"Those Lips, Those Eyes," a romantic comedy about a stage-struck college boy's first, addictive exposure to the delights of the theatrical life, probabaly suggested sparkling possibilities in script form.
A tantalizing idea for a musical movie still remains discernible beneath the lackluster surface of the finished film -- now showing at area theaters -- which suffers from sluggish, uninspired direction and a couple of dubious cast selections.
Despite this waste of a nice idea and nifty title, the premise of "Those Lips, Those Eyes" deserve to be tried again and exploited astutely. Screen-writer David Shaber certainly provides a more authentic and appealing foundation for musical comedy stylization than one can find in the sorry librettos of this summer's lyric turkeys, "Can't Stop the Music" and "Xanadu."
The story is set in suburban Cleveland in the early 1950s. Artie Shoemaker, the protagonist, is a pre-med student living at home with his parents and kid brother. While making up a course in biology, he takes a part-time job as a prop man at a summer stock company offering one of those seasons of opretta -- "The Red Mill," "Rose Marie," "The Vagabond King" and "The Desert Song" -- that flourished in many places for a decade or more after World War II, driving countless local drama critics to drink.
The star of the company, a gallant, struggling actor named Harry Crystal, takes pity on Artie when the boy's ignorance gets him in trouble with the director, a small-time martinet Harry despises and enjoys defying. Befriended by Harry, Artie learns the ropes. Attracted to a showgirl, Ramona, artie luxuriates in his first love affair, and gets romantic illusions that can't possibly survive the season. Meanwhile, his parents worry that his job may be interfering with his studies, which happens to be true.
What one hopes for such a plot is a vivid nostalgic evocation of the period and setting, recalling the charm and verve of musicals like "Summer Stock," "The Bank Wagon" and "Small-Town Girl" while kidding the operettas and the semi-professional theatrical operation and reflecting a modern outlook in the form of outspoken dialogue and a realistic view of sexual mores. "New York, New York" appeared to promise a similar synthesis and proved a far greater disappointment when it failed to deliver. "Those Lips, Those Eyes" echoes its failure on a modest scale.
The potential charm is apparent in the opening sequence, which depicts Artie falling under the spell of the footlights as he watches a number from "The Red Mill." Unfortunately, this is the first and last musical excerpt shot and inserted effectively. There is no systematic correlation between the musical interludes and the vicissitudes of the leading characters. The lyrics and dramatic elements of the show fail to complement or reinforce one another in a satiric or sentimental fashion. The contrasts between make-believe conflicts on stage and real ones off stage are equally negligible. m
The theatrical atmosphere is diverting and occasionally funny. For example, when Harry, trying to complete a call to his elusive New York agent, cries, "Don't put me on hold in Ohio, for God's sake!" he expresses a frustration that sounds definitive. If anything, the script needs more of this tart, slightly desperate humor and more concentration on the professional aspirations and tribulations of the actors.
The weakest character is Artie, envisioned as such a dewy-eyed innocent that he degenerates into a passive, virginal bore even after supposedly losing his virginity. There is no drive or lust in Artie as played by Thomas Hulce, whose bland exterior was used ironically when he played a pledge in "National Lampoon's Animal House." The sneaky, fun-loving impulses that eventually made Hulce an integral part of the Delta House menagerie are never recalled here. Artie is never allowed to transcend his initial relationship to theater people -- beaming in innocent delight from the sidelines.
Frank Langella gives the role of Harry a knowing and sometimes dashing interpretation, but he looks less robust than he did playing Dracula and his singing voice is obviously too frail for operetta. Langella's acting ability doesn't overcome the disillusioning aspects of his sallow appearance and famished crooning.
Glynnis O'Connor continues to mature into one of the sexiest young actresses on the American screen, but her Ramona would seem like a more appropriate romantic partner for a Harry, especially since she ends up catching the eye of Harry's devious agent, smartly played by Kevin McCarthy. There's not much impact to the idea of Ramona betraying the romantic expectations of a boy as nerdy as Artie. A conflict of romance and career involving Harry would be another matter.
It's conceivable that a director with the background and style of, say, Stanley Donen, might have brought out the best in this material. The young director Michael Pressman doesn't appear to enhance it in any significant respect.
It's impossible to get a fix on Pressman after credits like "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training," "Boulevard Nights" and "Those Lips, Those Eyes." His work isn't sloppy or offensive, and he appears to be attracted to material that shows promise. But the finished product has been consistently disappointing.