"The first meeting of the regrouped consciousness-raising group took place at the Holroyds and was launched by Martha's suggestion that they all 'just sort of turn inward for a moment and silently celebrate their womanhood.'
"Straight away, Harvey embarrassed Kate. Since he and Frank Galagher and Martha's Bill and Angela's friend Paco were biolgoically unqualified to celebrate their womanhood, he suggested, maybe they could 'just split for the 2 A.M. Club and have a quick beer while the girls turn inward.'
"Kate wasn't amused. 'Harvey,' she said coldly, 'it wouldn't hurt you to try to relate for once. That's why we're here, you know? To really get down and relate. Anyway, the beer bit is out. Alcohol alters your perceptions. Like, it gets between you and reality.'"
That's a sample of Cyra McFadden's novel, "The Serial" -- a sparkling satire on narcissistic self-improvement and hedonistic nirvana among upper-middle-class couples in Marin County, the suburban enclave north of San Francisco.
Screenwriters Rich Eustis and Michael Elias and director Bill Persky lack the pinpoint accuracy and stylistic finesse of McFadden's book, but their firm version transposes it enjoyably -- and even expands on it cleverly.
Persky, a veteran comedy writer best known for his contributions to the "Dick Van Dyke Show" in the early '60s has never directed a movie before. His touch is haphazard, and the material betrays forms of exaggeration and sentimentality that McFadden avoided. But Persky keeps "The Serial" in cheerful, diverting motion despite frequent misfiring under the hood.
Like the novel, the movie revolves around the marital vicissitudes of Harvey and Kate Holroyd, a once contented couple disrupted by peer pressures and status aspirations within their community. Martin Mull has been cast as Harvey, an escrow officer at a San Franisco bank, and Tuesday Weld as Kate, an attractive housewife almost persuaded by her dabbling in consciousness-raising that something or other, maybe Harvey, may have cheated her of genuine self-fulfillment.
Harvey resents Kate's fashionable efforts to "find herself" (particularly in thrice-weekly sessions with an idiotic psychologist played by Peter Bonerz) more than he dares to say, for fear of capsizing an already swaying domestic boat. It capsizes anyway, partly because Harvey can't quite resist adulterous temptation.
McFadden envisioned the Holroyds blundering back together without ever liberating themselves from utopian dogmatism and confusion. Eager to promote more rooting interest in the Holroyds -- which may be justified by the likable performances of Mull and Weld -- the filmmakers contrive a reconciliation in the couple's attempt to rescue their teen-age daughter from the clutches of a group modeled on the Moonies.
The satiric outlook of the novel is standardized even more by the filmmakers' suggestion that the Holroyds may relocate in Middle America, as if a sensible approach to The Good Life were somehow impossible in Marin.
The book's keener level of sophistication may be indicated by recalling that the Holyrod's daughter, far from inspiring a rescue operation, returns to her senses spontaneously running off to Europe with a doper boyfriend and suddenly "flashing" onto the "insight" that what she's really "into" is dental hygiene. McFadden achieved the delightful feat of kidding the intellectual tone affected by her characters while also using their jargon to enrich the humor of her own prose style.
In the movie, some episodes play, and others don't. The ones that play range from hyperbolic verbal wit in the spirit of the novel (Mull is particularly of Harvey) to outlandish low-comedy in the spirit of "National Lampoon's Animal House" (especially a running gag about a gang of weekend homosexual motorcycle hoodlums).
The amusing supporting cast includes Bill Macy as an amiable suburbanite implausibly driven over the edge by a taste of hedonism. Sally Kellerman is a Marin housewife so secure in her self-indulgent way of life that no contradiction or condescension shames her and no insult embarrasses her (her son riduclues her -- and Bonerz's shrink -- constantly, but they ask for it). Tom Smothers plays a ministerial guru. Barbara Rhoades is the bitch of Weld's consciousness-raising kaffeklatsh. Patch Mackenzie plays Mull's provocative new secretary, who informs him when applying for the job, "Let's face it, Harv, secretarial skills suck." And Stacey Nelkin has the role of an overripe grocery clerk who begins an affair with Mull after talking him out of purchasing processed foods.
Apotentially funny prologue, which finds Mull and a group of other suburban husbands bicycling to the commuter ferry at Sausalito in the morning, is weakened by ragged cross-cutting and the imposition of a saccharine theme song. Nevertheless, the moment when Mull gets burned at being passed by another bicyclist and speeds up to regain the lead is wonderful, an authentic stroke of character humor. Harvey would feel that competitive about his bike.
Despite its hit-and miss deficiencies, the movie remains several cuts above hypocritical sedatives like "The Last Married Couple in America," if not the indispensable update on "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" that it might have been.