Picks and Pans Review: Used People

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shirley MacLaine, Marcello Mastroianni, Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates

Twentieth Century Fox appears to be positioning this Moonstruck knockoff as the feel-good movie of the year. In fact the only time to feel good about the relentlessly manipulative Used People is when it's over. It is the summer of '69 in the New York City borough of Queens. Man is about to walk on the moon, the Mets are about to perform a miracle, and MacLaine is burying her husband of 37 years. But the funeral is as contentious as any gathering of her large Jewish family. Half the relatives are arguing about the best route to the cemetery, MacLaine's sharp-tongued mother (Tandy) is sounding off, and her divorced daughters (Bates and Marcia Gay Harden) are quarreling about Harden's refusal to watch the interment. Harden's avoidance of cemeteries. though, hardly ranks as a problem when compared with her other escapist behavior, including a penchant for dressing up like movie characters (Marilyn Monroe's in The Seven Year Itch and Anne Bancroft's in The Graduate, among others). But here's the real source of the sisters' friction: Harden has always been the pretty one; Bates has always been the fat one.

Into the post-funeral buffet and melee comes an immaculately dressed stranger (Mastroianni), awash in old-world charm and quotations from Emerson, Octavio Paz and La Rochefoucauld. He had met MacLaine's husband 23 years earlier, played a key role in keeping the couple together and has now come to offer condolences and an invitation to come out for coffee. MacLaine, a woman with a pinched face and a pinched life, who leaves no dish unwashed or insult unuttered, accepts. And nothing is ever again the same—not for her, her mother, her unhappy daughters or her disturbed grandson.

Take chances, particularly second chances—that's this movie's message, and it is delivered as subtly as the large, frequent plug for Shofar Kosher Franks. Used People strives to find merriment, if not poignancy, in the exaggerated opening of trousers after a large meal, a character's obsession with quiet-flushing toilets, a child so malodorous that her mother douses her with lemon juice ("then she smelled like a fillet"). Nothing in MacLaine's performance—she hasn't chewed the scenery so vigorously since 1988's Madame Sousatzka—explains why she has fired Mastroianni's passion. But restraint isn't anyone's watchword. Tandy is a caricature of a feisty old lady, Bates of a put-upon daughter. At the end of this noisy parade of stereotypes, weak jokes and predictable plot turns, one thing is clear: The truly used people are sitting in the audience. (PG-13)

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