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'She-Devil' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 08, 1989

In Susan Seidelman's tediously antic "She-Devil," Roseanne Barr looks like something that crawled out from underneath a bridge. With jowls that hang down like saddlebags and an unwholesome-looking mole on her upper lip, she's pathologically unglamorous. Like the victim of an evil curse in a fairy story, she's a suburban troll -- something not even a mother could love.

"She-Devil," which is based loosely on a novel by Fay Weldon, probably qualifies as a feminist fable, but if so, it was made by the most self-loathing feminist imaginable. The heroine Seidelman has created isn't merely homely, as Weldon's heroine was, she's beyond hope, beyond loving.

The movie's opening sequence is set at the cosmetics counter in a department store, where long-limbed angels -- blondes, brunettes and redheads -- brush rouge on their cheeks and dot their necks with perfume. This is the realm of beauty and romance, a realm from which Barr's Ruth has been forever banished. Her opposite is Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep), a romance novelist so successful, glamorous and, above all, thin that she's profiled on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Mary resides in a cloud-kingdom of powder-puff pink. She's the repository for all the dreamy fantasies that float through the heads of those cupid-kissed shoppers as they gallivant through Estee Lauder-land -- she's their queen.

Ruth, on the other hand, is the queen of the dogs, and the war to the death she and Mary wage over her accountant husband, Bob (Ed Begley Jr.), is a war between the haves and the have-nots. They meet one night at a swanky party in New York City when Ruth dumps wine all over Mary's symphonically pink evening gown. Rushing to the rescue, Bob orders his clumsy wife to fetch salt and Perrier, locks eyes with the wine-splattered writer and falls madly in love. Initially, the pretense of a strictly business relationship is maintained, but before long he's abandoned Ruth and their two atrocious kids and devoted himself to building soap-bubble castles with his dream girl, prompting Ruth to plot her extravagant revenge.

This violent retribution takes the form of a systematic attack on Bob's assets -- his home, his family, his career and his freedom. Unfortunately, Seidelman fails to draw us onto Ruth's side, so her revenge isn't something we take a stake in. The film's most crucial mistake is that it doesn't allow Ruth any saving grace -- she doesn't even seem to be much of a mother. When her husband leaves her, we identify not with Ruth's anguish but with Bob's release.

This is so key that we can't imagine that the filmmakers wouldn't have given us some reason to embrace this off-putting woman. And because we have no feeling for her, we can't take any pleasure in her angry plotting. We watch her blow up her house, destroy Bob's love life and set him up with the IRS as if we'd been sentenced to hard time, joylessly counting down the minutes.

If Barr were a warmer, more generous performer, some of these problems might have been alleviated. But her appeal is based on her take-me-or-leave-me attitude. As a personality, she doesn't ask for our love -- in fact, she doesn't even seem to want it. She shuts us out.

Warmth isn't a characteristic we naturally associate with Meryl Streep either. All breathy girlishness and fluttering eyelashes, Streep's Mary is like a facsimile of Scarlett O'Hara fashioned out of vanilla ice cream. It was tantalizing to think of Streep, who in spots has shown a natural talent for comedy, breaking loose in a full-scale comic role. But though she works hard at projecting feminine vulnerability and guilelessness, she defeats herself, primarily because it's something she has to work hard at. This is unimaginative, straight-down-the-middle acting. Only in one scene, when she's whacked out on drugs and squirming on her bed, does she abandon herself to the material and pull out all the stops.

The odd thing about "She-Devil" is that in a sense, Bob is irrelevant. Partly this is because the fight is between the women, and partly because Ed Begley Jr. is too much of a sexual lightweight to qualify as a love object. Though he may have talents as a character actor, as a romantic lead he's a cipher.

Thematically, the picture flirts with observations about women and the nature of physical beauty. It runs up a flag over the nation of the ugly and unwanted and unloved. And if it were successful, it might have something to say about the way our values are skewed toward the superficial, the artificial and the shallow.

As it is, though, the movie's message is murky and out of whack. Seidelman's style of comedy trashes everyone. The movie's jokes, which cover everything from dead rodents to geriatric incontinence, are cartoony and sour and misanthropic. And the flukiest thing is that they're misogynic too. It's hard to imagine that a man could have been as ruthlessly coldblooded as Seidelman has been about Ruth's unattractiveness. The network of women workers that Ruth establishes to help her nail her husband runs on pettiness and rancor -- it's a coalition of resentment. In "She-Devil," Seidelman divides the world of women between the envied and the envious. She has a message for the Ruths of the world, and it's not a pretty one. She tells them that the best they can hope for is payback.

She-Devil is rated PG-13

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