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‘Used People’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1992

"Used People" wants to be "Moonstruck" with matzo balls, but it's less an eccentric romantic comedy than an icky three-layered Jewish mother joke. Jessica Tandy, Shirley MacLaine and Marcia Gay Harden star as the oy-veying trio who have rocked one generation after another into dysfunctionalism, with Kathy Bates as a frumpy divorcee who moves back home after her marriage falls apart.

Set in Queens in 1969, the story centers on Pearl Berman (MacLaine), a resentful, self-centered woman who has just buried her husband of 37 years. Pearl has slipped into her bedroom to get away from her annoying relatives, who are sitting shiva in the living room, when a dapper stranger arrives and insists on paying his respects. Marcello Mastroianni plays the widow's dream come true, Joe Meledandri, a graying Romeo who offers his condolences, then invites Pearl for coffee.

"She got picked up at her own husband's funeral," snaps Pearl's sharp-tongued mother, Freida (Tandy), whose small-mindedness dissipates as her daughter warms to Joe's persistent courtship. It seems that Joe fell hopelessly in love with Pearl more than 23 years ago, when he saw her through a kitchen window dancing with her husband. He knew even in a glimpse that she was denying her own happiness for the sake of her husband and two daughters -- not that she didn't make them feel guilty about her sacrifice. In fact, she'd be perfect for a sequel to "Throw Momma From the Train."

It's impossible to believe that the affable, globe-trotting Joe would be drawn to this harsh, insular woman, whose methods of nurturing, inherited from Freida, are decidedly Medean. When Joe makes an innocuous remark on the blessings of children, Pearl snaps back with an aphorism she learned from her mother: "Better you should have chickens. At least, you get hungry, you can eat." At least, Joe can shrug it off. Besides, he doesn't speak much English and probably doesn't know what she's saying anyway.

But Pearl's fat, lonely daughter Bibby (Bates), on the other hand, still suffers her mother's hatefulness. Pearl, whose obvious favorite is the prettier Norma (Harden), gives Bibby this bit of advice: "When you got a humpback, why spend money on a nose job?" Meanwhile, Norma escapes the death of her youngest son in the world of movies. Never mind that her 12-year-old, Swee' Pea (Matthew Branton), exposes himself to increasingly dangerous situations to get her attention. When the youngster secretly starts seeing a psychiatrist (Joe Pantoliano), Mom responds by seducing the doctor, whom she handcuffs to the bed and burns with hot wax till he agrees to leave her boy alone.

Then everybody lives happily ever after.

Todd Graff, a Tony Award-nominated actor, wrote the screenplay, which was inspired by his own family. Poor Todd. A visceral variation on "Brooklyn Bridge," it's rich in character if rather trite in theme and scene. Beeban Kidron, the Englishwoman who directed the quirky "Antonia & Jane," keeps the story moving swiftly and grants each actress her time in the limelight. Mastroianni occasionally looks bewildered, but he remains a bona fide charmer in his wooing of the reluctant heroine played by MacLaine with greed and ruthlessness. All four actresses give themselves over to their roles, but superlative performances can't make up for Pearl. She's "Mr. Saturday Night" in a housedress.

"Used People" is rated PG-13 for sensuality.

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