Households vary, but at ours there's at least one firmly held belief: Elaine May is the funniest woman in America. To be truthful, after a richly funny start, "In the Spirit," in which she stars, crumbles around her at roughly its halfway point. To an Elaine May junkie, however, that is almost irrelevant.
It may not be irrelevant to audiences who prefer a little consistency to their comedy. But "In the Spirit" (selected theaters) pits two radically different philosophies: New Age and what might be called Old Expense Account. And there is something about the sight of the deadpan and deeply worldly Ms. May, listening in growing disbelief to an uplifting lecture about our spirit guides, which simply subverts complaints.
May and Peter Falk play a bicoastal couple, Marianne and Roger Flan, stunned but game when he totters home to their Beverly Hills estate to announce he's been fired. Jetting quickly back to New York, Marianne declares that eight weeks of full-tilt entertaining will absolutely have Roger employed again; they need only spruce up the condo. Coincidentally, she meets Reva Prosky (Marlo Thomas), a widowed health-food store owner with the ultimate New York seduction: a reputable handyman and plumber. And the Flans thought they had troubles before .
Things don't get much funnier than Falk, molting visibly day by day as he and May are crammed into Thomas' quilt-cozy apartment while she redecorates their place. They're in her nephew's room; adults in Western-stenciled bunk beds, eating nori and tofu casseroles and listening to the stream of more-or-less-consciousness that pours from Crystal (Jeannie Berlin), the striking and vastly bummed-out hooker from next door. (Crystal's vivid recitations, postcards from the life, are what give the film its R rating.)
Berlin, co-writer of the screenplay with Laurie Jones, has her mother Elaine May's timing, her deadpan, her enormous eyes and her briskly unforgiving slant on life. If their screenplay could keep up the pace of the movie's first half, she and Jones would have a grand-slam home run.
But one by one, the best characters fall away: Berlin, then even Falk. After a marvelously played sequence with Melanie Griffith, she, too, vanishes. And having been unparalleled as adversaries, when it comes time for May and Thomas to pull together to defeat someone or something that seems to be stalking them, almost all of the savor goes out of the mix. Finally, when they go into hiding upstate and the physical comedy involves silly hats, camouflage face paint and falling out of trees, you just want these smart women to pull themselves together and stop dithering.
First-time director Sandra Seacat, something of a legend as an acting coach, is not a help. She seems to major in impenetrable camera angles. When we yearn to catch an expression in May's face, we see only the edge of her hooker-disguise wig. And not even the fun of noticing that in these wigs, Marianne and Reva look exactly like Academy Award presenters circa 1952, can make up for the awkwardness.
May, of course, is not out there playing badminton with herself. Thomas is there, too; perky, friendly, professional as all get-out. The two have a reflective moment when Reva wails about being middle-aged, but since Thomas looks exactly the way she did in "That Girl," it's not a complaint one can take very seriously.
Still, if you are a collector of most-promising-first-halves, try Falk, begging piteously to be out of the clutches of Reva, Crystal and the Well-Meaning People forever. "I would never believe," he says after a nearly nude encounter with Crystal, "that a professional prostitute could be so boring ."
'IN THE SPIRIT'
A Castle Hill Productions Inc. release of a Running River production. Producer Julian Schlossberg, Beverly Irby. Director Sandra Seacat. Screenplay Jeannie Berlin, Laurie Jones. Camera Dick Quinlan. Editor Brad Fuller. Music Patrick Williams. Production design Michael C. Smith. Costumes Carrie Robbins. Associate producer Phillip Schopper. With Jeannie Berlin, Olympia Dukakis, Peter Falk, Melanie Griffith, Elaine May, Marlo Thomas.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).