"Of course I stood up for you, but I don't have an awful lot of material to work with here, do I?"—Porter Stoddard (Warren Beatty) to Griffin (Garry Shandling)
This is the worst movie Woody Allen never made.
Facts of the Case
Porter Stoddard (Warren Beatty) lives the good life on Fifth Avenue. He is a post-modern architect; his wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) is an award-winning fashion designer. But all is not perfect. His son (Josh Hartnett) favors dating pierced punkers. His daughter (Tricia Vessey) has a boyfriend who speaks no English. And Porter has a little problem with women: affairs seem to drop in his lap, whether he wants them or not.
An early scene meant to kick off the entire crazy chain of events that constitutes a plot might be considered emblematic of everything that is wrong with Town and Country: Mona (Goldie Hawn) receives a mysterious phone call, follows her husband Griffin (Garry Shandling) and spies him with a woman, and runs off in a huff. The camera lingers for a moment to reveal the "woman" is really a transvestite. The punch line: Griffin is not only having an affair, but he is gay, and Mona only thinks it is a "normal" affair!
What, you aren't laughing?
Oh, does something appear to be missing from this joke? Maybe I can help. First, the scene provides no context or set-up. It merely happens. Second, the punch line is rushed, then abruptly cut off as we jump to the next scene. Third, we hardly even know these characters, as they appeared for only a few seconds on screen prior to this. Fourth, the follow-up scenes are jumbled and confusing, and the performances of the actors are flat and uninvolved, as if we are watching a rehearsal or read-through of the script, rather than a finished product. Finally, the entire incident turns on Porter's shock at discovering that his friend is having an affair, but we have already established in the first few minutes of the film that Porter himself screws around, so --
I give up. I cannot make heads nor tails of Town and Country. I have a PhD in English. I teach film. I understand films by Antonioni, Kubrick—I can even make sense of David Lynch sometimes—but I could not follow Town and Country with a flashlight and a global-positioning satellite. The movie seems to consist of randomly assembled scenes. Characters are not so much established as dumped on screen, and gags (Porter falling off a roof, then the camera suddenly cuts to a new scene) seem to occur abruptly and without any context, as if the movie was edited by dart board.
Perhaps Town and Country is some sort of surrealist experiment, like a game of "Exquisite Corpse" with celluloid, where players came one at a time into the editing room and added or subtracted scenes without any reference to a script. Or perhaps this is some sort of roman à clef thing, with Beatty mocking of his own past history of womanizing. Some self-indulgent attempt to make fun of himself, but with only himself in on the joke.
My ultimate theory is that Town and Country was an attempt to make a Woody Allen film on a big budget. It is certainly structured like an Allen film, with a loose series of character interactions rather than a linear plot. It does focus on the trauma of modern relationships in transition, much like Allen's 1980s work. It does have Diane Keaton in it (and Goldie Hawn, who worked with Woody in the underrated Everyone Says I Love You). It is even bookended by jazz numbers. So, I suppose this is a sort of Woody Allen movie, except free from comic timing, subtle characterizations, or intimate scale. Instead, it is overbudgeted, flatly acted, schizophrenically paced, and edited together by monkeys.
Such a pity. Town and Country does have an interesting cast. Beatty can pull off strong performances when his heart is in the material. Keaton has proven herself time and again. Shandling and Hawn, while lightweight comic actors, could have carried things off if the script had been on target. But something went dreadfully wrong at the script level, and like a sore that the director kept picking at, the film was infected at every level. How else could you explain the $120 million dollar budget? There is some lovely set design and beautiful locations, but between pretty establishing shots, the story is a mess. What about a nightmarish sequence right out of a Farrelly Brothers movie, featuring Charlton Heston as a crazy gun-toting father (so much for the NRA), Marian Seldes as the drunken, foul-mouthed mother, and Andie MacDowell molesting stuffed animals? How about those scenes at the lawyer's (screenwriter Buck Henry, who ought to be ashamed of himself) office, where characters seem to refer to events that never get explained, or do double-takes as if they are reacting to events in an entirely different film?
I can't go on. I'm giving myself another headache.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps if Warren Beatty had provided a commentary track to explain this mess (or talk about how he had to yank it away from director Peter Chesolm in an effort to edit the pieces into something sensible—so much for that idea), we might at least have some insight into this debacle. But there is almost nothing in the way of extra content. The film is presented in both widescreen and pan-and-scan formats (selectable from the main menu), with 2.0 and 5.1 audio mixes. The print is nice looking (just turn the sound off and enjoy the scenery), but that is to be expected from a new film with such a huge budget. Pity I cannot find a listing anywhere regarding its aspect ratio (I'm guessing 1.85:1 here, but since New Line set the screener as a "test disc," with no original packaging, and the IMDb does not list the specs, I cannot even tell you for certain if this is anamorphic). Only a trailer and some filmographies are offered as an "All Access Pass." Perhaps we should be grateful that more access was withheld in this case.
The most telling comment I can make about this film is evident in Warren Beatty's filmography on the disc: the name of his most notorious flop prior to this, Ishtar, is misspelled "shtar." Perhaps it was the rampaging egos that demolished both Ishtar and Town and Country. If the "I" were missing, either one of those films might have been saved.
Guilty. The court orders this film and all involved to be punished: cast and crew should be locked away to edit this movie without food or sleep for another two years. Only, this time we don't want to see the results when it is done.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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