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Sweet Liberty
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by Jack Sommersby

"Another Alan Alda Mediocrity"
2 stars

Some promise here, folks, but the follow-through is lukewarm and very disappointing.

Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty has some ace supporting performances and a few laughs, but this Hollywood satire is wildly unfocused with its fragmentary screenplay and suffers from far too much timidity to really score. You'd think its terrific story premise were foolproof, but darned if Alda, who did triple duty in the acting, writing and directing departments here, lets it slip right through his fingers. He stars as Michael Burgess, a Pulitzer Prize-winning college history professor whose best-selling book that detailed the American Revolution is being made into a movie; the production company has just arrived in his small town of Sayeville that's taken its star-struck citizens by storm. Michael's immediately befriended by the screenwriter, Stanley Gould (Bob Hoskins), who claims to cherish Michael's book but has made a complete mockery of it by redesigning it as a sex comedy for strictly commercial reasons -- when he gives the script to Michael and tells him to tell him the parts he finds funny, Michael has no idea what he's talking about; and when he does read it, he's flat-out flabbergasted by the inappropriate humor and countless historical inaccuracies. But Stanley, a hack with aspirations for greatness, promises Michael that they can work on it. Michael also communicates his deep-seated displeasure to the producer/director, Bo Hodges (Saul Rubinek), by telling him he only has two problems with the script: the story and the dialogue. Unlike Stanley, Bo, another hack, is only concerned with making his next deal; with a very low tolerance for writers, he explains to Michael that the movie has been marketed for the younger generation who want to see people do three things in any celluloid product -- defy authority, destroy property, and take their clothes off. ("And the American Revolution was the ultimate rebellion," Bo reasons.) Added to which, Michael's furious that the lead character, a British colonel, Charlton, played by international star Elliott James (Michael Caine), has been made into a principled, romantic hero even though in real life he was in fact a vicious beast; in an amusing moment, when Michael asks the director why on earth the heroine, Mary Slocombe, played by beautiful actress Faith Healy (Michelle Pheiffer), would fall in love with him, he replies that Elliott is number-four at the box office. When Michael first sees Faith, she's in wardrobe and speaks to Michael just as Mary would; suffice to say, Michael's in sticker shock when he arrives at Faith's place for dinner and sees her angry, foul-mouthed self arguing with her agent over the phone like the career-oriented professional she is. She wants to play Mary exactly as she was, and she responds to Michael who slips her diaries and letters that Mary wrote; on the other hand, Elliott, an actor with more charisma than talent, is more concerned with nailing as many women on location as he can, so it's natural that he's more receptive to the director's vanilla vision of Charlton than Michael's truthful, unflattering one.

When Alda's movie sticks to the movie-within-the-movie details, it's okay and watchable. While not as informative as Hortense Powdermaker's landmark non-fiction book Hollywood: The Dream Factory, not nearly as fascinating as Eleanor Coppola's documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, not as sly and uproarious as Charles Shyer's superior Hollywood satire Irreconcilable Differences, it's easygoing enough (for a while, anyway). While the shooting-of-the-movie sequences have their fair amount of smiles (when Michael complains that Charlton's uniform was green rather than red, Stanley exasperates, "The movie's falling apart and you're worried about haberdashery?"), the behind-the-scenes ones involving the company have their share of humor, too, like Michael trying to ingratiate himself with Elliott through their shared love of fencing, and Elliott's epee winds up making complete tatters of Michael's shirt. But other things are of the desperate variety. There's Elliott's reckless driving with a terrified Michael in the passenger seat with his eyes tightly closed; Elliott clumsily commandeering a helicopter at an outdoor reception and wreaking havoc upon the hitting-the-ground guests; Elliott taking Michael and some people up on a rollercoaster with a bunch of screaming ensuing. And because of its overall square-mindedness, it doesn't have much bite, and it isn't much fun. Why does Michael have to be such a joyless, judgmental killjoy throughout? Granted, he's dedicated his life to the written word, and dastardly Hollywood has certainly made mince meat out of his book, but why would this come as such a surprise to him? Yes, he's not much of a movie watcher (when Faith tells him she once played a coal miner, Michael assumes she played the title character Sissy Spacek played in Coal Miner's Daughter), but he's been made out to be so hopelessly naive that there aren't too many scenes where we're glad he's around -- we have to wait far too long for Michael to finally wake up and catch up, so the audience, most of whom have seen at least five movies about Hollywood, has little in the way of identification with him. And he's been inconsistently written as a sugarpuss who lets himself be seduced by Faith into sleeping with her so she can absorb Michael's knowledge of her character but then is shocked and repulsed later when she starts sleeping with Elliott (who she earlier describes as having the emotional depth of an eggplant) to make their romantic scenes play better. Actually, it would have played much better had Michael, after some initial resistance, gradually became entranced and seduced by the sinful Hollywood side of things; that, seeing a possible future for himself as a screenwriter with oodles of easy wealth and poolside bimbos, was willing to sell out his book to attain those; that academia could take a backseat or just plain take a hike. As it plays out, wooden Michael embraces obvious "values," and that's unbearable.

