From the sublime to the ridiculous . . . and the ridiculous has the edge in "Parallel Lives," a star-studded, partially improvised, "Big Chill"-type film Sunday on Showtime.
In last year's "Chantilly Lace," producer, director and writer Linda Yellin gave well-known actresses the improvisational reins in a filmed confessional of feminine affirmation and bonding. Using the same technique, Yellin returns with several of the same actresses, plus male counterparts, making up a celebrity cast big enough for an Aaron Spelling disaster epic: Liza Minnelli, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Ally Sheedy, Jack Klugman, Treat Williams, Dudley Moore and Robert Wagner, to name a few.
This time, the actors get to flex their improv muscles in a college fraternity-sorority reunion setting, fraught with soon-to-be exposed lust, resentment, desperation and rage, spiced with unexpected death and a police investigation.
Watching good actors do their thing is intermittently fun, and the naturalness of speech and interaction is a kick, but not the thin plot and trite characters with which the players are stuck. Even the improv grates as the actors too obviously enjoy their own cleverness.
Will the sleazy, anything-for-a-scoop reporter (James Belushi) reveal his sensitive side and win over the cynical political public-relations rep (JoBeth Williams)? Will the pushy gambler (Gazzara) show his vulnerability and charm the wealthy, cynical widow (Rowlands)? Will the honest senatorial candidate (Patricia Wettig) succumb to the inveterate womanizer (Treat Williams), then sacrifice her ethics to get elected?
Most genuine are Minnelli, who deepens her thankless role as the unhappy reunion organizer with touching subtlety, and Dudley Moore, low-key and likable as the imaginary friend of a daft rock star (Lindsay Crouse).
But genuineness is relative here. When the men develop an "Animal House" attitude, get drunk, moon the women and conduct a panty raid--and when the women revert to candlelight confidences about sex, family and life choices--it plays more like self-indulgence than a deeper response to the disillusionment of age and unfulfilled promise.
* "Parallel Lives" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.