THE OPTIMISTS. Peter Sellers, with a wad of putty on his nose that makes him look like Cyrano with a bob, must prove to a couple of downcast London slum kids that life can be, if not exactly beautiful, at least a little magical. He and his little dog Bella take the kids out buskingsinging and dancing and begging on street corners and for theater lines. This sort of activity has a certain ragtag vitality, and compares favorably with the glum life the kids lead at home. They are charmed, a condition that is not contagious.
Lionel Bart has provided a few sprightly tunes, and there are all sorts of coloring-book views of London, but nothing really can pierce through the thick layers of glucose that impact the movie. There are also subplots about running away from home, working toward a new flat, and death and renewal in the animal kingdom (Bella is ailing). The movie has the vacant sentimentality and just the sort of grinding winsomeness that can make family movies such a chore.
YEAR OF THE WOMAN, as the first movie made almost entirely about women by women, merits some small attention. It might have merited more if it had not been written and directed by Poet-Novelist Sandra Hochman (Walking Papers), who has used the women's movement as a sort of rostrum for some extravagantly banal personal fantasies. Much of Year of the Woman was shot, in documentary style, at the Democratic Convention in Miami last year. The coverage of the women's caucus, which is fleeting, has some hard intensity. There are also some moments of humor, such as Hochman performing a tap dance in front of the White House. Not much, maybe, but the Year of the Woman can make you grateful for scraps.
Hochman inserts herself into every scene, interviewing, berating or proselytizing for the female takeover of the world. It is a revolution to which she gives rather capricious support. She is more interested in her own earth-bound reveries, and includes far too many of them. A long climactic scene in an observatory supposedly located on the moon has Hochman chortling with an uncomfortable Art Buchwald about women's domination. She was apparently not too serious about any of this; unfortunately, she is not very funny, either. Her narration does not help. Hochman may be a poet, but her writing here ("In this secret room of mirrors, are we spying on who we are?") offers heavy evidence to the contrary.
WHAT? is Roman Polanski's shot at a scatterbrained, spur-of-the-moment comedy, a little like John Huston's Beat the Devil. A girl (Sydne Rome) stumbles into an Italian villa barely clothed and near collapse. Like Playboy's Little Annie Fanny, whom she resembles, the girl is promptly set upon by the entire household, which includes psychotics, perverts, lechers, gnomes, dikes and an assortment of servants who make it their business not to notice anything.
Polanski has always fancied himself something of an absurdist, although his best filmssuch as Knife in the Water, Repulsion and Cul de Sachave been more notable for good, slightly kinky melodrama. What? has more of the trappings of absurdist comedy. The girl, although apparently free to leave, remains a prisoner; nothing is explained, no one acts out of any clear motivation.