Picks and Pans Review: Sweet Liberty

updated 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nitpick if you like over the blah parts, but it's more fun to just give in and enjoy writer-director-star Alan Alda's otherwise sharp and sassy comedy about moviemaking. In his first film since 1981's over-40 favorite, The Four Seasons, Alda plays a divorced college professor in a small North Carolina town. Having sold the movie rights to his Pulitzer prizewinning novel on the American Revolution, the prof must now face a Hollywood invasion. His genteel Southern hamlet (actually Long Island's swanky Hamptons, where Alda has a home) is deemed the perfect shooting location. Things get imperfect fast. Alda's first encounter is with the screenwriter, a toadying hack with the wardrobe of an L.A. used-car salesman and a mouth to match. British actor Bob (The Cotton Club) Hoskins plays him in a burst of comic inspiration. In a film packed with good performances, Hoskins steals the show. "Step on me, curse me, use me," he tells Alda, desperate to be associated with anything approaching real literature. The main obstacle to quality is the whiz-kid director, played by Saul (Against All Odds) Rubinek, who sees historical fact as a low priority compared to teen audience demand for nudity and Animal House mayhem. Alda, learning that the way to win at movies is through the egos of its stars, flatters the film's womanizing hero (saucily done by Michael Caine) and plays up to leading lady Michelle (Into the Night) Pfeiffer's penchant for accents and accuracy. The delectable Pfeiffer delivers a wickedly funny send-up of the kind of actress who'd bed or betray anyone to improve her performance. Alda is on to something here about the corrupt ways movies make their magic. But as in his 1979 political satire, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Alda fails to go far enough. He falls instead into safe sitcom gentility. One subplot about his aged, crackpot mother (Lillian Gish) is irrelevant; another, involving his romance with a fellow teacher, Lise (The Hunger) Hilboldt, pushes cute to the cringe level. But why kick? Alda may be stroking his hard-won mainstream audience with one hand, but he's jabbing it into awareness with the other. That subversive hand deserves more exercise. When Alda uses it, Sweet Liberty is a fresh, frisky charmer. (PG)

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