"Table for Five," opening today at area theaters, is the sort of tear-jerker that ought to be merchandised with a special warning label. "Shameless" sums up this lavishly weepy disgrace better than any single word, but it still seems a far too respectable term of rebuke for such a revolting plunge into bathos.
The ickiest plunger is Jon Voight, evidently desperate for a paternal role to surpass the sentimental heroism of Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer."
As the protagonist, J.P. Tannen, supposedly an estranged father anxious to make amends for years of neglect by treating his three kids to a summer cruise to the Mediterranean, Voight is the most exposed party in this picturesquely seaborne fiasco.
"Table for Five" may have been set up by a four-sided folly. The press material reveals that Voight, producer Robert Schaffel, director Robert Lieberman and screenwriter David Seltzer "are, by coincidence, divorced fathers who are devoted to their children. At the time, each had children living with his ex-wife who had remarried, and each wanted to have his children with him."
Given this background, the plot of "Table for Five" demonstrates a peculiarly embarrassing reliance on expediency. The mechanism that allows J.P. to contemplate the possibility of permanent reunion with his children is the simultaneously gratuitous and fortuitous death of his ex-wife Kathy (Millie Perkins), who had remarried and evidently found a far more intelligent, capable and responsible mate in her second husband, Mitch (Richard Crenna in an embodiment of truly dignified, self-sacrificing masculine gallantry that makes Voight's appeals look even shabbier). It seems rather monstrous that a mother must be knocked off in order to provide her childish ex-husband with the opportunity to get back the kids.
There's also a storytelling hitch right at the start. After four years of alleged neglect, J.P. has arranged for this elaborate vacation trip without consulting either Kathy or Mitch, who have custody of the children. Doesn't make much sense under the circumstances, but you let it ride, on the grounds that it promises to be a novel vacation and that the kids, who range from about 9 to 15, are old enough to enjoy it and look after themselves a bit.
The script insists that J.P. has alienated himself from the children, but they seem comfortable and happy in his presence, so something is out of whack on this issue, too. Once the voyage begins, J.P. behaves with consistent jerkiness--the first night out, for example, he's hunting stray female companionship in the bar rather than devoting himself to the kids--but the filmmakers perversely decide that whatever he does is now forgivable, presumably because his big gloppy heart is in the right place. Everything he does may be detestably selfish and ignorant, but that's okay: when you mean well, you never have to say you're sorry.
Even his ex-wife's death becomes a pretext for Voight to milk the heartache, going into the first of his hilarious, blubbering soliloquies when receiving the lucky bad news in the wireless room and then posing in melancholy solitude in the ship's stern, as if he might hurl himself into the wake out of sheer overwhelming grief.
Not since Barbra Streisand in "A Star Is Born" has a major star wallowed so contentedly in self-aggrandizing sorrow.. When the ship puts in at Athens, for example, we get to see Voight wandering lonely as a cloud through the city streets; black-garbed housewives come out and stare as he passes their thresholds, demonstrating the telepathic force of his grief.
The kids are kept in the dark for several days, ostensibly to spare them pain as they enjoy the sights but obviously to prevent the star from having to compete for comforting shoulders. When he finally breaks the news, Voight chooses a scenic spot in Egypt. Gazing at the Sphinx, he comforts the motherless ones with these deathless, sob-choked cliche's: "I thought our love was as permanent as these pyramids, but I lost her, because . . . these things happen. Life went on, as it always must, no matter what . . . I wasn't planning on talking about this now, but your mom, whom I dearly loved, and who you dearly loved, has had to leave our lives. A week ago she was taking the dog to the vet, and something happened; she was killed, instantly, there was no pain."
If Voight didn't indulge himself in so much literal, unsightly crying out loud, a person might be tempted to exit screaming, "For crying out loud!" The idea that a man who carries on in this wretched fashion should end up with everything his craven heart desires is quite obscene, but this movie expects people to relish the obscenity.
At the fadeout the unfit natural father evidently has conned the fit adoptive father out of custody and proves his baseness even more by patronizing the better man.
A far happier ending, in my estimation, would be the sight of Crenna beating Voight to a pulp.