"The North Avenue Irregulars," a new Disney farce about a naive young minister who enlists the more madcap women of his parish in a slaphappy crusade against crime, seems almost pathologically inane.
I don't know how closely the behavior of Edward Herrmann's Rev. Michael Hill, newly arrived at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church on an overgroomed backlot street in mythical New Campton, Middle America, resembles the character of his prototype, the Rev. Albert Fay Hill of New Rochelle, N.Y. I certainly hope the resemblance is remote, because not even Herrmann's gently appealing attributes prevent the movie parson from seeming an insufferably unworldly, self-righteous, knuckleheaded crusader.
Opening today at several area theaters, "Irregulars" puts itself at an immediate disadvantage when one of the parson's two shiny prop children asks, "God, are you home?" after poking her head in the new sanctuary for the first time. The fictional Rev. Hill appears to be a widower, like virtually all movie and TV widowers, for the sake of romantic convenience. Cloris Leachman, a manic divorcee, would obviously like to devour him. The inside track belongs to Susan Clark, the proficient church secretary and daughter of the late lamented pastor Hill has succeeded.
Clark, who sensibly disapproves of Herrmann's amateur crime-fighting, acts with far more depth than this vehicle can tolerate. Her initial contempt for the newcomer is provoked by his irresponsible behavior: Against her advice, the parson entrusts the church treasury to a ne'er-do-well who blows it on the horses.
For some reason the parson fails to appreciate that a problem has been caused by his own stupidity. He is so shocked to learn that something called gambling exists in precious New Campton that he begins fulminating on a TV Sermonette and at the pulpit. This molehill of provocation is built into an eventual heap of hectic slapstick when undercover cops implausibly approach the pastor for assistance and the mobsters just as implausibly begin to squirm.
It is not too far-fetched to imagine a satisfying comedy built around the ordinary working problems and character conflicts that might be encountered by a clergyman taking over a new parish. But it probably would be more difficult to write and sustain than the numbskull calculations of "Irregulars," which keeps going on injections of idiotic behavior until an elaborate car chase-and-demolition climax that presumably will send the juveniles out feeling happy.
The actresses cast as Herrmann's helpers are in good spirits -- and two of them, Barbara Harris and the indestructible Patsy Kelly, are also in wonderful form.
As a housewife constantly distracted by her duties, especially a killing schedule of chauffering assignments, Harris has a crisply amusing air of preoccupation. She's much more believable and appealing here than she was as the mother in "Freaky Friday." Harris' preoccupation gives an added increment of humor to an occasionally witty throwaway line, like her "Rev, it's another threat for you," upon answering a phone in the church office.
Kelly has such a distinctive delivery that something as primitive as "Help? You? Me?" sounds unaccountably hilarious coming out of her mouth.
Virginia Capers' presence as the token black housewife of the congregation betrays another primitive aspect of current Disney comedy calculations. At the same time Capers is fun to watch, and her character accommodates one good source of gratuitous humor. since her unseen husband is a used-car dealer who likes to plaster the sorriest merchandise with comeons like "One Owner Beauty."
Unless I miss my guess, director Bruce Bilson is drawn to a kind of wackiness that needs something other than Disney farce, an unassimilated mixture of gags and beamish middleclass sentimentality. No one really functions at top efficiency or ingenuity within those conventions. Perhaps the increasingly disheveled, frantic aspects of Disney farces reflect an undercurrent of desperation -- the feeling of wanting to break out while being essentially boxed in.