Judge Jim Thomas regrets that he has no pithy blurb. He's still recovering from Christopher Lee's "American" accent.
One mellow movie about creative divorce, group Jacuzzis, organically-fed mistresses, and therapeutic adultery.
There are certain fundamental truths about which we, as a society, must be regularly reminded, lest history repeat itself. In the case of Serial, we are reminded just what a blight on civilization the '70s really were.
Facts of the Case
Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull) hasn't quite adjusted to the '70s. He's bored with his job and turns to corporate headhunter Luckman (Christopher Lee, LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring). His wife Kate (Tuesday Weld) is expanding her consciousness with girlfriends Martha (Sally Kellerman, M*A*S*H) and Vivian (Barbara Rhoades, The Goodbye Girl). He tries to accommodate his wife's new sensibilities by riding a bike to work to protect the ozone and eating granola, but his heart really isn't in it. Not surprisingly, Harvey and Kate's marriage is drifting apart. Harvey's best friend Sam (Bill Macy, My Favorite Year) refuses to submit to the decade's siren song, spurning the various trends rampaging through the community. Before Harvey knows what's happening, he's estranged from Kate; he's seeing a 19-year-old vegetarian, and Kate's seeing a bisexual Argentinian dog groomer. It takes the death of Sam, who kills himself after a breakdown convinces him that he will never fit into the "new" society, for Harvey to finally reject all the bullshit. Just in time, too—he has to mobilize a gay motorcycle gang to help him rescue his daughter from the Church of Oriental Christian Harmony.
Hey, that's Marin County for you.
Serial satirizes the various fads that swept the country in the late '70s, a task roughly as challenging as dynamiting fish at the base of a dam—and that's a big part of the movie's problem. Although the film was released in 1980, most of the film's satirical targets were already passé by the time Reagan took office in 1981. Twenty-seven years later, the only trend that retains any kind of resonance is people trying to save gas—though it's hard not to laugh at Harvey's complaint about dollar-a-gallon gas. As a result, the movie plays more as a farce than a satire. It has one or two good moments—the memorial service for Sam, during which Harvey finally lashes out against the insanity, brings new meaning to "theater of the absurd."
The sense of farce is heightened by a script by Rich Eustis and Michael Elias (from a novel by Cyra McFadden) that bounces all over the place. For a movie like this to work, we need to have a strong sense of the lead's true character; we get glimpses of that from Harvey, but overall he's just too reactive for us to get any sort of grounding. Other plots and characters suffer from a balance issue; On one hand, Peter Bonerz gets waaay too much screen time as a new age psychiatrist, and Tommy Smothers is utterly wasted as a new age minister. On the other hand, Sam is supposedly Harvey's best friend, but he gets but a few brief scenes, diminishing our response to his death. Basically, there are too many scenes that poke fun at the various fads without advancing the plot. The result is that the movie gets bogged down in its own perceived cleverness.
Acting is uneven. Martin Mull does a fairly good job, but the part is pretty much right in his wheelhouse. Tuesday Weld never quite convinces as Harvey's wife; part of the problem is that her first scene comes across as contrived for the sake of getting the plot moving. In the supporting roles, Sally Kellerman shines as an empowered new age mama on her fifth husband, while Bill Macy makes the most of his sadly limited screen time. Video is OK. There are no obvious defects, though colors are a bit inconsistent. The picture is a little flat, with no sense of depth, which is more a reflection of '80s filmmaking than a technical issue. The sound, though, is a more serious issue. While the mono track is fairly clear, it isn't quite synched with the picture; it's a small problem in long shots—characters' motions and reactions are a little off. With medium and close shots, though, the problem is even more annoying; if the synching were any worse, you'd expect Godzilla to show up and start trashing the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It takes guts to cast Christopher Lee as a corporate headhunter who spends his weekends as the leader of a gay motorcycle gang.
That is not a misprint.
After watching the movie multiple times, here's what really sticks out: Christopher Lee attempting an American accent is wrong on so many different levels that your mind just overloads—and that's before you hear him using said accent to declare, "We are tough dudes, Holroyd."
While Serial has a certain perverse charm to it, there just isn't a lot to recommend. Even if the plot were stronger, the technical issues would remain. Think about it—synchronization was the first technical problem that was overcome when sound met cinema—there is simply no excuse for the poor audio synch in this disc. Legend Films is found guilty of screwing the audio pooch on this one.
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