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Martin and Hawn seem lost in high-strung comedy

The Out-of-Towners
Starring: Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, and John Cleese
Screenplay: Marc Lawrence, based on the 1970 screenplay by Neil Simon
Producers: Robert W. Cort, Robert Evans, David Madden, and Teri Schwartz
Director: Sam Weisman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some sex and drug-related humor

Steve Martin is one of the most gifted comedians around, and I look forward to almost all of his films. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is one of his best works, as is All of Me, which displayed his gift for physical humor in hilarious ways. I even liked Sgt. Bilko, which took two viewings before I finally appreciated Martin's interpretation of the character. Once I did, I laughed from start to finish. One of his weaker attempts was the box office hit The Housesitter which I didn't find all that funny. My belief is that Goldie Hawn is also a good comedian, as she proved in the riotous Death Becomes Her and The First Wives' Club. Unfortunately, neither of them work together very well.

This is, of course, the main problem with The Out-of-Towners, a remake of the 1970 Neil Simon-penned comedy starring Jack Lemmon. I have not seen that film, but can only imagine that it must be better than this one. It's a real shame too, since the story seems to have all the right elements to work. Adapted by Marc Lawrence, who wrote Forces of Nature, a vastly superior comedy about the hazards of road travel, this film definitely could have been very funny, except that it enters into the realm of melodrama once too often. Add that with the music of shmaltz-meister Marc Shaiman and you get a film that isn't funny and isn't romantic in any way.

The Out-of-Towners begins with Henry (Martin) and Nancy (Hawn) Clark, a middle-aged couple saying farewell to their son who is going overseas to study. He is the last of their children, and now their house is vacant. Nancy can't cope with the thought of an empty house, and continuously cries on the way home. Meanwhile, Henry looks forward to the fact that now he'll be able to get a full meal. Unfortunately, Henry just lost his job at an advertising firm, and must now get to New York City for an interview with a high-profile advertising agency before 10:00 the next day. Problem is, he hasn't told his wife that he's unemployed.

After much debate, Nancy decides to go along with Henry, catching the plane at the last moment. It's here that the film turns from the sweet, good-natured comedy into a frantic, high-tension exercise in excess. Comedy is replaced by desperate attempts at humor, trying everything to make you laugh. It's essentially the same thing the Farrelly brothers do in their films, the difference being their films are actually good. Henry and Nancy scramble around New York, losing their luggage, missing their train into New York (after their plane was routed to Boston), not having enough cash to pay for the hotel room, and getting caught with their pants down (literally). Occasionally, the film does happen upon some good material that actually works, such as a scene where Henry and Nancy are mugged by Andrew Lloyd Webber (actually, he's just a mugger pretending to be Webber). Those moments are far and few between however, and by the end of the film, we are trying desperately to keep our blood pressure down.

What can you say about a comedy that manages to make your heart pound more than most suspense films today? Listening to Steven Martin and Goldie Hawn shriek their way through Marc Lawrence's dialogue (I'm not sure how much of it came from Neil Simon's original screenplay) is just one of this film's horrid elements. There are no ups and downs like there are in good comedies--it's a constant level, which never allows the audience to connect with the characters. Hawn and Martin seem to think that shouting dialogue and flailing body parts will evoke laughs from viewers. And they are right, but viewers aren't laughing with them, they are laughing at the ridiculousness of the situations and the stupidity with which the screenplay deals with its characters.

Calling Henry and Nancy characters is a stretch as well, since neither of them are distinguished in any way. Instead, they seem pawns of the script, bending to the whim of the writer whenever they need to. Nancy initially appears to be a nitwit, shouting to Henry and passing up his personal belongings on the airplane. Later on, she's incredibly smart, seducing a younger man to get into his room for the food. And then she's back to dumb again. It's an offensively handled situation that only keeps us from enjoying the film. In fact, the only moments we can enjoy involve the hotel's manager, played by the insanely flexible John Cleese. In reality, it's just a rehash of his Fawlty Towers persona. Lucky for us, it's a role worth repeating.

Director Sam Weisman doesn't seem to be in control of his actors at any point in the film. He lets them do whatever they want, allowing both Hawn and Martin to ham it up for the camera whenever possible. It's a series of tried humor followed by excruciatingly melodramatic moments of regret. The music, admittedly, does its job, cueing up the feelings we should be having at a particular moment. This may be the only merit Marc Shaiman's orchestral score gets, since it sounds suspiciously similar to his Patch Adams score. By the end, Weisman himself seems to be rushing the film to its inevitable and optimistic conclusion, which is surprisingly inappropriate considering the circumstances. The climactic moments (and I use the word climactic loosely) are so pathetic that even I laughed. I laughed because I had to. I laughed because by the end, I finally accepted its absurdity. It's a shame it took ninety minutes to make me care.

As much as blaming the director seems appropriate in this case, the majority of the fault lies directly on Martin and Hawn, who show an even greater lack of charisma than they did in their prior excursion together. Martin, in fact, has never been worse, playing a male lead so unlikable that all his attempts at humor just aren't funny. He runs around like a moron, almost an immature version of Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura (and how often would we call Ace Ventura mature?). It's a shame he's this lost, because Martin has the unique ability of making even bad material good. Hawn isn't quite as gifted in the comedy genre as she has been given credit for, but she can be funny with the right material. Let's just leave it at the obvious: this just isn't the right material.

The Out-of-Towners is rated PG-13 for language, some sex and drug-related humor. The so-called drug-related humor is painfully unfunny, requiring Martin to act like he's on acid, which I doubt he has ever done before. How he maintains the acid is cheap, relying on more cliches than most teen slasher movies of today. As often as people complain today about the abundance of teen-oriented comedies, we must admit that at least those teen comedies are funny. In fact, the recent 10 Things I Hate About You is intelligent, charming, and very funny, three things The Out-of-Towners should have been but never were. Until Hollywood can produce a good adult comedy, I'll stick with the teens.

**1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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