It's not inconceivable that a diverting and even astute topical comedy could be contrived from the title, "How to Beat the High Cost of Living." It might also begin with the sort of premise systematically trivialized by the crass pranksters responsible for the tacky caper comedy now appearing under this title at area theaters: Three Eugene, Ore., housewives, pals since high school, put their heads together to solve financial problems supposedly caused by inflation.
The solution they find attractive is to rob the cash swirling around in a plastic bubble as part of a promotional scheme at a surburban shopping mall. The insurmountable problem is that the worried-to-desperation females trumped up by screenwriter Robert ("Nobody's Perfect") Kaufman appear to be putting empty heads together. That's at their least offensive.
If you value your self-respect, there's no reason to invest even fleeting humorous interest in Kaufman's account of how three coy nincompoops succeed at amateur robbery. Indeed, a $4 a pop, "How to Beat the High Cost of Living" stands guilty of inexcusable inflationary presumption. It might seem excusably superfluous on the bottom half of a $2 double feature, but as a solo attraction, it really won't do.
Moreover, the casting indicates that a television sale rather than theatrical success was probably uppermost in the minds of the producers and packagers. Two of the leads, Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin, are known as TV personalities. The third, Jessica Lange, still a beginning actress and dubious draw, has been typed as the dream girl of self-destructive show-biz colossi -- first in Dino De Laurentiis' "King Kong" and currently as Bob Fosse's alter ego in "All That Jazz."
Like many great recent movies -- from Allan Carr's "Grease" to Allan Carr's "Can't Stop the Music" makes a convenient frame of reference -- "High Cost" is basically gamy TV. The familiar dumb sitcom jokes and situatiions are seasoned with spicier profanities and innuendoes destined to be easily watered down when the film gets a network booking, probably later this year.
The tone of the material is forecast all too accurately by a smirkily facetious credit sequence in which little cartoon women are fleeced down to their scanties by voracious gas pumps (shich sprout burnooses), cash registers and automobile hoods. Once the major characters are introduced, the movie seems condemned to triteness, and it remains far too complacent to bid for a reprieve.
Saint James, a divorced mother of two, is expecting a third child by boyfriend Fred Willard, a partner in a hardware store. She's the only principal character whose financial woes are somehow linked to inflation: Her ex-husband's child-support payments have grown inadequate, but she can't persuade him to increase them. At the same time, she's indentified as an excruciating dunce, the stooge for Kaufman's worst drolleries. For starters, she's introduced sharing a makeshift bed with Willard in the back of her station wagon, which is parked in her garage. She supposedly prefers this arrangement, lest the kiddies discover a man (admittedly known to them and liked by them) in mommy's bedroom.
Later, when asked by her two friends why she must take the kids along on a scavenging mission prior to breaking into the money bubble, Saint James replies that the last time she left them at home, her son (who looks about 10) took nude Polaroids of his kid sister (about 7) and sent them to Playboy. Cute isn't the word for it. Saint James is also given a disgraceful dimwit speech in which she complains that if her dad, an ex-Marine, and his buddies hadn't fought so diligently, maybe things would have been reversed and the American economy would be flourishing now from billions in investment by the Japanese and Germans. From "Ski Party" to "Love at First Bite," Robert Kaufman has tended to be an indiscriminate joker, but he certainly bottoms out on this shred of hyperbole.
Lange, doted upon by hubby Richard Benjamin, a veterinarian, has lost $36,000 in two years apparently mismanaging an antique business. Naturally, she becomes the mastermind of the robbery scheme. Curtin is abandoned by her unseen husband, an architect who disappears with his secretary and every liquid asset, supposedly exposing his betrayed spouse to instant poverty. Her role in the plot is complicated by a tentative affair with a decent, trusting patrolman, Dabney Coleman, whom she's either obliged or pleased to treat with smug ingratitude. On caper night Curtin supplies the key diversion, an impromptu striptease, edited in a way that indicates her exposed torso must have been doubled by another actress. The producers no doubt agonized over those auditions.
There is never the slightest urgency, dramatic or cinematic, about the robbery, and never the slightest reason for believing that this group of criminal associates could organize and execute it. Their success is a vindication of avaricious fantasies of a very low -- even insulting -- order. Moreover, the characterization of the women as stupes and teases betrays a suppressed contempt. I wouldn't be surprised if the shopping mall rip-off was substituted somewhere along the line for an equally unappealing farce about a ring of suburban hookers.
On the plus side, "High Cost" has a likable low-key performance from Coleman (who also added a fleeting touch of class to "Nobody's Perfect"), a photogenic target in the money bubble itself and one mildly amusing, if predictable, gag -- Saint James makes a feeble attempt to hold up a supermarket with a toy gun, which ends with the checker blithely charging her for the price of the weapon. The movie itself deserves a similar brushoff.