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‘Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 17, 1989

Upstairs, two wealthy women, one widowed (Jacqueline Bisset), one divorced (Mary Woronov), discuss their man problems and conclude that servants are a girl's best friend, while downstairs their chauffeurs (Robert Beltran and Ray Sharkey) bet $5,000 on who will be the first to sleep with the other's employer.

Meanwhile, the divorcee's playwright brother (Ed Begley Jr.) arrives with his new bride (Arnetia Walker), only to find that she's the mistress of his sister's ex-husband (Wallace Shawn), which bothers him only slightly because he's in love with the widow, who is haunted by the randy ghost of her late husband (Paul Mazursky).

Add to this a son who is sexually initiated by his new aunt as payment for not exposing her work in porno, an overweight diet doctor (played by the film's director, Paul Bartel) who calls himself a "thinologist," and an overaffectionate corgi named Bojangles, and you have a sense of the film's tortured sense of fun.

Call it the Bartel Touch.

"Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," which is the work of Bartel and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, is the latest in labored bad taste. Intended as a hip sendup of soap opera-style farce, it's a failed parody written in terse pseudo-Wildean epigrams that crawl like slugs out the actors' gaping mouths.

Can there be anything more tedious than forced cleverness? Of all genres, farce is the most delicate; it requires a precise, almost architectural sense of narrative flow, and Bartel has a limited understanding of both staging and pace. Because he is unable to create any momentum in his story, even within scenes, his actors stare at one another like lightning-struck cows.

Desperate to shock, Bartel forgets a truism -- that those who care about outraging an audience almost never do. As a result, he is crass and obvious when he tries to be perverse, leaden where he wants to be deft. Under these conditions, camp cannot flourish.

It doesn't help that his notion of the Beverly Hills lifestyle has all the glamour of an episode of "People's Court." Or that his actors seem stranded in sexual neutral. No one in the cast comes across -- not Bisset and, most regrettably, not Sharkey, who flicked his cape with smarmy relish on TV's "Wiseguy." What's needed here is inflection and style, but subtlety is not an arrow in Bartel's quiver; instead, his pack is loaded with sledgehammers.

"Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" is rated R and contains strong language and nudity.

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