Kahn, William D. Gordean. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Alex Tavoularis. Art director Charles Breen. Set designers Stan Tropp, Gary Diamond. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG

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