Cinema: Fa, Humbug

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Directed by MIKE NICHOLS

Screenplay by BUCK HENRY

Dolphins speak and humans scheme in this coy satirical thriller. The dolphins come off a lot better, but of course they have the best roles. In fact, they have the only roles. There is the traditional complement of actors—George C. Scott most prominent among them—but none has enough raw material to build a part. So a loquacious dolphin and his female companion swim off with the show, and welcome to it.

Buck Henry's screenplay crudely compresses Robert Merle's good novel of the same title about a research scientist's growing moral responsibility and political commitment. In the book, the scientist was forced to take sides when he found that his "pure" research had been manipulated by rival government agencies until it was virtually perverted.

In the film, little of this remains. Bits of themes, shreds of ideas float on the surface of the plot like so much plankton.

What is left, besides a lot of pretty dolphin footage, is some bad intercollegiate-revue satire, a shadow of Sea Hunt, and a calculated sentimentality that evokes memories of Lassie Come Home.

The dolphins are kidnaped from the scientist (Scott) and trained to blow up the President of the U.S. as he vacations aboard his yacht. The would-be assassins are a cartel of cliches: a loudmouthed, cigar-chomping Westerner, an unctuous Middle European, a fatherly Ivy League type. The movie makes their plot a matter of as much concern and surprise as whether Pearl White will be cut loose from the railroad ties be fore the locomotive flattens her.

Director Nichols moves his camera with academic predictability. His actors do not inhabit his shots; they pose in them, as if pressed under glass. When Scott worries to his colleagues that unknown foes are "sneaking up on us," Nichols cuts to a shot of a small boat coming ashore at night, underscored by a suitably melodramatic flourish of music. Nichols, whose reputation rests partly on his supposedly sensitive work with actors, here leaves his cast at loose ends.

Scott is never animated, never even engaged. Others — including Trish Van Devere and the others (excepting Paul Sorvino, who makes an amusingly sardonic spook) — embody the antique definition of good children: they speak only when spoken to. In the case of such actors as Fritz Weaver and Elizabeth Wilson, this is a blessing.

Fa, the talking dolphin, is cute, graceful and quite lovely to watch. Since Day of the Dolphin contains no threatening or challenging scene or idea, it might be considered a good family movie. But only for families who feast on pablum.