"The Personals" is an unassuming first feature engendered and filmed in Minneapolis by 36-year-old Peter Markle. The scenario of this minor but admirably polished and attractive low-budget gem, which opened yesterday at the Outer Circle, unfolds in a metropolitan setting of mouth-watering balminess.
Like "On Golden Pond" last winter, "The Personals" transmits a scenic promise of summery deliverance from the chill. Moreover, a good deal of footage revolves around a sylvan midtown retreat, Lake of the Isles, that seems a pretty impressive (and sometimes golden) pond in its own right. Evidently, the roller skating fad of a year or two back transformed this spacious city park into a lovely stage for impromptu mating dances on the glide, as skaters constantly circumnavigate the lake and form repeated patterns of approaching, separating, showboating, in-step or out-of-step motion with partners or prospective partners.
At any rate, Markle begins "The Personals" with a little pictorial tone poem devoted to this skating-mating ritual as manifested in beautiful downtown Minneapolis. It serves as an appropriate metaphor for the story, which depicts the awkward romantic locomotion improvised by a newly divorced magazine editor named Bill Hendrickson, who is reluctantly edging himself back into the dating pool. Still more or less bewildered by the failure of his marriage, Bill merely speculates about different re-entry approaches before placing an ad in the personals column of a weekly paper, the Twin Cities Reader.
The replies turn up a respondent who appeals to him instinctively, a psychologist named Adrienne. They meet at a cocktail party, seem to hit it off and spend a satisfying night together. During a skating excursion in the park, however, the auspicious start of the affair is suddenly short-circuited by Adrienne's tardy admission that she hasn't been altogether candid about her romantic status. She's still married, and while her marriage is certainly on the rocks, she hasn't quite gotten up the nerve to make a clean break. Vacillating on the brink of separation, she's contrived to betray both her estranged husband and hopeful new lover. While dismayed at finding himself the Other Man in an unresolved marital conflict, Bill is nevertheless keen on Adrienne. So what's a nice guy to do?
Although Markle plays Adrienne as a sneaky romantic comedy element, he doesn't try to make a big deal out of either her deviousness or Bill's disillusion. There's nothing shattering going on in this sane, lightweight context. Adrienne's little slip-up is just one of those discouraging, buggy things that might happen to anybody, and you're not sure if Markle regards it as a serious betrayal or merely a false start.
"The Personals" is always taking you by pleasant surprise visually, disclosing witty details in the background or moving deftly to reveal funny stuff just off the edges of the initial camera setups. Markle seems at ease with the actors and shows a flair for comic dialogue, but the story remains a tentative affair, too slight to impose itself even in a disarming, casual sort of way.
These reservations don't diminish one's liking for the movie. There's only one noticeable blemish on the film, a sequence of slapstick mismatching in which Bill gets manhandled by a pushy date, a stout divorcee who degenerates rather quickly into a Very Bad Idea.
"The Personals" is an eminently presentable accomplishment for a novice director operating outside the system on a budget of less than $400,000. It is the most promising first feature I've seen since John Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus Seven," but it falls well short of the rich character interplay that Sayles achieved.
The movie's appeal may hinge on one's response to Bill Schoppert, recruited by Markle from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater troupe to play the leading role. Burly and unglamorous, he's scarcely constructed to compete with Richard Gere for flutterable segments of a vast audience, but he's an extremely comfortable, good-humored presence. Schoppert projects a homely, diffident charm that actually resembles the nice guys encountered in real life rather than the actors customarily encountered on the screen.
There's nothing amiss with the other performances either, but Paul Eiding as the friend and Vicki Dakil as the gross-out date do seem to be stuck with formula comic business, and Karen Landry as Adrienne is stuck with insufficient character. Michael Laskin, on the other hand, makes an authentic impression in the brief role of Adrienne's husband, sarcastic and anxious to pick a fight with someone, and one of the shrewder unstressed observations in the movie is his affinity with Bill--they have a similar sense of humor, and in less awkward circumstances it might easily forge a friendship between them. In a similar respect, there are resemblances between Chris Forth as Bill's ex-wife and Landry as his new girlfriend that suggest a fatal attraction to The Same Type, a phenomenon not exactly unknown in real life.
It would be a disservice to overrate "The Personals," but in its modest way, it's a romantic comedy that rings true to life.