"Scenes from a Mall" is a comedy starring Bette Midler and Woody Allen as a bickering married couple; it's directed by Paul Mazursky ("An Unmarried Woman," "Enemies A Love Story"); and the studio overseeing the project is Touchstone, a division of Disney, the acknowledged current king of the heap.
Sounds like the perfect high-concept project, right? So how could it go wrong?
Who knows? But wrong it went.
"Scenes from a Mall," apparently intended as a comic take on Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage," attempts to probe a 16-year marriage that goes through a lifetime's worth of ups and downs in a single day, all the while lampooning Beverly Hills lifestyles.
But the examination of marriage is superficial to say the least, and if you've seen Mazursky's "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" or Steve Martin's current "L.A. Story," you've already witnessed Los Angeles being more successfully deflated.
Audiences are likely to lose patience with "Scenes" very quickly even dyed-in-the-wool Woody or Bette fans.
Being an ardent admirer of both, I was looking forward to this film, which marks Allen's first job in 15 years as an actor in someone else's movie. It was worrisome, however, to see the film postponed from its original Christmas release date.
Unfortunately, it lives down to the fears of critics who took that as a sign that the studio had lost faith in the project. It's not unwatchable, but it is nonetheless artificial, talky and not nearly as funny as it ought to be. In fact, after an uproarious start, "Scenes from a Mall" begins a rapid downhill slide and never recovers.
Midler and Allen are a wealthy Beverly Hills couple, Midler a psychologist who has written a best-seller on marriage and Allen a high-rolling sports lawyer. They have twin Saabs, both wear beepers and as the film opens they are preparing to celebrate their 16th anniversary around Christmas.
So they head out to the enormous Beverly Center mall to pick up their presents for each other and find themselves alternately fighting and making up in public. (A friend noted that this may be the first two-character film that features a cast of thousands, referring to the constant crowds of people in the mall who never take part in the story.)
During a yogurt break, after picking up their gifts, Allen confesses an infidelity he's been having an affair but broke it off the previous day. This sends Midler into a rage and she demands a divorce but later calms down and decides to confess that she has also been having an affair. This, naturally, sends Allen into a rage and he demands a divorce.
While this may seem to have great comic potential, especially with such rare comic talents as Midler and Allen starring, there is never any real chemistry or comic energy to make the audience care about or identify with these people, individually or as a couple.
Allen, for example, is the epitome of the stereotypical yuppie success story, complete with a ponytail and all the ostentatious trappings of wealth. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the characters he always creates for his own movies and is apparently intended to be inherently amusing. He even has a line extolling Los Angeles culture, an inside joke for "Annie Hall" fans.
But we never really discover anything to help us understand his character and I, for one, had a hard time accepting Allen as a product of the Los Angeles fast-lane lifestyle.
Midler's character is more convincing but also suffers from one-dimensional development.
Despite this, the stars valiantly try to breathe life into the proceedings, and once in a while Allen's one-liners hit the mark . . . which prompts a question about how much ad libbing went on.
The only other characters of note are an obnoxious mime (Bill Irwin) hired by the mall to entertain patrons and a cameo by director Mazursky as a psychologist who, on videotape, praises Midler's book. Irwin gets some laughs by mimicking Allen behind his back, and Mazursky is a hoot as the pompous psychologist.
But their moments are brief, and 90 minutes spent with Midler and Allen's bickering characters at times seems like hours.
It's hard not to wonder what Allen could have done if he'd written the screenplay himself. It's even harder to understand what he saw in the script that prompted him to take on a rare acting-only role.
"Scenes from a Mall" is rated R for a particular profanity spoken a few times, along with some other profanity and two sex scenes.