Picks and Pans Review: In the Spirit

updated 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Elaine May, Mario Thomas

A comedy-mystery, this eccentrically entertaining film spoofs astrology, reincarnation, communing with the dead, militant vegetarianism, crystals, meditation, gurus, karma, Shirley MacLaine, prostitution and caffeine avoidance. Throw in a transvestite or two and an Elvis imitator, and you'd have enough topics for a week of shows for Mario's husband, Phil.

Thomas is marvelously funny as a widowed New York City health-food store owner who is a repository for most of the Western world's marginal beliefs. She is a model of self-righteousness, saying, "I've never gotten tired of or left anyone in my life. They've had to leave me." And she looks fetching in a scene where she tarts up in a hooker outfit.

May and her just-fired husband, Peter Falk, move in with Thomas as a temporary measure, staying in the bedroom Thomas is keeping just as her dead nephew left it—full of stuffed animals, a hobbyhorse, cowboy clothes and his bunk beds.

This arrangement drives Falk crazy. There is the lecture Thomas hosts by a woman who says she was Queen Isabella in a former life, plus Thomas's health-food addiction. When Falk starts to sulk, May nags him to call some of his friends. "What do I tell them?" he says. " 'Come on over for some kelp—we can eat on my toy chest?' "

The exasperated Falk makes an ideal foil. He soon leaves May for good, though, taking along a chunk of the film's charm.

Still, there are Thomas and the redoubtable May confronting the murder of a prostitute who lives next door and becoming the next target of the murderer.

Both director Sandra Seacat and her writers, Jeannie Berlin (May's daughter) and Laurie Jones, are actresses. (Berlin was a 1972 Oscar nominee for The Heartbreak Kid.) That may explain the reader-friendly dialogue and patient close-ups.

The film, however, is stagy. And it doesn't so much end as wind down, with Thomas and May making their stand in a country house. But the movie never loses its spirit—it always stays in touch with its feelings, for that matter. (R)

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