Knowing at the outset that adultery with a voluptuous college coed is a major plot element in "The Lay of the Land" makes its title the first of a series of embarrassments for its makers. Aiming for sophistication and wit, the movie achieves only a diverting frenzy of mood swings and--academic setting notwithstanding--the jokes don't get any more subtle.
Still, Sally Kellerman, also a co-producer, and Ed Begley Jr. try hard to make the best of a bad story. As M.J. and Harvey Dankworth, married college professors edging their way toward emotional free fall, they manage to make us care what happens to their characters even though you probably wouldn't want either one of these basket cases at your next party.
M.J., a lapsed documentarian teaching film, has a psychosomatic hand rash and suspects her husband is cheating on her. She tells this to her psychiatrist (Tyne Daly) well before Harvey, a Russian lit professor, decides to act on his lust for a flirtatious graduate student (Sandra Taylor).
There's a whole lot of contrivances scattered around this oft-told tale of a troubled marriage. Some are straight out of Sitcom City, others from Soapy Gulch and still others (like some fantasy sequences involving Daly and Kellerman in pointlessly exaggerated analysis) are Strictly From Nowhere.
Is this a comedy or melodrama? Hard to tell, and any script that decides to waste Stuart Margolin's talents as an Italian P.I. isn't smart enough to be both at the same time. To be sure, it isn't smart enough to know quite what to do after Harvey fesses up and is kicked out by M.J., who then runs off to Brazil to make the movie of her dreams. Don't ask what happens afterward. Just know that it's squishier than anything that came before. Director Larry Arrick helped fashion this mess with Mel Shapiro from the latter's two-character play. Maybe that's why characters created for this movie, such as Margolin's, Daly's and even Taylor's, seem jerry-built from third-hand diagrams. Also, we see the Dankworths' two sons in the beginning of the movie and only hear about them afterward--and not very much at that. It seems, at the very least, peculiar that these kids' parents are breaking up and falling apart, and we don't get to see how they feel about it.
The Lay of the Land, 1997. R for language and nudity. Times' guidelines: inappropriate for young audiences. A Northern Arts Entertainment Release, JKG Production presents a Jonathan D. Krane production. Directed by Larry Arrick. Produced by Jonathan D. Krane and Sally Kellerman. Executive producers Edward Oleschak, Ralph R. Clemente. Director of photography Frederic Goodich. Original music by Jeff Lass. Edited by Richard Brummer. Costume design by Judy B. Schwartz and Beverly Safire. Production design by Clare Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Sally Kellerman as M.J. Dankworth. Ed Begley Jr. as Harvey Dankworth. Sandra Taylor as Muriel Johanson. Tyne Daly as Dr. Guttmacher.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times