HOUSESITTER (1992) ***1/2. Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Mark Stein from a story by Stein and Brian Grazer.Photography,John A. Alonzo.Music,Miles Goodman. Produced by Brian Grazer.Cast: Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Dana Delany, Julie Harris, Donald Moffat,Peter MacNicol,Richard B. Shull,Laurel Cronin,Roy Cooper, Christopher Durang.A Universal release. 102 minutes, Rated PG.
A case in point. My eye caught a headline in the showbiz publication "Variety", written in that paper's zippy, humorous style: "'HouseSitter' served with eviction notices". Sure enough, a survey of ratings and reactions shows that most were negative, some were mixed and only a few in favor.
I'm squarely with the last group, which for some reason was heavy with Chicago critics. But in these days of Ross Perot who keeps hammering that a President is the servant of the people, I find that this also applies to reviewers. So I did a second"Consumer Reports" turn, checked several reviews that "Variety" had not included, read some of those mentioned in "Variety." Sure enough again. The odds are against "HouseSitter".
I guess I'm sticking to my minority position. The movie is a delight, from its opening credits that waste no time, to its finish that's totally predictable -- but I wouldn't have it otherwise.
Steve Martin plays Newton Davis, an architect in a Boston firm. He comes from a picturesque New England town, hates "Newt" and goes by "Davis." He would like to make partner, but though a good professional he is an idealist and not good at office politics. He feels insecure and is also frustrated in his private life.
The movie opens with Davis in his hometown, surprising childhood sweetheart Becky (Dana Delany) with a house all wrapped in ribbons that he built for them.
Don't ask how Davis constructed it in secret in a small town where everyone knows everyone else. This is a fantasy . Even though it accumulates plot-holes and you don't for a moment believe anything or anyone, this really doesn't matter at all.
The house is actually a near-copy of a House Beautiful prize-winner, the kind that Cary Grant would have loved in his1948 movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."
Davis finally pops the question. But prim Becky, taken aback and worried about his having too much imagination for a conservative like her,says no.
In a Hungarian restaurant in Boston, the mournful Davis meets fake-Hungarian waitress Gwen (Goldie Hawn). She is like a grown up 60s flower-child and like Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a bit like Shirley MacLaine in "Irma la Douce" and a lot like the wide-eyed Goldie we all know and like those women who long ago were called "Bohemians" or "free souls."
With no carnal or gypsy-violin romantic preamble (mercifully) Davis-on-the-rebound and Gwen sleep together that night in her apartment. (The movie is rated PG but the casualness of this quickie ought to make Quayle quail). Martin had already left when Gwen wakes up in the morning.
Gwen, a rolling stone, finds a sketch of the dream house drawn by Martin on a napkin. Deciding that it needs an occupant, she locates it and moves in. The squatter passes herself for Davis's bride. Everyone is taken in. Gwen is adopted and fussed over by all, starting with Julie Harris and Donald Moffat who play Davis's alienated parents (but you know that Gwen will fix all that) and who finance the furnishing of the house. She makes friends with Becky, who, now seeing Davis with new eyes because of Gwen's extravagant praise, begins to regret her refusal.
When Davis shows up, the farce escalates as he gets roped into playing along. I will give no specifics since it is deadly to summarize things that are funny. And they are funny here. Gwen is not really a designing woman but a champion mythomaniac who goes imperturbably from invention to invention. She is not immoral but an endearing, fast-thinking kook. After Davis appears and disturbs her pastoral harmony, she tells him: "For a while it was a great marriage. Well, it was ....until you came into it!"
The Queen of chutzpah knows that the best defense is attack so she turns every new development to her advantage. Furious but grudgingly sincere, Davis tells her: "You're some kind of genius. You're like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit."
The picture belongs to Goldie whose liveliness, cuteness and slim-to-kill-for figure would be exceptional at any age and are amazing at hers -- 47. Martin has the good sense to leave Goldie in the spotlight and play instead something akin to a straight man. Not that he lacks hilarious moments. There is no real chemistry between the two leads, but you don't miss it.
Nicely underplayed are Dana Delany and playwright Christopher Durang. He does a howlingly funny cameo as an eager clergyman-counselor. The other actors are mostly reactors, but going through the motions is all that's asked of them.
"HouseSitter" is a charming return to a mix of hallowed Hollywood genres: screwball comedies about false identities ("Nothing Sacred", "My Favorite Wife," "Bringing Up Baby," "My Man Godfrey,""Ball of Fire" et al.); shaggy dog stories (there is actually a real, huge shaggy dog in this movie); comedies with "borrowed" families (like Frank Capra's "Lady for a Day" which he remade as "A Pocketful of Miracles"); movies about lovable impostors; or films where the extrovert thaws out the introvert.
Playwright Mark Stein's first film script is a great beginning. His ear for dialogue gets comic effects from simple but absurd lines, those once-common repartees and comments (remember Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges) now on the endangered species list. Take Martin, back from Boston, discovering that Gwen had lied to him again and referring to an earlier episode: "I punched a totally innocent Hungarian." (Imagine his saying "man" instead of "Hungarian" and you'll se difference tha change makes).
Director Frank Oz, is known for his TV work on the Mupppets created by Jim Henson. With Henson co-directing he made his first feature "The Dark Crystal"." Then, solo, he directed "The Muppets Take Manhattan," "The Little Shop of Horrors," " Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," and "What About Bob?" --all good to very good. The last two, though kookily hilarious, did not, do far as I know, get the praise they deserved. If this happens to "HouseSitter" too there's something wrong with the national sense of humor.
[Pub. 24 June 1992]
ADDENDUM May 1995. My Quail joke above is beginning to fade, but it is advantageously replaced by Davis's hated name "Newt."
Copyright Edwin Jahiel,1992,1995