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'Town & Country': Unbearably Rich

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2001


    'Town and Country' Gary Shandling and Warren Beatty in "Town & Country." (New Line)
"Town & Country" feels like a Woody Allen movie on steroids. It means to study the mores and couplings of upscale New Yorkers, but the whole thing is too big, too loud, too expensive and has too much Diane Keaton.

It also proves an immutable movie rule: It's impossible to empathize with people who live in better houses than you do.

And since Warren Beatty's Porter Stoddard has two houses that are better than yours, the rule goes double. He has a sprawling, killer-decorated Park Avenue apartment, so vast it has room for wifey's business and his two kids and their lovers as well as the live-in maid and her lover (everybody's sophisticated, see); and he has a Nantucket-shingled summer mansion in East Hampton, overlooking the hilly dunes, the flawless beach and the sparkly sea. That's the good news. The bad news: His missus is Keaton.

Well, of course, Porter isn't married to Diane Keaton the woman, who is almost certainly delightful and wise; he's married to Ellie Stoddard, decorator extraordinaire and pious moral center of the movie. Alas, that's Diane Keaton the actress, who is eternally braying, nattering, giggling, an Annie Hall in search of an Alvy Singer.

Porter has a problem, even beyond his wife's verbal tics and twitches. This one is also somewhat difficult to empathize with, particularly if you happen to be me. Women keep throwing themselves at him and he finally slips and decides to catch one, a cellist played by Nastassja Kinski who smiles at him during a concert. The movie is so lame in its level of invention that it can't document the verbal foreplay that precedes the bedding; it cuts from that smile to post-coital languor and regret. The others who go bonkers at exposure to Porter's plasticized, stretched-taut skin are Jenna Elfman, Goldie Hawn and Andie MacDowell – not a bad trifecta for a 64-year-old movie star, but somewhat surprising for a 64-year-old architect.

What has turned Porter toward the way of all flesh not attached to his wife? The movie is unclear on this issue, as it is on all issues of motive (which is why it makes so little sense), but it appears to be the collapse of his best friend's marriage. Griffin (Garry Shandling), a swanky East Side antiques dealer, is caught in flagrante by his wife Mona (Hawn). But Mona is so shocked she doesn't track the details and misses a key fact about the motel tryst she witnesses and her husband's true (if unconvincing) nature. She begins the divorce dance.

Porter lectures Griffin on the stupidity of his ways; within 48 hours he's in the sack with Kinski's Alex. So "Town & Country" is essentially a farce on the theme of male folly, built around a single comic device: to continually contrive grotesque circumstances for its dignified, retirement-age hero to negotiate. But rarely is the humor situational or ironic or particularly witty; far too frequently it devolves to the crudest kind of physical stuff. If you've ever longed to see a 64-year-old man rabbit-hop up the stairs with his pants around his ankles, here's your chance.

The plot feels arbitrary and seems driven to invent new places for its protagonists to go, as if to justify a budget on which Woody Allen could have made six much better films. We open in Paris (the two couples have private-jetted over, and you may be forgiven if you silently request that the plane please blow up); then, unexpectedly, we're in plantation-house, kudzu-cloaked Mississippi, where for unfathomable reasons Ellie has sent Porter with the recently separated and distraught Mona, and duh!, guess what happens? The longest section is New York City's high end and East Hampton's higher end; there's an interlude in Sun Valley, where Charlton Heston gets one of the few comic turns in his career and retires the 2001 Good Sport Award by playing a gun-happy macho nut case. Some will say it isn't acting, but I would say Heston is the best thing in the movie.

Nobody else could be said to deliver much of a performance. Beatty plays with one eyebrow cocked in mild befuddlement so consistently you begin to suspect the plastic surgeon made a mistake and pinned it that way. Keaton is…Oh! the humanity, the humanity! As for Shandling and Hawn, they are Shandling and Hawn in well-fitted but now well-worn roles, he smarmy, she ditzy. Elfman and MacDowell are in pointlessly thin roles as, essentially, plot gambits to get Beatty into surrealistic circumstances, such as the Sun Valley Halloween party that finds him in a bear suit or, worse, the architects' award ceremony where he is stalked by the NRA president with an elephant gun.

The movie is annoyingly unrigorous in its examination of marriage complexities. It invests all moral authority in the supposedly perfect Ellie, even while observing her chronic career-consumption, one symptom of which is her utter uninterest in Porter or his life. Then she has the gall to be astounded when she discovers he has yielded to temptation? "Town & Country" was written by Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry and directed by Peter Chelsom and you have to wonder if any of them have ever been married. They seem to feel qualified to comment on its torturous paradoxes without ever convincing you they've experienced it. As most adults either know or learn, it's never black and white.

"Town & Country" (107 minutes) is rated R for heavy sexual innuendo and occasional glimpses of flesh.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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