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The Out of Towners

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 2 April 1999

  Directed by Sam Weisman

Starring Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, John Cleese

Written by Marc Lawrence,
based on the screenplay by Neil Simon

Ever have one of those days? I'm not referring to a merely "bad day"-- we all have those on occasion, and in the end things usually work out okay. No, I'm talking about the kind of day where the universe itself seems to be on a personal vendetta against you; when life flings catastrophe at you like bread crumbs at a duck pond; when you'd give anything to be having ONLY a "bad day."

Henry Clark (Steve Martin) isn't merely having one of those days; he's having one of those lives. He no longer knows how to relate to Nancy (Goldie Hawn), his wife of twenty-four years. His daughter has dropped out of medical school to pursue an acting career. He's recently been fired from his job, although he's afraid to tell Nancy. And his son Alan (Oliver Hudson, the real-life son of Goldie Hawn) is about to move to London, which will leave the house empty except for Henry and his wife... a thought which terrifies the couple, since they will now be forced to communicate with each other. So when Henry gets an interview with an advertising firm in New York City, a land of golden opportunities, he and Nancy think it may be a sign that their luck is about to change. They are correct: it's about to get much, much worse.

The trip starts off with a bad omen: their plane is rerouted to Boston due to heavy fog, an event which will eventually result in Henry and Nancy arriving in the Big Apple with no money, no credit, no food, no clothes, no patience, and no idea how to resolve their predicament. From this moment on, The Out-of-Towners shifts gears into slapstick comedy while a never-ending string of disasters besets our weary, hungry couple: Rest assured that anytime Henry or Nancy enter a new locale, something horrible is about to happen to them. I sighed. Since the film seemed to be in the process of settling into a rut of cheap comedic payoff, my expectations plummeted.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the lowest common denominator: Henry and Nancy came to life on the screen! I found that against all logic, I was actually becoming interested in the fate of our two lead characters, and started cheering for them to triumph over their circumstances. Credit Martin and Hawn, last seen together in 1992's Housesitter, for possessing a plethora of screen chemistry and the ability to rise above a screenplay that has no sense of restraint. Somehow, their characters find the time to experience the beauty and pulse of New York, despite all the wretchedness they're going through. This could be the reason I liked them so much: I'm dreadfully tired of movies in which the people do nothing but whine.

Director Sam Weisman (George of the Jungle) repeatedly stages the movie's most intimate moments in public places: in hotel lobbies, on sidewalks, in Central Park, on crowded airplanes, etc. It's an interesting choice, perhaps intending to reflect an urban culture in which privacy is a privilege, not a right. Through Henry and Nancy's public displays of emotion (both good and bad), we understand and identify with the frustrations of these two wonderful people. Hawn brings a fiery streak to Nancy, giving her an impressive dramatic flair (I liked the scene in which she attempts to seduce a businessman (Mark McKinney) in a madcap plan to obtain some food), while Martin has imbued the loveable Henry with the fierce sense of sarcasm he (Martin) displayed so hilariously in The Muppet Movie. For example, during an exchange with an auto-rental clerk:

CLERK: "Our cars are very safe. They practically drive themselves."

HENRY: "That's great."

CLERK: "Would like you collision insurance?"

HENRY: (trying not to go ballistic) "If the car drives itself, wouldn't any accident be its fault?"

Monty Python's John Cleese is also wonderfully evil in his extended cameo as Mr. Mersault, a snooty hotel clerk whose driving passion seems to be making the Clarks' lives miserable.

The Out-of-Towners is based on Arthur Miller's 1970 film of the same name, which starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in the lead roles. I haven't seen the original movie, and have no idea how faithful this version is to it, but I must admit that I had a good time. The cast is absolutely wonderful, the dialogue has teeth, and if the film occasionally borders on absurdity, then hey, so does life.

The Out-of-Towners is marvelous fun, and I laughed both loudly and often. And how wonderful to see a romantic comedy that has the guts to cast two middle-age actors in the lead roles! The way Hollywood seems to make movies, one would think that all hormones magically evaporate from the human body around age 35. Kudos to someone for telling it like it is.


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