Would "Willie & Phil" have been spared its lamentable triviality if writer-director Paul Mazursky had been able to coax Woody Allen and Al Pacino into accepting the title roles?
It helps a little to imagine that something might have redeemed this pointless, charmless romantic doodle, a coy chronicle of what appears to be the dullest menage a trois of the '70s.
Before settling for pretty, passive Michael Ontkean and wacky, energized Ray Sharkey, whose styles never approach a humorous harmony, Mazursky had envisioned Allen as Willie Kaufman, "a high school English teacher who wanted to be a jazz pianist," and Pacino as Phil D'Amico, "a fashion photographer who wanted to be a Jewish intellectual."
Mazursky regards the movie as a '70s variation on the themes of Francois Truffaut's lyric romantic comedy "Jules and Jim." Willie and Phil meet in the lobby of the Bleecker Street Cinema following a showing of Trauffaut's film. They fall in love with the same young woman, Jeannette (Margot Kidder), a gaunt-faced newcomer from Kentucky encountered by chance in Washington Square. Over the course of a decade she supposedly obsesses and bedevils the two friends in the tradition of Jeanne Moreau's Catherine in "Jules and Jim." Jeannette is meant to embody an Eternal Feminine Mystery and calls most of the shots in the aimless, insignificant lives of her hapless suitors.
It's conceivable that Allen and Pacino might have been funny enough to transform the material, which dies on the screen for lack of miraculous intercession.
Imagine Allen saying, "In some ways living with a woman is like living with your mother . . . except for the sex" or "I really wanted to see my strawberries come in" or (this gets tougher, I admit) "Oy vey! There I go with the hostility again!" At least the lines would stand a fighting chance of playing funny -- especially if they were cleverly rewritten. When spoken by Ontkean, they drop dead instantly and embarrass speaker, author and audience.
A decade ago Mazursky perpetrated a semi-fiasco, "Alex in Wonderland." He commemorates the turn of a new decade by going the whole hog. All Mazursky's faculties seem to be on sabbatical in "Willie & Phil": His sense of casting deserts him in league with his senses of humor, timing, topicality, drama and proportion. The complacently dithering quality of the material is reflected in the narration spoken by Mazursky himself. It gives you the willies from preamble through benediction, because Mazursky even sounds like a fraudulent old sport: "Women were a puzzle to both men. They were looking for answers, but they didn't know what the questions were."
Mazursky never sets his updated homage to bohemia on a firm dramatic or social footing. The first encounter between Willie and Phil sounds forced and artificial. One still hasn't accepted them as either cronies or distinct personalities when Jeannette enters their lives. Introducing herself with unforgettable flatness -- "I'm Jeannette and I'm lonely and I wanna go to a movie . . . What's your name?" -- this would-be goddess doesn't exactly sweep you off your feet.
The narration persists in making assertions that are never validated in the body of the movie, beginning with the statements that Willie and Phil were great friends and shared a sense of humor. As far as one can see, it's all in Mazursky's head and not on the screen: There's no particular rapport between the men, no compelling erotic attraction in the woman.
Mazursky the narrator skips blithely ahead, announcing in the wake of a mutual acid trip that "Something had happened, but they didn't know what. They had become a threesome. Their destinies were interlocked forever." His way of confirming this is to overlap Jeannette saying, "Our destinies are interlocked forever." Darling, but insufficient. The evidence is still missing.
By the time the scenario trudges to a conclusion, it doesn't seem worth fighting the dramatic deficiencies. You might as well accept the characters because they've been hanging around for two hours and their faces have grown familiar. Sharkey, who was brilliant in both "Hot Tomorrows" and "Who'll Stop the Rain," even threatens to hit some kind of eccentric comic stride after Phil moves to Los Angeles and starts making Big Bucks. Unfortunately, Mazursky's sluggish timing tends to smother his rhythms and his flair for double takes.
Inevitably, the shallowness of the characters makes the decade itself look negligible, since its manners and fashions are meant to be reflected in their behavior and enthusiasms. As a rule, Mazursky has excelled at anticipating changes of mood within the liberal, urban middle-class and then satirizing their social pretensions in an affectionate way. When he made "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" or "Blume in Love" or "An Unmarried Woman," he seemed right on top of good topical material. Attempting a rueful summary of the '70s, he ends up blunting his satiric perspective while turning the period into an uneventful blur.
Even when he seems to discover something promising, Mazursky fails to capitalize on it. For example, Kaki Hunter, the funny ingenue from "Hoadie," turns up briefly in "Willie & Phil" as Jeannette's kid sister. Looking full of zest and mischievous impulses, Hunter suggests the lust for life and adventure that might have made Jeannette a plausible femme fatale. Moreover, when she expresses confusion at Willie's and Phil's witticisms -- "I don't get it," she admits, and the criticism is innocently devastating -- it appears that Mazursky has finally introduced the missing satiric note. But moments later Hunter has begun talking like Willie and Phil, and then she's out of the picture.
Oh, well, everyone's entitled to a bum effort every so often. Verifying Arnold's First Axiom -- a bad movie invariably tattles on itself -- Mazursky supplies a number of fitting epitaphs for his own stiff.
One says it all. It's Jeannette's evaluation of a screenplay she's been reading: "This would be a really good script if the dialogue were interesting and the story was better."