Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Out-of-Towners

By Russell Smith

APRIL 5, 1999: 

D: Sam Weisman; with Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin, John Cleese, Mark McKinney. (PG-13, 92 min.)

Since most folks' attitudes about Neil Simon can be plotted somewhere along the vast arc between indifference and near-religious zealotry, this remake of the fondly remembered 1970 original starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis is probably all but flop-proof. Unfortunately, awareness of this fact seems to have resulted in a general lack of urgency that reveals itself in generic, TV-sitcom directing techniques, halfhearted acting, and lamebrained, uninspired efforts to update Simon's screenplay for Nineties audiences. The basic concept remains unchanged: A middle-aged Midwestern couple (Martin and Hawn), who are in New York for hubby's job interview, get subjected to outlandish big-city indignities that push them to the brink of insanity but ultimately re-light the spark in their humdrum marriage. The general feel of the action and dialogue, however, is markedly broader -- not that Simon is any Joseph Mankiewicz to begin with -- than the earlier film, much more driven by pratfall comedy and spectacular, cataclysmic events. In one early scene, we're even treated to that quintessential action-movie staple, the runaway car crashing through a fish market. The clear villain in this area is screenwriter Marc Lawrence, an inexplicably hot current property who's also responsible for the currently playing Forces of Nature. Lawrence shows little feel for Simon's light, zingy style, which plays off unexpected juxtapositions of characters and situations. And director Weisman (George of the Jungle; D2: The Mighty Ducks) is a curiously undistinguished choice to helm a movie with this much hit potential. But as much as it pains me to say this, there's no weaker link in this creative chain than Steve Martin, a performer I've loved since his late-Sixties appearances on the Dean Martin Comedy Hour. As so often happens with even the most original comic actors (including Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and even Lemmon himself), Martin seems to have let his signature style harden into a mold -- a slightly toned-down variation on his wild-and-crazy-guy SNL persona. The repeated imposition of these mugging, arm-waving antics onto his allegedly fussy and anal-retentive character creates a disconcerting effect that really only works once, when he accidentally swallows a hit of acid thinking it's aspirin. Hawn is actually pretty effective as the frustrated hausfrau whose animal guile -- including a surprising flair for femme fatale subterfuge -- emerges under duress. But the best reason to consider catching The Out-of-Towners as a rainy weekend renter is John Cleese, who hilariously adapts his Basil Fawlty character to his role as an imperious, cross-dressing hotel manager. However, even this is a small blessing in such a slight, oddly lifeless movie with dubious appeal for even the most incorrigible Simon devotees.

2.0 stars


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