"MR. AND MRS. Bridge" lasts just over two hours but could just as easily have been 18. This combo-adaptation of Evan S. Connell's novels about a 1930s WASP family ("Mr. Bridge" and "Mrs. Bridge"), defines its leisurely, passionless world adequately but then strolls in place. It's the genteel equivalent of a shaggy dog story. A manicured dog story perhaps.
The dramatic stasis is, on a certain level, the point. This is, after all, about the stifling autocracy that icy Mr. Bridge (Paul Newman) imposes on his devoted wife India (Joanne Woodward) and their three children. But producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have made the mistake of filming this with similarly suppressed impulses.
It is thanks mostly to Newman's perfectly starched performance, which plays well against Woodward's more tremulous support, that the movie is so watchable. He is all sharp angles, a snappy-suited figure of uncomprehending intolerance at the flighty women continually impeding his measured path.
But his acting (and Woodward's, if you like her quavery round of theatrics) is a case of performance overpowering modest dramatic boundaries. "Bridge" never quite gels into anything. The drama, which covers some 20 years of Bridge family business, doesn't conclude so much as stop. It's as if the Merchant/Ivory team, its eyes on the two-hour clock, merely pulled the plug from the Bridge family's home-movie projector.
What happens, exactly, in this movie? Mr. Bridge reigns supreme for one thing and, if there is a development, it's that he wins. Everyone irks him but no one particularly turns him around. His daughter Ruth (Kyra Sedgwick) quits work and flits to New York to be an actress. His other daughter, Carolyn (Margaret Welsh), elopes with the yahoo-son of a plumber. When World War II breaks out, his son Douglas (Robert Sean Leonard) brashly joins the air force. Mr. Bridge's secretary needles him for not recognizing the anniversary of their 20-year working relationship. The maid's involved with a boyfriend who sells drugs. India's friend Grace (a well modulated Blythe Danner) starts losing her mind at this pre-feminist lifestyle.
Finally, of course, there is India, who has given 20 years of subservient devotion to this upper-middle-class marriage, who toys briefly with this newfangled psychiatry thing and plainly asks her husband (for the first time in 20 years?) whether or not he really loves her.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't," he rasps. This retroactive finding, this gothic-protestant equivalent of an emotional outpouring, is the biggest development you can expect in "Bridge." For open-ended, leisure-class entertainment -- the fare that plays so well on public television -- this is respectable enough. But most bridges are built to get to the other side and this one just leaves you hanging.
MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE (PG-13) -- Cineplex Odeon Shirlington, Wisconsin Avenue and West End 1-4.