**½/**** Image C Sound D+
starring Matthew Modine, Daphne Zuniga, Christine Lahti, Todd Field
screenplay by Ron Nyswaner and Mark Spragg
directed by Thom Eberhardt
***/**** Image C Sound D+
starring Alan Alda, Joey Bishop, Madeline Kahn, Molly Ringwald
written and directed by Alan Alda
THE GUN IN BETTY LOU'S HANDBAG
**/**** Image C Sound D+
starring Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal, William Forsythe, Alfre Woodard
screenplay by Grace Cary Bickley
directed by Allan Moyle
by Jefferson Robbins To sample three Blu-ray editions fresh out from discount distributor Mill Creek Entertainment, you'd think film comedy in the late 1980s and early '90s was at a tipping point. Or, at least, you'd think this of Touchstone, the Disney sub-studio behind Gross Anatomy, Betsy's Wedding, and The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag. All three films seem swamped by the decade shift, caught between John Hughes's early-'80s youth revolution and the hardening of romcom formulas that would come to pass after 1990's Pretty Woman (also a Touchstone product). One of the three films, in fact, barely qualifies as a comedy, although it was surely marketed as such. The sense one gets watching them today is of opportunities missed, of storytelling approaches gently meshed together when they should've been gleefully mashed, and of an aversion to risk above all.
There's surprisingly little at stake in Thom Eberhardt's Gross Anatomy, whose title and set-up at first make you think you're in for an '80s-style slobs vs. snobs romp. Alas, no. This is a mild, laughless drama in the Paper Chase model, superimposed over medical school instead of law school. In the opening minutes, fisherman's son Joe Slovak (Matthew Modine) gets more and more dumbfounded during interviews with med-school provosts, eventually falling back on freewheeling sarcasm as a defense. Once he wins his way into the Chandler University School of Medicine, Slovak is no agent of chaos, just a surly guy with a come-and-go Northeastern accent trying to muddle his way through like everybody else. (Slovak's most revolutionary act, aside from threatening to quit school altogether, is his habit of showing up late for anatomy labs while dribbling a basketball. He's shaking things up!) His central-casting group of lab partners--romantic interest Laurie (Daphne Zuniga), uptight roomie David (Todd Field), young mother Kim (Alice Carter), preppie Evian-sipper Miles (John Scott Clough)--embody the usual array of parental, financial, and social stresses at play in this kind of movie, and like an episode of "Survivor", some of them are doomed to fumble and force their collaborators to work all the harder.
Slovak, for his part, is singled out for tough love from obviously depressed dean Dr. Woodruff (Christine Lahti), who senses some potential that's invisible to the audience and assigns him extra credit in the form of an anonymous patient file. Diagnose this person from the charts alone, he's told, and it'll help your grade. Well, guess whose file it turns out to be? It's not clear why Slovak earns this attention, because what Woodruff is hoping to evoke is a future doctor's empathy for his patients, and Slovak's few stabs at bedside manner usually result in disaster. So many people appear to be pulling for him that we might be fooled into thinking Slovak is more noble than Modine, Eberhardt, or screenwriters Ron Nyswaner and Mark Spragg are able to paint him. Then we realize that all the Sturm und Drang has only to do with Slovak's very first year in med school--he's not even a doctor by the time credits roll--and the results are kind of a drip. It ends in the time-honoured romcom style, with lovers chasing after each other through hallways (there's a video essay somewhere in the history of that cliché), and there's little real takeaway other than that medical school is hard, Daphne Zuniga is button-cute, and doctors should try to give a damn about sick people. I think Obama inserted at least one of those clauses in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Betsy's Wedding finds the auteur Alan Alda, as writer/director/star, trying to nail down a Woody Allen ensemble vibe, albeit with a zippier pace. (He was either fresh off Allen's 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors while making this film, or working in parallel with it.) It goes deeper than Gross Anatomy, thankfully, while also trying to suss out where the future lay for movies like this as audiences' tastes and studio indulgences changed. As independent homebuilder Eddie Hopper, Alda is a relentless optimist besieged by hidden anxiety. Eddie can handle shady financiers and business setbacks, but in absurdist early-Allen fashion, he dreams of wrestling tigers and going to the net solo against entire basketball squads. He's thrown for a new loop by the engagement of daughter Betsy (Molly Ringwald), set to marry WASP scion Jake (Dylan Walsh); and by his other daughter Connie's (Ally Sheedy) canoodlings with young Mafioso Stevie Dee (Anthony LaPaglia).
