Cinema: Lunatic of Manhattan

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Had A.A. Milne written Don Quixote, he might have come up (and down) with They Might Be Giants. Then he would have destroyed it; Milne was a decent chap. They Might Be Giants was written by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter) and directed by Anthony Harvey (same lion, same winter). They have little mercy, less philosophy and no plot worth the name.

A wealthy jurist, Justin (George C. Scott) goes insane when his wife dies and fancies himself Sherlock Holmes, complete with Inverness coat, underslung pipe and austere vanity. His brother-in-law tries to have Justin put into an institution to gain control of his fortune. Faced with "Holmes," the asylum assigns a real psychiatrist named Watson (Joanne Woodward). Even though the sex is wrong, the Baker Street Irregular decides that she is the Dr. Watson ("Elementary, my dear"), and the shrink goes along with the gag. Soon the two are tooling along in Manhattan in pursuit of a villain known inevitably as Moriarity.

Dismal End. Moriarity exists—a vague, malignant figure who represents the evil that resides in the System. Holmes, Watson and the adherents they accumulate on their safari, drunks, outcasts and youth, signify all that is good and innocent. Such a thesis has formed the basis for many successful farces, The Madwoman of Chaillot, for example. But this lunacy in Manhattan has no imagination to propel its whimsy, no language to give it breath. Goldman is a dealer in used ideas ("The Bible has it wrong—Earth is Eden!" cries Justin). Scott continues to act with impatient power, but his messages all seem self-addressed. Woodward's real sweetness becomes ersatz and saccharine.

As he pursues the forces that eventually undo him, Justin declares that there was nothing wrong with Quixote's vision; the chase animates man, and his windmills just might be giants. But reality eventually intrudes on every vision, and They Might Be Giants is a dismal end for a conceit that may have seemed promising at birth. The pretense cannot mask the film's pusillanimous ideas. They might be giants, but in truth they are not even windmills. Just wind. S.K.