If "Head Over Heels" seemed like a poor man's "Annie Hall", "Something Short of Paradise" is a poorer man's version.
Since imitations of the Oscar-winning "Rocky" has cluttered up the screen for the past three years, it figured that the "Annie Hall" imitations would begin showing up -- and probably failing to measure up.
Both "Time After Time" and "Head Over Heels" reflected the "Annie Hall" influence in the treatment of the heroine's roles and the performances of leading ladies Mary Steenburgen and Mary Beth Hurt. But "Something Short of Paradise" is the first movie that seems to derive directly from Woody Allen's film, and the emulation is neither becoming nor productive.
The screenplay by Fred Barron, whose previous credit was the appealing "Between the Lines," outlines a negligible love affair between David Steinberg, cast as the owner of a New York art house (the estimable Carnegie Hall Cinema as a matter of fact), and Susan Sarandon, cast as a magazine writer and presumably embodying "paradise" to Steinberg's "something short." The predictable progress of their courtship -- from awkward first meeting through awakening affection, tentative cohabitation, spats and alienation to happ reconciliation -- owes more to amateurish contrivance and coy facetiousness than clever or persuasive romantic documentation.
Neither off-putting nor distinctive, the characters barely exist as figments of Barron's undernourished imagination. And whatever promise they suggest at the outset is steadily undermined by the triviality of the material. Barron has already begun to overindulge a pretty elementary sense of humor, milking "cute" situations that seem to go dry after one or two desperate yanks.
For example, breakfasting after their first night in bed, the hero and heroine are given a would-be amusing bit of business -- reading from cereal boxes -- that flatly refuses to play. Later, Steinberg and Sarandon are even more decisively defeated by an argument outside his apartment door that draws in his next-door neighbors and degenerates into a dreary game of Putting Down the Squares, evidently Barron's way of finessing an obligatory showdown between the lovers.
In fact, quite a bit of obligatory work remains unfinished by the time this movie simpers to a fadeout. When the hero confronts the heroine with the accusation, "You don't know what you want -- you've got 10,000 theories, but you don't know," it seems unforgivably forgetful of the author not to have put a couple of those 10,000 in the heroine's mouth before arriving at this turning point.
The director, David Helpern, is no help at all. His only previous feature credit was the plodding, simplistic documentary salute to the memory of the Hollywood Ten, "Hollywood on Trial." It might have been wise if he and Barron had spent a few years of apprenticeship with the Norman Lear or Mary Tyler Moore organization before presuming to dabble in romantic comedy, a rather specialized form.
Helpern's tin ear and faulty timing are not unique in the annals of on-the-job training, and they give less offense than the computerized comedy effects of most TV sitcoms. Nevertheless, "Something Short of Paradise" remains a dud even if it was conceived in ignorance.
Marilyn Sokol is cast as a venerable cliche, the heroine's wordly, wise-cracking but essentially tenderhearted bachelor-gal confidante. Judging from her smirk and overripe readings, which recall Jo Anne Worley camping it up on "Laugh-In," Sokol believed she had a juicy role. A prize example of the character's airy, adorable cosmopolitanism: "I thought of going gay, but when you get down to it, aren't women really as ridiculous as men?"
Jean-Pierre Aumont, drawing on decades of experience in more expert company, makes an amusing snack of a quest-starring role, a European matinee idol who comes to New York to promote the opening of his film at Steinberg's theater and briefly threatens to seduce Sarandon. Like "10," this less talented romantic comedy seems to miss an obvious bet by failing to use the hero's profession to evoke helpful associations. The filmmakers evidently forgot "Play It Again, Sam" while mishandling an imitation of "Annie Hall."