Urbane decay

Movie: Town and Country

Our Rating: 2.00

The buzz on the romantic comedy "Town and Country" has been bad. Really bad. The movie, which began production in 1998, has been subject to rewrites, reshoots, and multiple rescheduling of its release date. A budget that began at an already high $55 million -- thanks to the asking prices of stars Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Garry Shandling and Goldie Hawn -- reportedly climbed to more than $80 million. Nasty rumors have circulated that Beatty's perfectionism was to blame for the cost overruns.

Still, optimists were sure there was some good to come of it all. They pointed to that blue-chip cast, which in addition to the aforementioned actors features Jenna Elfman, Nastassja Kinski, Andie MacDowell, Buck Henry and Charlton Heston. (!) What's more, Henry co-wrote the script, adding to a personal portfolio that's dominated by "To Die For," "Catch 22" and "The Graduate."

We're not exactly shocked, but we are sad to report that the long-delayed "Town and Country" is every bit as disappointing as the advance word suggested. There's little romance and zilch chemistry between its stable of married partners and lovers. And the film delivers few genuine laughs, with Shandling's acerbic one-liners and Henry's bone-dry delivery of legal advice (he plays a divorce attorney) the notable exceptions.

Directed by Peter Chelsom ("The Mighty"), "Town and Country" very much wants to be an urbane, New York-based comedy of manners (a la Woody Allen's best work) about sophisticated, wealthy, literate couples and their dysfunctions. Among the movie's philosophical preoccupations: Where do relationships go after 20-plus years of marriage? Who's to blame when one or both partners seek solace in extramarital affairs? Are all men dogs? Are their wives to blame? Is it possible to begin life anew, with or without one's longtime partner, after a series of heart-wrenching emotional crises?

Good questions all, and the potential answers should make suitable screenplay fodder. But neither Chelsom nor his actors are able to find the right rhythms to make anything of this material.

Beatty plays off his bachelor-days image a bit in his role as Porter Stoddard, a celebrated architect who visually devours every attractive woman within eyesight, yet never becomes unfaithful to his devoted wife, Ellie (Keaton, who as a Woody Allen regular is more than a bit familiar with this milieu). Porter, though, is caught off guard by a sudden, passionate relationship with a youthful, voluptuous cellist (Kinski). His affair is kept secret, in contrast to the one between his best friend, Griffin (Shandling), and a mysterious redhead. Griffin's high-strung wife, Mona (Hawn), has gone nuclear over the infidelity, and looks to Ellie and the seemingly solid, reliable Porter for emotional support.

The action jumps from the Stoddards' huge, lavish apartment in Manhattan (where their teenage kids and their maid are all involved in noisy sexual rendezvous) to a summer house on the coast, an antebellum mansion in Mississippi and several locales in Sun Valley, Idaho. At that last location, the temporarily single Porter has a flirtation with a general-store clerk (Elfman) who dresses as Marilyn Monroe, and he spends the night with an aggressive, weird rich woman (MacDowell) and her off-kilter parents. (Heston shows up as the woman's rifle-toting dad.)

The dialogue also offers references to Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but to little avail. For the real deal, -- a genuinely funny, knowing and bittersweet exploration of adult relationships among upper-class Manhattanites -- go rent Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Husbands and Wives" or "Annie Hall." "Town and Country" is simply a lost cause.

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