Picks and Pans Review: Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

updated 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward

Sly, dry and apparently designed to raise questions rather than answer them, this film about a Kansas City lawyer and his wife in the 1930s and '40s is something like an intellectual version of All in the Family.

The movie was directed by James Ivory and written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This team has turned out films that were usually on the. dull-lifeless-stuff-it-and-mount-it continuum. Here, adapting two novels by Evan S. Connell (see page 65), they have created a much livelier, more engaging movie. It doesn't hurt that Ivory and producing partner Ismail Merchant have assembled a model cast. As the staid, isolated, heartily sexist lawyer (whose favorite song is "Stout Hearted Men"), Newman is a marvel of tiny, aborted gestures and self-righteous indignation: "I have never been able to find anything amusing about smut," he huffs when he hears a mildly dirty joke (and a funny one at that).

Woodward, as a professionally subservient wife whose attempts to assert herself run to idly taking painting classes, beautifully shapes a baffled, frustrated character. Her scenes with Blythe Danner, as the best friend whose disintegration is more external than Woodward's, are at once witty and poignant. Her scenes with Kyra (Born on the Fourth of July) Sedgwick, Robert Sean (Dead Poets Society) Leonard and Margaret (Next of Kin) Welsh, the three splendid young actors who play her children, generate a sense of both affection and profound desperation. (Leonard's unexplained alienation from her, though, is one of the film's loose ends; Newman's seemingly incestuous interest in Sedgwick is another one.)

If Newman and Woodward get along pretty well on their own, they are a joy together. Few breakable hearts will be intact after the scene where Woodward all but begs him to tell her he loves her.

Other memorable supporting performances include Simon Callow as a lecherous therapist and Austin Pendleton as the art teacher reduced to selling subscriptions to Doberman magazine. Their subtlety and understatement fit right into a movie that invites its audience to fill in the blanks, to make sense of squandered intelligence and abused emotion when its characters can't. (PG-13)

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