Largely absorbing, if a bit overwrought, Showtime's college reunion drama is watchable for two dominant reasons: its improvisatory technique and its huge, talented cast.

Largely absorbing, if a bit overwrought, Showtime’s college reunion drama is watchable for two dominant reasons: its improvisatory technique and its huge, talented cast.

Created by producer-director Linda Yellen, the film centers on a weekend reunion of sorority and fraternity members of the classes of 1948 and 1973.

Tumbling out of their assorted cars on a leafy midwestern campus, the fraternal brothers and sisters, many accompanied by their spouses or lovers, fall into a hectic, comical, often strained two-day revelry featuring Greek games, mixes, dances, general debauchery and plenty of sex on the final night.

Unlike many other reunion sagas steeped in old jealousies, secrets and forced-hilarity, “Parallel Lives” is mercifully free of angst. There’s loads of passion and action, but Yellen, who blocked out the storyline, shoots it as if she were a female Robert Altman, with much overlapping dialogue.

Yellen gave her actors individual character outlines, and told them to improvise. With allthis alleged freefalling, the contributions of the credited screenwriter (Gisela Bernice) are open to conjecture.

What’s important is that the result is a pinwheel of a comic opera. Intricately stitched into a congruent whole by editors Jan Northrop and Paul Morton, the production follows in the improvisatory wake of Yellen’s last movie for Showtime, last summer’s “Chantilly Lace.”

Yellen, who developed the movie with the assistance of the Sundance Institute , seldom allows an episode to exceed a minute or two, cutting and slicing from one scene to the next until the viewer, although initially confused, amazingly comes to know most of these characters rather well.

When the movie works best, such as JoBeth Williams letting her hair down on the ballroom floor, or gambler Ben Gazzara desperately wooing his still-smitten long-lost campus love Gena Rowlands (check out her leopard-skin housedress), or sputtering sorority mother-hen Liza Minnelli betrayed by her own crazy zeal, this is a movie that tends to make “The Big Chill” look sodden.

But things do get overripe, notably a 10-minute pastiche of various sexual couplings that assumes the aura of fantasy. Nevertheless, the movie regroups with an Agatha Christie-inspired ending, complete with the mysterious death of one celebrant, that’s just outrageous enough to top off the surprises.

Parallel Lives

(Sun. (14), 8 p.m., Showtime)

Production

Filmed in Salt Lake City with the assistance of the Sundance Institute by Showtime Ent. Exec producers, Dennis Thread, Dana Keefer; producer-director, Linda Yellen; screenplay, Gisela Bernice; story, Yellen.

Crew

Camera, Paul A. Cameron; editors, Jan Northrop, Paul Moron; production design, Ben Edwards; music, Patrick Seymour.

Cast

Cast: James Belushi, James Brolin, LeVar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, Ben Gazzara, Jack Klugman, David Lansbury, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Gena Rowlands, Ally Sheedy, Helen Slater, Miro Sorvino, Paul Sorvino, Robert Wagner, Patricia Wettig, JoBeth Williams, Treat Williams.
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