This spring's cruel flood of imbecilic comedies, unrelieved from "Nothing Personal" through "GORP," has brought yet another piece of facetious flotsam into view.
"Sitting Ducks," now at the Tenley Circle, may even exceed "Gorp" as an amateurish eyesore, although it substitutes cluckish whimsy for rabid slapstick.
Back in the early '70s, rumors used to circulate that a young actor-turned-writer-director named Henry Jaglom was going to astonish the movie world. The previews of his first feature, "A Safe Place," exposed one of the more inane, incoherent sensibilities apparently nurtured by the counterculture. Nevertheless, Jaglom has presevered, and a Jaglom claque has persisted. His latest improvisation, "Sitting Ducks," is unlikely to prove a vindication.
"Sitting Ducks" is a little like "The In-Laws" for beginners. Jaglom has recruited a couple of Borscht Belt veterans, Michael Emil and Zack Norman, to embody larcenous comic sidekicks named Simon and Sid. Emil's Simon is a nervous Mafia bookkeeper, Norman's Sid a brash bagman. They steal one day's mob collections, totaling about $750,000, and drive from New York to Miami in a limo, with the cash stashed inside the linings of the tires.
Their intention is to hop a charter from Miami and retire in style in Costa Rica, and the movie is a meandering chronicle of their feckless, gagged-up getaway. Simon and Sid acquire a trio of traveling companions with whom to share their banality: Richard Romanus as a gas-station attendant who aspires to write pop tunes and becomes their chauffeur; Patrice Townsend, the wife of Jaglom (who makes an appearance as her first boyfriend, a suspicious-looking slob) as a coyly predatory myphomaniac with a Pepsodent smile; and Irene Forrest as a whiny chatter-box.
Townsend's character, Jenny, is introduced doing contortionistic exercises at a motel and is paired off with Sid, more or less. Since her charm consists of soliciting everyone she meets, Sid's appeal looks fleeting at best. Forrest's character, Leona, is introduced waiting tables, a detail that underlines the resemblance of both actress and role to Valerie Curtin's jumpy waitress in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." A love-starved, self-righteous kvetch ("I am a person and I am going to be treated like me!" she bleats ever so adorably), Leona is obviously meant for Simon, a tedious, lumpy bachelor fussbudget who seems eager to humor and mother her.
These characters are meant to be amusing and endearing. But it takes a considerable tolerance for redundancy to relish the bickering of Simon and Sid or the smirky come-ons of Jenny or the whimpering of Leona. Jaglom's idea of charming is pretty excruciating, and the miscalculation is compounded by his ineptitude, which thrusts the characters at us in shaky, murky, claustrophobic compositions, and strings out improvised, circumlocutory exchanges that sound agonizingly precious.
"Sitting Ducks" might be studied as a kind of textbook Poor Man's Light Entertainment. In the same respect that the leads suggest a poor man's Falk & Arkin, Townsend suggests a poor man's Ann-Margret and the director himself a poor man's Saroyan crossed with a poor man's Robert Downey.
"Sitting Ducks" vaguely recalls the facetious tone of what was once considered underground humor in an early Downey farce like "Chafed Elbows." The spontaneous element in that style of goofiness may still be glimpsed in things like the short comic films made by the local team that calls itself The Langley Punks. I imagine the refreshing wackiness of Downey and Brian De Palma in the late '60s might be likened to some of the films made by James Broughton in San Francisco in the late '40s or the delightful Jacques and Pierre Prevert "road comedy" of the same period, "Voyage Surprise," which has fallen into obscurity.
At any rate, Jaglom does not belong among the inspired innovators of shoestring, off-the-cuff cinematic comedy. "Sitting Ducks" lays an egg, but that has begun to look like Henry Jaglom's filmmaking destiny.