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SO BYE-BYE TO ‘MAXIE,’ BUT WHY?

Times Arts Editor

Some day soon, one or the other of the cable carriers will offer a nice little film called “Maxie.” A number of viewers, possibly a great many, who will have had a swell time watching it may well ask themselves, ‘Wha’ happened?’ and how come “Maxie” eluded them in theatrical release.

It was easy. Even in a time of sudden demises, “Maxie” was a catastrophic box-office flop. It opened simultaneously in something like 800 theaters across the country. Within three days, as one of its executive producers, Jim Stewart, remarked in bafflement the other night, it was clinically dead. So far as Stewart knows, it is not at this moment playing at a single theater.

Movies have stumbled, coughed, rallied feebly, gasped again and expired; “Maxie” fell as if hit by a truck.

You have to ask why. It was Ruth Gordon’s last film, and although you’d have wished for a longer part, she was her lovely, kooky, vigorous self, hinting of Maude. Glenn Close, as a bishop’s secretary suddenly possessed by a raucous flapper dead these 60 years, revealed lovely gifts as a sexy romantic comedienne. Mandy Patinkin, from “Ragtime,” was warmly attractive as a man trying to cope with two women in one svelte body.

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More than that, “Maxie” was a good-hearted, light-hearted attempt to recapture the madcap comedy spirit of the ‘30s. It even had a PG rating, no language you’d have had to explain to a maiden aunt and nothing explicit, on grounds that a hint suffices; yet it was indeed sexy in a tasteful and sophisticated way (sophisticated being a word that has all but disappeared from the national vocabulary).

For all this, the critics nationally attacked it with the venom you would customarily reserve for war criminals and bank foreclosers. There were exceptions: Judith Crist, Bruce Williamson in Playboy, Kevin Thomas in this newspaper, who saw the flaws but understood the intentions and found the virtues.

Flaws there were. Fantasy is the trickiest act of all to bring off in the movies. When it works it is wonderful, as for example in “Topper” and “Heaven Can Wait,” and there are echoes of both in “Maxie,” scripted by Patricia Resnick (“9 to 5") from a novel by Jack Finney. When fantasy fails, it is like a fallen souffle.

This souffle, directed by Paul Aaron, doesn’t collapse, but it indubitably tilts to one side a little, failing, for example, to pay off some subplots (the arrival of an exorcist; Valerie Curtin as the boss who has the hots for Patinkin), yearning for a stronger fade-out. (For reasons that will be clear to those who have seen the film, it would be mischievous and charming to have Close as the wife hum “Bye Bye Blackbird” as she and Patinkin drive away.)

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Yet the previews were hugely successful and at some campus screenings since the picture closed, including one at Loyola Marymount this week, the audiences have been very enthusiastic. Even the distributor, Orion, loved the film from script to release-prints, Stewart says; “Maxie” was not an orphan.

With the exasperating clarity of hindsight, you can see that “Maxie” opened in what is always a slow time for film-going--just as school recommences--but that this year proved a trough of non-attendance, for all films, unequaled in recent years.

You can second-guess that it might have been better to open “Maxie” in a few situations first, to let word of mouth percolate. It is the kind of film, with its appeals to an older audience (although it is not without appeal to the young), for which word of mouth is crucial. It opened abruptly, without much forewarning, racing Close’s other film, “Jagged Edge,” into release; they opened, unhelpfully, within a week of each other. What slim shred of hope there might still be for “Maxie” theatrically seems to rest on the attention Glenn Close deserves for Academy Award nomination. “Jagged Edge” is the far more successful film, but Jan/Maxie was the more testing role, and watching her change personas in mid-sentence is a pleasure--no matter what anybody said.

The frustration Stewart and his partners in Aurora Productions, which developed the project, feel is not that the customers voted negatively on “Maxie,” but that they never really had a chance to find out the election was being held.

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The flaws in execution don’t adequately explain the wreck of the “Maxie.” A film historian might one day want to document and analyze the ripple effect that earned the film such disproportionately harsh notices, from reviewers elsewhere able to detect the stylishness in rapes and eviscerations. Orion has no doubt that the critics killed the picture; if so, it seems like the slaughter of a tame deer.

Stewart, a Disney vice president before he left to start his own production firm (“Heart Like a Wheel,” “Eddie and the Cruisers”), thinks that as a prudent businessman he may have to rethink what will work in the present film market. It is a worrying sadness to think the marketplace can no longer accommodate a non-exploitive, PG-rated romantic comedy, less than perfect but of noble lineage.


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