Paul Mazursky's "Tempest" is such a pokey, vacuous, self-indulgent doodle that it makes one suspect Mazursky may have drifted decisively out of touch with the socially curious, alert impulses that fueled his earlier movie comedies. He's in grave danger of degenerating into a vague-minded crackpot, like the protagonist of his wayward new fiasco.
Movies frequently provide satisfaction for armchair travelers. Moreover, when the dramatic elements fail, the only source of appeal left to a faulty picture may be the scenic interest reflected in a lush location. "Tempest," opening today at area theaters, may now be added to this category. It's also the most dismaying example, since it accelerates the skid that began with Mazursky's last movie, "Willie and Phil."
The main setting of "Tempest" is a glorious stretch of Greek coastline around a village called Alypa, located in the southeastern Peloponnesus in an island group known as The Mani. A rich, famous, discontented New York architect, Philip Dimitrious, played by John Cassavetes, has been vegetating contentedly in this remote scenic haven for 18 months when the story begins. His contentment is evidently not shared by the people who dwell there with him and humor his whimsicalities, notably the construction of a small amphitheater facing the sea and an insistence on practicing celibacy.
This group consists of his teen-age daughter Miranda (Molly Ringwald), his consort Aretha (Susan Sarandon, whose voluptuous figure makes that celibacy dodge seem not only imbecilic but also a sin against nature) and his flunky Kalibanos (Raul Julia hamming it up, thank God), a local yokel who tends a lovely herd of goats and betrays slapstick lecherous designs on the boss' daughter.
After lamely introducing this peculiar island me'nage, Mazursky purports to account for the events that brought them together in a series of flashbacks. Unhappy in the lucrative work commissioned by a gangster patron named Alonzo (Vittorio Gassman) and unhappy in his marriage with an actress named Antonia (Gena Rowlands), Philip turned a trip to Greece during Miranda's summer vacation into an extended disappearance. Picked up along the way while singing in a cabaret, Aretha inexplicably fell for Philip at first sight and joined the party. Kalibanos, the only remaining human inhabitant on the island, was discovered upon landing.
Once this rambling background is sketched in (it's never adequately dramatized), Mazursky reveals it's also a day of reckoning and ultimate reconciliation. Alonzo's yacht is cruising in the vicinity, and Antonia (who is having an affair with the gangster) is among the party on board. A climactic thunderstorm, which Philip imagines he has summoned up, deposits Alonzo and entourage on the island, leading to reunions that theoretically resolve all lingering conflicts. On the contrary, they simply subject the conception to further whimsy, but at least they also cue a merciful fadeout.
Despite the title and the storm scene, a more appropriate title might be "Teapot." Mazursky never succeeds in informing this enfeebled, dithering variation on names and scenes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" with the teensiest hint of dramatic necessity, urgency or credibility. At best he seems to be waiting for comic inspiration, which appears in extremely fleeting forms.