That Old Feeling V: "We're Not Kids Any More"

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Coming this weekend to a theater near you: the most eagerly anticipated romantic comedy of . . . 1998.

Bad movies come and go, often in a weekend. But few bad movies have been so long coming as "Town & Country," director Peter Chelsomís "new" romantic comedy with a high-powered cast — Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Gary Shandling, Jenna Elfman, Andie MacDowell, Nastassja Kinski and Charlton Heston. With a script about two couples (Beatty and Keaton, Hawn and Shandling), both married for decades, facing the husbandsí infidelity, the film began shooting in June 1998, stopped in November of that year and, after much script triage, reconvened last April to complete the shooting. As the budget ballooned from $55 million toward the low nine figures, the film missed a dozen or so planned release dates. And now that the movie is opening, itís an orphan.

Ah, June 1998! One can get nostalgic simply by remembering how long ago that was. The last millennium still had a couple years to go. The Dow had just risen to 9,200 for the first time. "Cigar" was not yet a smutty punch line. The Yankees had won only one World Series since 1978. In movie theaters, "Titanic" was still playing; "Deep Impact" had come out but "Armageddon" hadnít. Among the "Town & Country" cast, Elfman had just finished her first season of "Dharma and Greg," and Shandling his last season of "The Larry Sanders Show;" Heston had served only a few months as first vice president of the N.R.A.; Hawn was not yet known as Kate Hudson's mom; and Beatty would have to wait almost another two years before receiving the Irving J. Thalberg Award.

"Town & Country," I feel safe in predicting, will win no Oscars. Not just because itís an intermittently — and, as you shall learn, instructively! — bad movie; the theaters are filled each week with new excrescences. And not just because itís sure to be panned (though early critical word is dire). But because even the filmís stars are avoiding it as if itís pellagra. Thereís no gala Hollywood premiere. You wonít see Beatty or Hawn touting "T&C" on Leno, Letterman or the morning shows. But, to their chagrin, you will see be able to see them on the screen, and on video boxes forever. Thatís the rub to celebrity: famous actors canít be anonymous in their own films. A director has it easy: he can take his name off a picture. Actors, poor things, are forever exposed. Thereís no such thing as a movie marquee that reads, say, "íIshtar,í starring Alan Smithee, Elaine Smythe and Alain Smithťe."

You may have a recovered memory of "Ishtar," Beatty"s big-budget fiasco of 1986, as you watch "Town & Country." From its very first sound — chirpy tuba music, suggesting both a heavy hand and forced whimsy — the spectator is cued to slouch into light despair, or to indulge in a what-were-they-thinking? shake of the head. Then it is revealed that the shlumpfy Shandling is cheating on fit-and-50ish Goldie. Beatty is presented as a loving husband who cheats on Keaton because, well, guys cheat. The script has its characters globetrotting from Paris to Park Avenue to the Hamptons to Mississippi to Sun Valley, Idaho, and jumping (or galumphing) from one bed to another, but the filmís lethargy of spirit keeps things static. Thereís nothing all-time-dreadful about "Town & Country," but it does give the viewer a feeling of dissipation to realize that talented people wasted a couple years of their time and 107 minutes of ours.

Did this movie ever have a shot? Considering that the average age of the four lead actors is 56, and that the average age of todayís moviegoer is, I donít know, nine-and-a-half? (they get their older sibs to sneak them in to the PG-13 films), you may wonder who the intended audience was. "Older-appeal romantic comedies are faltering badly," box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations said in an Entertainment Weekly story (itself more than a year old now) about the delays in production. Withholding the movie so long means that the lead actors are even further removed from Hollywoodís beloved demographic. It doesnít help that the only actor with any manic juice is the 76-year-old Heston, who plays MacDowell's gun-crazy dad. He blasts a hole in a Halloween costume with his rifle, blows up a ski cabin, then runs amok with a rifle in a posh awards banquet. (Hope he had fun making fun of himself.)

But "Town & Country" isnít three years old; in its attitudes and tempo, the film is more like 33 years old. You step into the plex with your ticket for "Bridget Jonesís Diary," take a wrong turn into a nearly deserted auditorium . . . and suddenly itís 1968. Not the real Ď68 — with the Tet Offensive, the French general strike, the shootings of Martin Luther King. Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the Soviet crushing of the Prague spring and the Chicago 7 convention — but Hollywood Ď68, which had little connection with American life, except to massage the tepid dreams of a middle-age audience. (Didnít the moguls know that was televisionís job?) The studio system kept on grinding out bland programmers as if it were the golden Ď40s. Elvis Presley and Doris Day were still making two or three disposable films a year. Teen movies? Horror films? Hardly a one. The most reliable big-budget genre was musicals, for Peteís sake; "Oliver" took the Oscar for the yearís best picture.

And the most reliable medium-budget genre was the lightly ribald sex comedy, often adapted from a Broadway hit. The recipe was simple: take Shakespeareís mistaken-identity plots and MoliŤreís domestic satire; add sugar and lard; leer until ready. The result was a confection that, in the spirit of the times — or, rather, the spirit of a decade earlier, so far was Hollywood behind the societal curve — managed to be both smirking and sanctimonious. Infidelity was generally taboo for the married heroes and heroines of these comedies; they had to make do with the appearance of philandering, stop at the brink of fooling around.

Thus, in "How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life)," swinging bachelor Dean Martin mistakes Stella Stevens for his best friendís mistress. In "The Secret Life of an American Wife," lecherous movie star Walter Matthau believes his agentís wife (Anne Jackson) is a call girl. The mood was different, more pious, when the subject of a domestic comedy was family life. Then the husband and wife (Doris Day and Brian Keith in "With Six You Get Eggroll", Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in "Yours Mine and Ours") were happy, coping and faithful — just like all real-life married couples at the time.

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