Picks and Pans Review: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

updated 08/23/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 01:00AM

In his latest attempt to prove he's more than a laugh machine, Woody Allen has filtered his urban neurotic sensibility through Ingmar Bergman's 1955 pastoral comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night. No harm in that. The result is sumptuously shot, stylishly acted and fitfully charming. It's just not Woody Allen. Taking flight from the life-sized contemporary world of Annie Hall that his critics and fans think he does best, writer-director Allen has once again cribbed from the old masters—in this case Shakespeare as well as Bergman. While hardly the solemn mess of Interiors or the bilious if mordantly funny Stardust Memories, Sex Comedy is still Woody out of water and floundering. Much of the ditsy dialogue seems out of sync in what appears to be Old World surroundings. As in Bergman's film, the period is turn of the century mixing three couples during a weekend in the country. Woody, a crackpot inventor, and wife Mary Steenburgen have opened their home for the wedding of philosopher Jose Ferrer to free-thinking Mia Farrow. Along for the festivities are medical Casanova Tony Roberts and his free-loving nurse, Airplane!'s Julie Hagerty, who gives the film's most beguiling performance. The game is change partners, a sexual roundelay laced with tragedy that Bergman pulled off with finesse. Woody's okay with the laughs, getting off a few good jokes (he won't have sex with Steenburgen on the kitchen table because "that's where we eat oatmeal"), sight gags (he invents a machine that puts bones into fish) and fortune cookie bons mots ("Sex alleviates tension, love causes it"). Woefully inept, however, are Woody's attempts at tragic resonance. Roberts is too lightweight an actor to wring pathos out of a suicide attempt. And even Ferrer, though in fine form, cannot raise a lyrical spirit from dull material. The three women fare best, though Farrow (Woody's latest lady) seems to have been encouraged to ape the mannerisms of Woody's former flame Diane Keaton. Star-crossed lovers, indeed! (PG)

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