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‘Born Yesterday’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1993


Luis Mandoki
Melanie Griffith;
John Goodman;
Don Johnson;
Edward Herrmann;
Max Perlich;
Fred Dalton Thompson;
Nora Dunn
Parental guidance suggested

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In the not-so-hot comedy retread "Born Yesterday," whenever Billie Dawn opens her beautiful mouth it's usually just to change feet. With her breathy baby goo-goo and hourglass resume, she's the Platonic Ideal of the Dumb Blonde: gorgeous, spoiled and world-class stupid.

As played perhaps all too convincingly by Melanie Griffith, Billie has something like perfect pitch for the numskull banalities of the nouveau riche. She hates to travel, for example, because whenever she checks into a new hotel she has to learn the channels on the TV all over again. "It took me almost a whole minute to find my soap opera," the former Vegas chorus girl whines.

Arriving in Washington on the arm of her millionaire boyfriend, Harry Brock (John Goodman), Billie is meant to be a public relations asset. But quickly Harry and his chief adviser (Edward Herrmann) realize that she's a loose cannon -- and if she's not locked down, Billie could bring the wrong kind of attention to bear on their shady dealings with a handful of senators. She needs to get smart and fast; so Harry, who's no genius himself, decides to hire Paul (Don Johnson), a socially savvy political writer, to show her the ropes and keep her out of trouble. Naturally, Harry gets more than his money's worth, and Billie gets more than mere book learnin'. What the audience gets is charmingly old-fashioned, but clumsy and rather simple-minded, like a civics lesson aimed at third graders. The picture is an updating of the classic 1950 film version starring Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford -- which was itself based on 1946 play by Garson Kanin. But, by some miracle, the new adaptation seems to come from even further back in time. The main trouble lies not in the liberties that screenwriter Douglas McGrath and director Luis Mandoki ("White Palace") have taken to bring the material up to date. If anything, they've been overly faithful to Kanin's original, replicating not only its strengths but its weaknesses as well.

The real problem is that the filmmakers have produced a flat-footed work that wouldn't fit comfortably in either Kanin's era or our own. As part of his crash course in political hipness, Paul gives Billie eight all-purpose answers designed to help her bluff her way through any cocktail party bull session. But when one of the answers refers to improbability of a Democrat occupying the White House, you have to wonder about the value of the filmmakers' political insights.

The strange feeling of dislocation has worked its way into the performances too. Both Griffith and Johnson seem to play their characters primarily by not playing them. In Johnson's case, the actor appears determined to blend in with the woodwork, and while his low energy level is appealingly self-effacing it also makes it seem as if he were trying to draw his character with one hand and erase it with the other.

Griffith, on the other hand, condescends to Billie at the same time that she asks us to admire her for her fundamental goodness. Billie may be ignorant, but her heart is in the right place, and any sins she may commit are instantly forgiven because she simply doesn't know any better. But by now Griffith's damaged innocent routine has become a sort of boilerplate, and she uses it generically instead of finding a style that's unique to this one character or shows some specific understanding of her words. Watching her, you feel it's as if she's running through the script for the first time.

As the symbol of power-hungry vulgarity, Goodman at least expends some energy, but the filmmakers can't decide if they want us to love his character or hate him. He's a bad man and a bully, but he also has a larger-than-life vitality that's disarming. When he and Billie take to the dance floor, he shakes his big bottom without a trace of self-consciousness, and you can't help but get a kick out of his piggy high spirits. And yet the dancing scene seems contrived to protect Goodman -- as a well-liked, prime-time television star -- from the audience's displeasure with his corrupt character.

It's not clear whether Mandoki wanted to reproduce the style of George Cukor's original -- which brought Holliday a Best Actress Oscar -- or find something deeper and more relevant. In either case, he's failed. Because he can't seem to find the right style for his story, everything seems off kilter. If that earlier film version was simplistic and superficial, it was also brisk and economical and focused.

In this model, the story seems to drift from incident to incident without urgency or resolution. And while Billie's transformation from an intellectual ugly duckling into a swan is still the main order of business, the metamorphosis here occurs primarily because it was on the schedule, not as an outgrowth of any previous action. In old Hollywood, style could make up for a lack of substance, but this remake is without either.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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