Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MR. WRONG (1996) * 1/2

Directed by Nick Castle. Produced by Marty Katz. Written by Chris Matheson, Kerry Ehrin, Craig Munson. Photography, John Schwartzman. Production design, Doug Kraner. Editing, Patrick Kennedy, Music, Craig Safan. Cast: Ellen DeGeneres (Martha Alston), Bill Pullman (Whitman Crawford), Joan Cusack (Inge), Dean Stockwell (Jack Tramonte), Joan Plowright (Mrs. Crawford), John Livingston (Walter), Robert Goulet (Dick Braxton), Ellen Cleghorne (Jane), Hope Davis (Annie), Brad Henke (Bob), Christine Cattell (Nancy Culpepper), Peter White (Mr. Alston), Polly Holliday (Mrs. Alston), Maddie Corman (Missy), et al. A Touchstone Picture. 92 mins. PG-13.
Today you're the toast of the town, tomorrow you're just toast. That's what happens to popular TV and stand-up comedian Ellen DeGeneres in her first feature role.

Actually, past a dumb giveaway opening scene that leads to a long flashback, the start of "Mr. Wrong" is at least as funny as the thought of certain people as US President. Martha (DeGeneres), 31, a talent coordinator for a local TV talk show, is at her younger sister's wedding. Even when unspoken, the pressure by family and friends to have Martha find her own Mr. Right permeates the air. Martha however, professionally content and personally well-balanced, is acceptably happy as a single. She bides her time. There are good nuances in her portrait.

Cut to some amusing office scenes, notably of Martha's much younger assistant Walter who keeps courting her. Cut to lonely Martha's date with a yoyo who brags:"I can sell ovens to Eskimos." Nonplussed Martha: "I think the usual expression is freezers." He, puzzled: "What would they need them for?" And on her doorstep he asks: "Give me a French kiss." Ugh.

The future suddenly materializes in the person of Whitman Crawford (Pullman), met cute (but not too) around a jukebox playing the Hank Williams oldie "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (performed by Chris Isaak). Before you can say Valentine's Day, they're having a hot affair. The morning after, at the office, her best friend breathlessly inquires "Did you? Did he? Did he?"--1990s coded language for safe sex.

Martha is in seventh heaven with Whitman's devotion, classiness and gentleness. He writes poetry (he recites some gibberish to her in a funny scene) and, as we learn later, gets from a trust $50,000 a month.

When he takes her to see his mother (Joan Plowright) weirdness begins to set in. When Martha innocently tells him "I want you to be yourself," this turns out to be as drastic as pressing the red missile-launching button. Whitman drops what we realize was a fake persona and does become himself. No, he's no serial killer but a total loony who does odd and tasteless things, and desperately wants to marry Martha. In turn, she now desperately wants out.

So far, so good. But the movie takes a sudden dive past the first 35-40 minutes and keeps shedding ratings stars. The balance is devoted to Whitman's relentless pursuit and stalking of Martha.

Unreasonably jealous, Whitman's previous girlfriend Inge (Cusack) aided by a fat, hopeless suitor, menaces Martha whom Whitman keeps showering with gifts and unwelcome attentions. "Mr. Wrong" becomes tedious though not awful (yet), given its small ambitions. But after a second plunge it smashes itself flat on the pavement. Meandering, incoherence, confusion and stupidity turn fun into fiasco.

Much is wrong with "Mr. Wrong." The direction, hesitant and uneven from the start, worsens exponentially. The concocted-by-committee scenario gets even more painful. One of the scripters had done the "Bill & Ted" flicks. The other two are first-timers. Past the initial impetus, the trio grope in the dark, have no idea where to go next, fail to find a single acceptable development, gag or line.

The plot includes some name performers given either microscopic walk-on parts (Goulet) or a small, wasted ones (Plowright, Stockwell, TV "Alice"'s Holliday).

Criminally idiotic is the role of the usually incomparable Joan Cusack, slated in my book for the Thelma Ritter Award. Criminally cruel is the way DeGeneres is photographed. The very fact that she is no movie beauty should have been worked on to show us a real person, a change from bimboids. It is pure technical sloppiness. Look at Robert Redford in newscasts, then at his younger, well made-up and shot, transformed face in the previews of his new film.

Coming close to being right in "Mr. Wrong" are a) the natural rapport between DeGeneres and Best Friend Ellen Cleghorne, a black actress, and b) the perfect normalcy of older women having affairs with younger men. Alas, both notions are way underdeveloped, and the second is botched up by the asinine ending.

Perhaps theaters ought to screen only the first section, for two thirds off tickets.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel