Meet Dr. Bruce Fleckstein.
He's a periodontist. The best on Long Island. He wears gold chains, Calvin Klein jeans and tells his women patients to call him if they're in any pain. He has one hand in your mouth and the other on your thigh and he gets knocked off in the first few minutes of Frank Perry's new comic whodunit, "Compromising Positions." Most of the women think he had it coming. Most moviegoers will wish he were back in the picture, because he's the only saving grace in this thin, lifeless ball of dental floss.
It's particularly disappointing because Perry -- a talented director whose credits include "David and Lisa," "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Rancho Deluxe" and "Mommie Dearest" -- has assembled a fine cast whose considerable talents go to waste, smothered by the plodding script and stale social commentary.
It's also disappointing because the film opens with such promise: several wonderful scenes, some genuine laughs, snappy dialogue. Then the Novocain sets in.
Fleckstein, played by Broadway veteran Joe Mantegna, is deliciously smarmy, all heavy lids and pudgy cheeks. "Have you been using unwaxed dental floss, Judy?" he croons to housewife Judith Singer (Susan Sarandon). He insists on carrying on conversations with patients who can only grunt inaudible responses. He also seduces housewives, persuades them to pose nude in varying positions and tells them these are "sacred moments" that he wants to preserve with his trusty Polaroid.
Sarandon manages to resist the doctor's clutches ("I could never be intimate with a man who wore a pinkie ring") and when Fleckstein is murdered, she becomes intrigued with the investigation and, Nancy Drew-like, stalks the killer.
Up to that point, her life has been about as exciting as a squash. Having given up a career in journalism, she now bakes cookies, watches old movies on television, takes her two kids to school and back, and waits on her self-important, workaholic, Wall Street-lawyer husband Bob (Edward Herrmann).
Sarandon, a gifted actress with enormous sex appeal and huge, saucerlike eyes, is so frumpy she looks as if she's coming down with the flu. There are bags under her eyes, her skin is pale and drawn and her hair is pulled back in a dank ponytail. Is this Perry's idea of what a housewife should look like?
Her best friend, on the other hand, is Nancy Miller (Judith Ivey), a sharp-tongued sculptor who se duces the young policeman who comes to fix her burglar alarm and drinks white wine in the afternoon. Her needs are simple, she tells us: "Lots of good straight sex," which her husband cannot provide. Ivey plays it just right, with her Texas twang and shoot-from-the-hip lip, and manages to steal every scene she's in. Which isn't hard.
And across the street lives Peg Tuccio (Mary Beth Hurt), a woman who wears Laura Ashley jumpers and snips roots off her potted plants.
Enter the housewife's Heathcliff in the guise of homicide detective David Suarez (Raul Julia), a sexy, leather-jacketed but sensitive New Man who romances Judith Singer and finally enlists her cooperation in tracking down Fleckstein's killer. Julia, also a Broadway veteran, has definite potential as a romantic lead, but unfortunately, the sparks never fly between him and Sarandon. He acts more like a cocker spaniel than a stud.
It's hard to tell what the filmmakers had in mind when they conceived this project, written by bestselling author Susan Isaacs from her novel of the same name. Like "The Big Chill," "Compromising Positions" kicks off with the premise that a deceased member of a group will provoke some intriguing responses from the rest of the ensemble. And a fine ensemble it is. But Sarandon, Julia, Ivey, Hurt and company never climb out of the root canal the director has mired them in.
Call it "The Big Drill."
Compromising Positions, now playing at area theaters, is rated R.