Rated R - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 4/27/01

Perhaps if the cast of Peter Chelsom's Town & Country were made up of unknown actors, it wouldn't be so disappointing. But with names like Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Garry Shandling, among others, one would expect more. On the other hand, the cast is not really the film's problem; the actors do their best with what they have, but the screenplay by Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry is a frustrating mix of marital strife and corny comedy, featuring real-life situations involving characters who are jarringly two-dimensional. Some of the people in this story seem grounded (at least somewhat) in reality, while others appear to be created solely for generating cheap laughs. The result is that we don't really care for any of them, much less how they work through their ever-increasing problems. This is exacerbated by director Chelsom's indecision regarding which tone to adopt. In one scene a couple sits with their lawyer, glumly discussing how to divide up their belongings, and a moment later we have a wheelchair-bound woman repeatedly crashing into the furniture like a sketch from Mad TV.

The story starts with New York architect Porter Stoddard (Beatty) and his commercial artist wife Ellie (Keaton) celebrating their silver wedding anniversary with best friends Griffin and Mona (Shandling, Hawn), who have apparently been married for about as long. The couples trade magnanimous speeches about marital bliss and how lucky they are, but soon after this occasion we discover the truth: Porter is having an affair with a beautiful young cellist (Nastassja Kinski), Griffin is having an affair with a crossdresser, and before long Porter and Mona are themselves pairing up to do the horizontal mambo. Both marriages erupt into resentment and litigation, and the two men wind up traveling to a remote ski resort where Griffin owns a cabin. At this point the story turns surreal, with a major plot digression about a sexy ski bunny (Andie MacDowell), her trigger-happy, overprotective father (Charlton Heston, parodying himself whether he knows it or not), and a bait store clerk/Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Jenna Elfman), all of whom impact Porter's life in a variety of ways that seem portentious but don't really have any substantial bearing on the outcome of the story.

Besides the bizarre plot line and the extreme conflict in tone, this film suffers from several minor irritations like superfluous characters (I mean besides the ones I've already mentioned) and truly stupid jokes in the dialogue. I daresay one can see Buck Henry's schticky, SNL-style sketch humor injected uncomfortably into unhappy situations. There are moments of dialogue too stupid for the character saying them, and trite, sitcom-style jokes that seem to call attention to themselves for sheer incongruity. This is further compounded by Keaton's inability to keep a straight face even in what are supposed to be emotional scenes.

If this film is intended simply to be a light romantic comedy, then the subject matter is usually far too grim for its own good. If it's a witty but earnest investigation into marital dynamics and the differing needs of the sexes, then it's aiming too low from a comic standpoint, with characters who are not believable as human beings and situations that border on the absurd. At the end of the day, what we've witnessed is a weak attempt to make fun of what selfish jerks people are (especially men), but the result is much more bitter than funny. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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