What's also intolerable is not just the blandness of Michael's character but Alda's blandness in playing him. When Alda's given a juicy role in some other director's film, like the edgy politician in The Seduction of Joe Tynan or the megalomaniacal television producer in Crimes and Misdemeanors, he can be a masterful, first-rate actor with some edge; but when he stars in his own bland pictures, The Four Seasons and Betsy's Wedding (though he did have his moments in his slightly-underrated A New Life), he just doesn't bring much to the party. He's to be commended for giving his actors colorful supporting roles, but he has quite the opposite problem than a lot of other actors who star in their own movies in not giving himself juicier roles with more to do. Here, Alda's blandness is dreadful. It's not that you can't get a lock on what he's trying for because he's not trying to do much of anything -- Michael's strictly a reactionary character, and he has no center, no soul, no inner conflict going on besides endlessly bitching about his beloved book and imparting his higher-than-mighty ideals on everyone. And it's not just the triteness of the Michael-versus-Hollywood aspects but two inane subplots that he's the center of, also. There's his boring relationship with another college professor, Cecelia (Lise Hilboldt), who he wants to live with but doesn't want to marry, and she wants to marry him but won't live with him unmarried, and their several dialogue scenes cover the same ground over and over again to the point of certifiable catatonia. (Woody Allen could've licked this kind of thing inside of five sentences; and if he hadn't, it would've at least been halfway funny.) And it's insufferable how Hilboldt's been costumed and directed: dressed in plain, loose-fitting clothing and forever smiling to herself, she's the very definition of "homeliness" as a direct contrast to the very-attractive and magnetic Faith -- like Michael, her nothingness goes a long way. There's also the character of Michael's senile mother, Ellen (Lillian Gish), who believes the devil is living in the kitchen and won't eat any food that hasn't been sitting on the TV for twenty-four hours so the radiation can kill whatever germs are put in it. (One feels Alda were giving a legendary actress like Gish some employment rather than a substantial, organic role.) And then that leads to a sub-subplot involving Michael trying to track down a former love of hers who she hasn't seen in twenty-five years. Maybe if these had been preferable to the main plot they could have served an alleviating function, but they're far worse and only succeed in making us crave getting back to mediocrity. Sweet Liberty could've used far less of Michael and more of the dashing, womanizing Elliott who the always-welcome Caine plays with his usual aplomb. Even in the very minor role of the lead stuntman, the solid Jerry Lee makes more of an indelible impression than Alda, who's succeeded only in sabotaging himself in his own production. Maybe that devil in the kitchen made him do it.

What Alda's included is damaging but not half as damaging as what he's chosen to leave out, with the main thing just how the production is throwing historical accuracy to the wind. We don't get the pleasure of seeing the vast differences between the passages of Michael's book and the comical screenplay; we keep being told that the movie being made is a "bawdy" comedy without our being allowed to see this for ourselves. Every time we detour to the needless subplots we keep thinking of the ground Alda's movie isn't covering; and its nexus is too stale and shopworn to serve as viable groundwork for us to be filling in the blanks for ourselves on any kind of analytical level -- Alda keeps talking a great movie without ever coming near delivering one. None of the company's actors seem to be having much in the way of genuine, rip-roaring fun that you'd expect from a movie of this catering-to-the-masses type; we get a brief shot of some extras jumping into a pond buck-naked and laughing on cue, but Alda's approach is too tasteful and neurasthenic -- if we didn't see Elliott's trailer constantly bopping up and down when he's got a woman inside, we wouldn't suspect anyone in the production were even getting laid on the side. And even on the most basic level Alda fouls some easy stuff up that a rank amateur would've been wise to. It never makes any sense that Faith and Elliott are working on a broad comedy or any kind of comedy for that matter. When they're playing their scenes, they do so with the utmost seriousness; it's like they've just wandered onto the set from an Ingrid Bergman production. Could part of the comedy being attempted by the movie-within-the-movie is their playing the straight man and woman with an outer layer of lunacy surrounding them? Maybe, but this isn't even remotely detailed and worked out. We see neither any visual zingers nor so much as a single supporting actor anywhere in the being-filmed scenes, much less one who's trying to be funny, so we're brought up short by this glaring inconsistency. We can't figure out why Faith is so dedicated to playing the heroine Mary with all this highly-concentrated truth and doing so in so solemn a manner, and why both she and the director are frustrated by Elliott's walking through his scenes with a lack of dramatic passion as if he were expected to be delivering a Doctor Zhivago. The audience can't help but lose patience because Alda never really seems sure what he's going for -- or, when he does, it's of the eye-rolling variety like having loud-plaid-suited screenwriter Stanley listen to rock music and noisily munch potato chips while he and Michael are rewriting, or having the snide Hollywood stuntman show thinly-veiled contempt for some dim-witted townspeople who pride themselves on their dedicated reenactment of a crucial American Revolution battle ever year. At one point, even, Stanley's hamburger drops a big glob of ketchup on something Michael's writing. If it had been the script for Sweet Liberty, I'd have preferred it something a bit more corrosive and ruinous: like nuclear waste.

Check out Alda's "A New Life" instead.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2595&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/15/11 12:01:47
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User Comments

3/21/03 Jack Sommersby Slight and uneven, but it's engagingly slight enough to reccomend. Caine is a riot! 3 stars
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  02-May-1986 (PG)
  DVD: 23-Nov-2004



Directed by
  Alan Alda

Written by
  Alan Alda

  Alan Alda
  Michelle Pfeiffer
  Bob Hoskins
  Michael Caine
  Lilian Gish
  Saul Rubinek

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