"In conjunction with Malls Week, here's a My Year Of Flops look at a mall movie nobody seemed to love."
While researching the '60s version of Casino Royale for today's column, I made a horrifying discovery. Soylent Green is people! Soylent Green is people! Also, Casino Royale made money. Lots of money. Sure, it cost a fortune to make, but the timeless allure of big stars, sexy girls, and the James Bond name pushed it well into the black. Since I obviously couldn't write about a commercial success for a series about famous failures, I had to find a substitute for Casino Royale quick. But what movie would take its place?
My answer arrived in the form of the Depression-era cockney bootblack who tags along after me during my daily morning constitutional. "Mister, mister! When are you going to favor your readers with your impressions on the lesser, later films of Mister Paul Mazursky? That would be ever so delightful, Mr. Rabin, sir!" he inquired eagerly, his face covered in soot, his grubby little hands blacker than a landlord's soul.
"Soon enough, young man, soon enough," I confided gently with a twinkle in my eye. Admiring the young man's pluck, I flipped him a shiny Indian head nickel, then delivered a swift kick to the keister for annoying me during my pre-dawn ramble. I hereby dedicate this essay about 1991's Scenes From a Mall to that scruffy fictional street urchin. Here's looking at you, kid. Now get back to work.
Honestly, who needs Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress, William Holden, Charles Boyer, John Huston, and Jean-Paul Belmondo in a rollicking, star-studded spoof of the most famous spy in the world when you can have Woody Allen in a ponytail toting a surfboard and performing rapturous public cunnilingus on Bette Midler? Try and get that image out of your mind, dear reader.
Casino Royale and Scenes From a Mall both offer the curious spectacle of Woody Allen acting in non-Woody Allen movies. When he made Casino Royale, Allen was still an up-and-comer, a hot young comedian and cinematic neophyte. But by the time Scenes From A Mall hit theaters, he was as much of a cultural institution as the Statue of Liberty and nearly as immutable.
So it's understandably jarring to see Woody Allen, the quintessential New York snob, playing a pony-tail sporting Los Angeleno perfectly comfortable with the emptiness of his existence. That ponytail goes a long way toward negating the fundamental Woody-ness of Allen's being, yet Woody remains Woody no matter how incongruous the setting. Mazursky has Allen's character do things the real and reel Allen would never do. He buys Italian suits. He totes around a surfboard. He listens to music made after World War II. He says things like "Christ, where's my fucking Saab?!" He seems comfortable in a mall. He goes hours without referencing Kierkegaard or Camus. Most shockingly, he has sex with a Jewish woman roughly his own age.
It's an existential conundrum: He's Woody yet he's not Woody. The ponytail and surfboard seem to exist in a different, infinitely more crass universe than Allen's Manhattan wonderland, yet the mannerisms, tics, and vocal inflections give him away. Even if Allen played Osama Bin Laden, he'd probably still end up looking and acting suspiciously like Alvy Singer.
Midler similarly tones down her trademark brassiness to play a successful headshrinker and author celebrating her 16th anniversary to Allen with a trip to the mall before joining friends for sushi. The day begins with Allen and Midler in a state of far-too-perfect domestic bliss. They marvel at how their marriage has managed to outlast all their friends' unions (this is Southern California, after all), send their kids away, and even try to engage in a little pre-mall canoodling. The site of an amorous, pony-tailed Allen trying desperately to rip off Midler's grey spandex leggings in a fit of carnal passion is one it'll take years of therapy to purge from my memory.
At the mall, however, the couple's façade of matrimonial contentment begins to shatter when Allen confesses to a passionate affair with the 25-year-old wife of one of his clients. Midler at first maintains an air of poise and restraint, but it isn't long before she's upsetting the narcotized calm of mall life with angry outbursts. She demands a divorce, only to admit later to an affair of her own with a loving, caring, sexually skilled doctor played by, yes, Paul Mazursky.
In between all the confessions, break-ups, and impromptu reconciliations, the couple somehow finds the time to sneak into a screening of Salaam Bombay!, where Allen attempts to win his wife back by going down on her in a theater. Somewhere, Alanis Morrissette was taking notes. And possibly getting slimed. (Incidentally, if this essay accomplishes nothing else, I'd like it to at least introduce "Seeing Salaam Bombay!" as a euphemism for cunnilingus.) Judging by Midler's orgasmic glow exiting the theater it's safe to say that Allen is the undisputed king of seeing Salaam Bombay!. Homeboy's tongue game is apparently vicious.
For the wealthy power couples of Scenes From a Mall, drinking in the misery of street urchins from Bombay is just another consumer choice in a pop world teeming with them. As the day progresses, the tension and resentments bubbling under the surface of Allen and Midler's marriage burst into plain view.
At its best, Scenes captures how the mundane details of a long shared history together can pull a couple together while simultaneously pulling them apart. Allen longs for the freedom and excitement of single life yet is reluctant to leave the security and comfort of the nest. Yet it ultimately doesn't seem to matter whether these vain, bickering, self-absorbed suburban monsters of banality break up or stick around to torment each other for decades to come.
Through it all Bill Irwin's malevolent mime (is there any other kind?) serves as Allen's mocking shadow, lampooning his actions in pantomime until Allen finally musters up the courage to punch him. As Roger Ebert points out in his one-star review of the film, this is the moment Irwin's entire performance has been leading up to yet it barely registers. Neither does the comic incongruity of setting a domestic psychodrama in a mall–that sad, soul-sucking cathedral of capitalism at its most impersonal and homogenous.
It's not hard to see why Scenes At A Mall failed. Its characters aren't particularly likeable and it's hard to muster up sympathy for pampered adulterers. Scenes also falls victim to the Parental-Sex Rule. Unless you're a 17-year-old newly adopted by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, nobody wants to imagine their parents having sex. We want to imagine our parents as perfectly asexual, as devoid of genitalia or sexual impulses as a Barbie or Ken doll.
Yet Scenes is all about two parental-type figures and their sex lives. Granted, we don't actually get to see Allen's sweaty, engorged cock dripping with sweat and bodily fluids as it violates every orifice of Midler's body with great ferocity and passion. Nor do we witness Allen hungrily lapping up Midler's dripping lady-juice like a man dying of thirst at a water fountain. But there's no doubt that these are people who think about sex and talk about sex and actually go about the dirty business of having sex.
I realize now that this has accidentally become prude week here at My Year Of Flops. At least I'm a well-rounded prude. I'm as repulsed and bored by 18-year-olds bumping and grinding against strangers as I am by middle-aged married people having middle-aged married sex.
Late in the film, Allen's surfboard, Allen, Midler, and Fabio all squeeze into an elevator together while a frustrated Midler sexually violates Fabio with her eyes. In moments like this, Scenes almost gets by on novelty value alone. And there are quiet, subtly powerful moments sprinkled throughout when Midler and Allen's faces reveal the extreme psychological and social cost of dissolving a marriage, however faltering or troubled.
Yet Scenes never really works as comedy or drama, as an anti-Woody Allen movie or a Woody Allen movie of a different color. The couple's dark afternoon of the soul is more like an extended shrug. Yet Scenes retains the strange morbid fascination as Allen's sad little ponytail, that telltale symptom of a man immersed in the midst of a hellacious mid-life crisis. The Scenes DVD is depressingly bare-bones, but I'd like to imagine that Mazursky shot at least one scene of Allen riding the surfboard he carries throughout the film as a muddled visual gag. Woody Allen surfing: now that would be funny.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco