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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Housesitter': A House of Cards

June 12, 1992|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Despite a high-powered cast and a zany/trendy concept, hardly anyone's home in "Housesitter." The result is much ado about too little, an occasionally amusing screwball farce made by people whose screws are barely loose at all.

Though the starring presence of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn may conjure up expectations of a chaotic free-for-all, "Housesitter" (citywide) is a surprisingly mild and genteel piece of work, so slight and undermanned it has a tendency to feel not there at all. Nothing is particularly wrong with what the film offers, there's just not enough of it to make the offer worth accepting.

"Housesitter" actually begins with an offer of a different sort, an offer of marriage. Architect Newton Davis (Martin) drives a blindfolded Becky (Dana Delany), the dream woman he's been sweet on since grade school, out to a mystery destination. It's a house he's not only designed in the New England suburb of Dobbs Mill, his boyhood home, but also thoughtfully decked out with an enormous red ribbon. But will Becky marry him, ribbon and all? No, she will not.

Cut to Boston three months later, where a still shook-up Davis toils in diffident obscurity for the area's largest architectural firm. The house, which looks like a candidate for a New Age Levittown, is, he tells a friend, still sitting vacant and forlorn in Dobbs Mill, a post-Modern monument to unrequited love.

Later that same evening Davis drunkenly tells the same story to Gwen (Hawn), a fake Hungarian waitress he meets in a fake Hungarian restaurant. Gwen, we understand at once, is nothing at all like Davis. For one thing, she absolutely adores being outdoors in the pouring rain, a fail-safe indication of terminal free-spiritedness. For another, she seems congenitally incapable of coming within hailing distance of that sadly narrow and unimaginative concept known as the truth.

To Gwen, for whom every day without pretense is a day without sunshine, the idea of packing her tight jeans and tops and taking the bus to Dobbs Mill is a natural one. She initially intends to merely live in the architect's empty house, but one thing leads to another, and soon she is telling everyone, and that includes the incredulous Becky and the poor man's even more astonished parents (Julie Harris and Donald Moffat) that she and Davis are blissfully man and wife.

It doesn't take too long (though, like everything else in this film, it takes longer than it should) for Davis to figure out what's happening. But instead of doing the rational thing and exposing her, Davis comes up with an inane excuse for letting Gwen's games go on and on.

Under Frank Oz's even if unexciting direction, there are, as noted, moments of mild and even strong amusement in this concoction. However, they are fewer than they ought to be and there are several times when Davis' house (the plans for which were in fact chosen as the best small house design for 1990 by House Beautiful magazine, where the film's production designer discovered them) seems to have a lot more going for it than the people who live inside.

This is not as much the actors' fault as it may sound. Both Martin and Hawn were clearly chosen to give reprises of performances they've delivered many times in the past, and though this kind of typecasting works effectively with action pictures, it can lend an air of professional weariness to comedies. For a film that is lethargic to begin with, that is not good news.

The problem is greater where Gwen is concerned. For one thing, Goldie Hawn, game professional though she is, lacks the kind of devious edge necessary to successfully bring a conwoman to life. Those who remember a breathtakingly duplicitous Barbara Stanwyck bringing Henry Fonda repeatedly to his knees in Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" will know exactly the quality that is missing here.

Where "Housesitter" (rated PG) really could use some help is in its script, credited to first-time feature writer Mark Stein from a story by Stein and producer Brian Grazer. Unable to make Gwen as interesting as she might be, "Housesitter" feels bereft of individual inspiration, and, given its genesis, that is no surprise.

According to the film's production notes, Grazer's "penchant for asking 'what if? . . .' and turning those imaginations into successful storylines and successful movies" was the source of "Housesitter's" premise, a classic high concept Stein was no doubt brought in to conscientiously flesh out. Rather than a blueprint for creative success, this is a recipe for a retread, which is uncomfortably close to what we have been presented with here.

'Housesitter'

Steve Martin: Davis

Goldie Hawn: Gwen

Dana Delany: Becky

Julie Harris: Edna Davis

Donald Moffat: George Davis

Peter MacNicol: Marty

An Imagine Films Entertainment presentation, released by Universal Pictures. Director Frank Oz. Producer Brian Grazer. Executive producer Bernie Williams. Screenplay Mark Stein. Story Mark Stein and Brian Grazer. Cinematographer John Alonzo. Editor John Jympson. Costumes Betsy Cox. Music Miles Goodman. Production design Ida Random. Art director Jack Blackman, Jeff Sage. Set decorator Tracey Doyle. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.

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