Beyond the usual ludicrousness involving Mobbed-up in-laws, pre-ceremony jitters, and chaotic wedding receptions, Betsy's Wedding is about Eddie's entanglements with families he'd rather not embrace. Already a mixed clan--Eddie's Italian, his wife Lola (Madeline Kahn) is Jewish--the Hoppers confront a further mixing of bloodlines, as well as a commensurate erosion of identity. "That family has no texture," Lola says of Jake's upper-crust parents. "They just want to be correct." In light of Connie's affair, Eddie's long-dead father (Joey Bishop) appears in ghostly daydream form to tutor him on how to survive Mob dinners. Bishop is both touching and very, very funny in this brief role, raging about how he had to change his name to the all-American "Hopper" in part to disentangle himself from people like Stevie and his clan.
Betsy's Wedding ranges widely over the shady dealings of Eddie's brother-in-law Oscar (Joe Pesci) and perceived attempts to tamp down "free spirit" Betsy, but these feel like filler. With '80s youth stars Ringwald and Sheedy on board, Alda's compelled to shoehorn in some intergenerational conflict that's calibrated to draw a John Hughes demographic--which, by 1990, may have been something of a phantom anyway. What clings is that sense of cultural identity losing its purchase and moving, through the love-and-marriage patterns of Betsy and her peers, into a post-ethnic or multicultural posture. That's either the greatest fear or the greatest hope of Alda's generation, and a spur for Eddie's anxiety and optimism simultaneously. This was Alda's last film as director to date and it's clear he wanted to say something, however deeply submerged beneath the marketing demands.
The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag, while the most visually daring of this troika, is shown up as disappointingly traditionalist by standing in the shadow of the previous year's Thelma & Louise. We approach Allan Moyle's confection thinking the titular gun is either Chekhovian (it will go off and execute the script's justice when the moment calls for it) or empowering (it will let the heroine stake a claim to some long-denied authority). In Grace Cary Bickley's script, the latter proves true, but only in the most disappointing way possible: It helps mousy Missouri librarian Betty Lou Perkins (Penelope Ann Miller) become more sexually desirable to the husband who doesn't deserve her. Talk about missing out on the zeitgeist.
There's promise in the opening minutes, as the ignored, belittled Betty Lou gets fed up with her swaggering cop spouse Alex (was-gonna-be-a-star Eric Thal), trails him to the scene of a Mob hit, and eventually plucks up the titular revolver used in the killing. Moyle (Empire Records) gets daring with the camera, pursuing Betty Lou all the way down a river embankment to her date with destiny, and Betty Lou's near-break with reality inside a department store almost means something. It's like she's beginning to divorce herself from the superficial--we root for her to evolve beyond the dingbat stick figures who surround her (Julianne Moore and Alfre Woodard, for instance, in the ditzy-best-friend phases of their respective careers). But she's not a different person, she's simply treated differently--not the same thing at all in terms of character arc. Her pursuit by hardened gangsters (led by the great William Forsythe, applying a Glasgow smile to a then-unknown Catherine Keener) and her tutelage by jailed hookers with gold hearts all around (Cathy Moriarty among them) are window dressing to the story's real goal: getting Alex to smarten up and pay attention. The gun is never fired again; it should have been used to blow his balls off. Instead of a fable about empowerment of the feminine, The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag offers appeasement of the masculine. Maybe it's a more important movie than I realize, since romantic comedies have been following this line ever since.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
The Mill Creek packages, each offering their flick in 1.78:1/1080p, are the most extras-free Blu-rays I've ever encountered. All three films start off with a four-quadrant menu and the simplest possible selections--really, I've made stuff this complex in iDVD. Those looking for director commentary, excised scenes, subtitles, or even 5.1 sound are out of luck, and the source prints are scratchy and speckled, if not to distraction. In fact, no image cleanup of any sort is apparent, which means no edge-enhancement but also a questionable level of colour correction. Gross Anatomy is fully muted except for Zuniga's cheek makeup (and does she have a moustache?) and her post-"Cosby" sweaters. In the case of Betsy's Wedding, Molly Ringwald looks like a peach and Anthony LaPaglia like an eggplant. As for the audio, compression makes a hash of scenes with too many sound sources, as when Slovak tries to help out with a shooting victim in the bustling ER, or when Betty Lou hosts a crowded event at her library. The worst offender is Betty Lou, during which the soundtrack seems to arrive ahead of the image. Although these are only 2-channel presentations, I expect better when my receiver detects DTS-HD Master Audio. (Note that the cover copy erroneously lists "2.0 Dolby Digital" across the board.) None of the discs even offers captions--we're truly in the discount bin here, folks. Originally published: June 30, 2011.