Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Paul Mazursky. Written by Roger L. Simon and Mazursky. Production design, Pato Guzman. Music, Cole Porter,Louis Armstrong, Nino Rota. Cast: Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Bill Irwin, Daren Firestone, Rebecca Nickels, Paul Mazursky. A Touchstone release. 87 minutes. Rated R (language, adult situations).
At the core of "Scenes from a Mall" there is both emptiness and a saturation of movie references. At the edges is a film connoisseur's loving tribute to mostly European cinemasters. This makes it more a work for film historians than for seekers of movie entertainment.

"Scenes" is in effect a one-act, two-character play. Nick and Deborah Fifer are a Beverly Hills couple preparing to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary, which coincides with the Christmas season. Woody Allen is a lawyer for sports figures looking to endorse products. Bette Midler is a trendy psychiatrist and writer.

A prologue offers us unsexy bedroom cavorting, movie-banal with its interruptions by their his and hers telephones. The couple's passion, unconvincing and unappealing,is further undermined by the camera's insistence on closeups of their decidedly un-Adonis and un-Venus looks.

The script keeps hammering us with dates in order to convince us that both Nick and Debbie are 40. In fact,in 1991, Midler was 45 and Allen 55. (Curiously, they were both born on December 1st).

As Nick and Debbie drive to a mall to pick up their holiday presents,there are some mildly satirical scenes of affluent Angelenos stalled in traffic and using their cellular phones. At the vast shopping center,for unexplored reasons, Nick blurts out that he's had an affair(it was over yesterday, at 4:30 pm). Soon after Debbie 'fesses up that she too has been carrying on with an older Czech colleague .

In a tour of upscale stores and ethnic eateries,the couple fight,talk of money and divorce,reminisce,make up,clash again,argue keep blowing hot and cold. The camera persists in its unflattering photography. A mime (Bill Irwin) keeps hounding the twosome as a diversion unjustified and unsupported by the script.

With a bare minimum of other speaking parts,the supporting cast is one of extras used as background decor notably several gorgeous younger shoppers who contrast with the couple's homeliness.

Motivations are unclear,the tension is artificial,the dialogue uninteresting, the principals uninvolving and miscast,in spite of sporadic jokes,gags and one-liners. Woody Allen the actor cries out for Allen the writer-director, He can act much better than this. Back in 1976 he had done superbly in "The Front," directed by the late Martin Ritt and scripted by Walter Bernstein.

Of some interest to specialists are Paul Mazursky's peripherals. Mazursky's filmic characteristic is to cook American meat with European sauces. His attraction to Continental cinema is enormous. To mention but two cases,the early "Alex in Wonderland" is imitation Fellini,with young film director Donald Sutherland hounding the Italian master; "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" is a remake of "Boudu Sauve des Eaux" ("Boudu Saved from Drowning"), one of Jean Renoir's several French classics of the 1930s.

In the French New Wave of the 1960's, references to other films were endemic. In "Scenes" too. Among them,the traffic jam just has to come from films by Fellini, Antonioni,Tati and Godard; Allen is constantly lugging a banana-like surfboard --a cumbersome phallic symbol of the Blake Edwards school and a reminder of Allen's film "Bananas"; a tacky Auguste Renoir mural in the mall refers to the painter's son, Jean Renoir; a bench scene may well have been inspired by Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour"; the mime's provenance is Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise."

I'll say this much at least,that Mazurky's choices are most eclectic and his devotion to great directors is touching.

Less esoterically,this movie is kind of perverse upending of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage," combined with Paul Bartel's "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Berverly Hills," in which Mazursky had a part. And more blatantly, Nick and Debbie,for no good reason, watch "Salaam Bombay" in a mall theatre and make love,in contrast to sad scenes on the screen. The only audience is our sick couple and a couple of shushing Sikhs.

Those film games are cute but unintegrated. Better woven in is the real/symbolic soullessness of the mall and its horrid pre-fab modernism, sterility and anonymous promiscuity. Or the ethnic restaurant with a Mexican-garbed waitress --a tired, middle-aged Wasp -- and deafening Mariachis who prevent the couple from talk about splitting their assets.

Potentially good is the use of music,from the opening credits of Marlene Dietrich singing Cole Porter's " You Do Something To Me" , to more Porter ("Let's Do It," "Easy To Love"),to Louis Armstrong or the Nino Rota scores for Fellini's "Amarcord" and "Juliet of the Spirits." But again,those tuneful references come closer to nostalgia for people of Mazurky's (or Allen's) background and generation than to anything substantial.

With its spot-the-source game, "Scenes" does have,for film buffs,a certain appeal, nostalgia and the shock of recognition. But for seekers of originality as well as the general public, this work is neither fish nor fowl, neither fresh nor foul. Mostly it feels like a set of unfinished ideas.

Still,seen again, it is rather more interesting than the first time, and does not quite deserve the critical lambasting it received when it came out in 1991.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel