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Quit Stealing From the Small Screen or Pow! Right in the Kisser

Movies* Studios continue to try to improve on television-- even the classics.

April 16, 2002|DIANE WERTS | NEWSDAY

The movies are messing with TV again. To paraphrase a classic big-screen mocking of its small sibling, we're mad as blazes and we're not going to take it anymore!

If it sometimes seems that Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" vision of an anything-for-ratings medium has come true--think "Celebrity Boxing"--it's equally clear that television today can more than equal motion pictures in depth, creativity and original ideas. It wasn't TV that foisted "Sorority Boys" upon us.

Weird proof of the tube's repute splashed across Newsday's pages recently in two ways. First came the three-star review of Film Forum's opening of "Shot in the Heart," dramatizing the last days of 1970s killer Gary Gilmore in "a film that explores an oft-exploited case with exquisite understanding and care."

Certainly true. But hardly news to viewers of HBO, which produced the film and premiered it in October. Surely that's mentioned in the "movie" review. Uh, no. Funny thing: It doesn't come up either in the previous month's critique of "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," a dark Kenneth Branagh comedy that, reviewers raved, gave him "the juiciest leading role he's had in a movie outside of his Shakespeare adaptations." You could have caught it "at select theaters" in February. Or on TV when it premiered on cable's Starz channel last fall.

Movie folks love to dis the tube. They belittle it or ignore it. Then they steal from it. The same week the big screen claimed "Shot in the Heart" as its own, Newsday reported, "Paramount Pictures wants to bring back 'The Honeymooners' as a movie--a contemporary movie at that."

How many ways is this brilliant notion insane? Let us count. Who can possibly match Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows, not to mention Art Carney? How will they re-create the Kramdens' Bensonhurst walk-up in all its 1950s black-and-white sparseness? And then there's the series' touching simplicity of plot and complexity of emotion. But here's the true terror. Producer David Friendly was quoted as saying, "You can certainly expect to hear the term 'bang-zoom' a few times, and using the phrases and gestures and other staples of the show is critical."

Bang-zoom to you, dude! What makes the movie folks think they can "improve" on TV? And the best of TV, at that. They can't even get "Lost in Space" or "Leave It to Beaver" right.

Every now and then, they'll catch a show's essential flavor without aping its every move, as in "The Fugitive" or our all-time TV-to-film fave, "The Brady Bunch Movie," which recognized its source material's absurd charm and reinvented it by sending it up.

That happens so seldom, though. More often we're left with the kind of mess that Showtime unfortunately aired again recently. "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "The Honeymooners" had a black-and-white innocence, though "Car 54's" batty Bronx cops were more whimsical.

None of this comes through in the 1991 film "comedy" starring David Johansen as simple-minded Gunther Toody, with "Scrubs" head case John C. McGinley miscast as his strait-laced partner, Francis Muldoon.

In place of TV's picayune perpetrators and silly talking parrots, the ungainly gargoyle of a movie employs hookers, mobsters and gross behavior. When Muldoon visits the Toody home for dinner, Johansen is pawing tacky wife Rosie O'Donnell in the kitchen. "This dress really gives me the horn," he drools. "How about a quickie?"

How about leaving the tube alone? And giving it credit where credit is due? TV might do the same for films. Most series based on movies are messes, too, with "MASH" the exception that proves the rule. Big screen and small stand tallest when they show respect for each other's accomplishments. We won't mention "Charlie's Angels" if they don't.

*

Diane Werts writes about television for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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