"Maxie" gives Glenn Close a chance to go beyond her Glowing Madonna shtick, for which, two cheers. But "Maxie" is also the kind of dreary, kooky-wife-stuffy-husband comedy that the movies deeded to sitcoms ages ago. It is, in short, the kind of movie where the director is always cutting to reaction shots of a basset hound: 'nuff said.
Close plays Jan, a San Francisco housewife whose husband Nick (Mandy Patinkin) works in the rare-books section of the public library. Which, apparently, is a job opportunity worth looking into -- in one of the movie's many sloppy improbabilities, the couple doesn't have enough money to have a child, but that doesn't keep them from renovating a beautiful old house in Nob Hill and driving a vintage sedan.
Stripping some old wallpaper, Nick discovers a message from a former resident, Maxie Malone, scrawled in lipstick; as they learn from their neighbor (the late Ruth Gordon), Maxie was a singing hellcat who, on the eve of film stardom, died in a car crash. So Nick goes off and rents a videocassette of Maxie's one movie. While he's watching it, who should show up but . . . Maxie (!!!!!!!), whose spirit has possessed his wife's body.
The script (by Patricia Resnick) has some fun with '20s slang (Jan qua Maxie orders a "Bronx cocktail," slugs it down and announces, "Now I'm cookin' with gas!"). And it's got a few memorable lines: "Jeez, what a crowd," Maxie announces at a stuffy benefit reception. "Looks like a convention of blind dates."
Unfortunately, Close never really becomes a flapper, partly because she looks so unlike one; and the way director Paul Aaron shoots her doesn't help -- she's a dead ringer here for Phyllis Diller. Besides, she works a little too hard at proving what a goshdarn versatile actress she is. Patinkin suffers through the movie with a nauseous, lopsided grin, and Ruth Gordon is for better and for worse Ruth Gordon.
Jan works for the archdiocese, and "Maxie" milks a few ho-hos out of the bishop's decision to exorcise her (with a nice riff by Barnard Hughes). But the idea never cuts loose. That's the problem with "Maxie" as a whole -- despite some inventiveness in the dialogue, it never pushes anything, always seems familiar.
Buried deep within the movie is the germ of an interesting idea. Nick is obsessed with nostalgia -- old cars, old houses, old books, old movies; what if a nostalgiac were actually introduced to the past, and found it a nightmare? But the movie travels in exactly the opposite direction; the possession becomes a tonic for a tired marriage. Ho-hum. And there's something a little annoying about the plot, which involves Maxie's attempt to get back into movies again, via Jan's body. What a thing to come back to life for. Maxie, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some sexual themes and mild profanity.