Renowned philosopher Sophie Tucker observed, "I have been poor and I have been rich. Rich is better." The makers of the romantic comedy "For Richer or Poorer" would try to convince you otherwise, and to a degree this corny tale of a conspicuously profligate couple brought to their knees by the tax man succeeds in making its point that hard work and true friends are better than a Mercedes and limitless spending at Bloomingdale's.

Renowned philosopher Sophie Tucker observed, “I have been poor and I have been rich. Rich is better.” The makers of the romantic comedy “For Richer or Poorer” would try to convince you otherwise, and to a degree this corny tale of a conspicuously profligate couple brought to their knees by the tax man succeeds in making its point that hard work and true friends are better than a Mercedes and limitless spending at Bloomingdale’s. But pic makes its case in such an obvious and ham-fisted manner that only the most forgiving of audiences will accept it whole. Still, its kernel of truth and game cast should ring up OK theatrical response and allow it to eke by when it collects ancillary revenues.

Brad (Tim Allen) and Caroline (Kirstie Alley) Sexton are a blatantly lavish-living Manhattan couple who keep up the appearance of bliss and fabulous wealth. In truth their ardor is an orchestrated show for friends and associates, and their assets are mortgaged to the hilt. A real estate developer with lowbrow taste, Brad is well aware that he has a debt load that would choke a horse.

What he’s blind to is his accountant’s brilliant book-balancing, which has deftly siphoned off $5 million. As the bean counter wings off to South America, he telephones to lamely apologize for having arranged matters so that the IRS will place all blame on the Sextons.

Pursued by a pistol-packing revenue agent (Larry Miller), the Sextons steal a cab and bolt the Big Apple. Fate lands them in Intercourse, Pa., in the lap of an Amish enclave. Desperate to drop from sight, and seizing a lucky opportunity, they pose as Jacob and Emma Yoder, Missouri relatives of local farmer Samuel Yoder (Jay O. Sanders). Having overheard that the distant kin are expected in several months, the Manhattanites dress down, walk to the farm and simply say they’re early.

The comedy dynamic is pretty straightforward — put two city sophisticates into the simple, 19th-century ways of a religious work order and watch them try to fake their way through the foreign customs. It’s the reverse of last year’s “Kingpin,” but essentially boils down to the same idea: Each faction will learn something from the other and be enriched in small ways.

But the picture doesn’t evolve in any sort of organic manner. Neither the script by Jana Howington and Steve LuKanic nor Bryan Spicer’s direction manages to effect a balance between the material’s outrageous elements and its quiet truths. The Spicer touch leans toward the big, loud and obvious, exhausting one’s energies; it’s simply too desperate an approach for this sort of tale.

“For Richer or Poorer” does boast a couple of memorable sequences that distill the essence of this particular culture clash. Best of all is an Amish fashion show created by Caroline/Emma to convince the elders that nature’s colors can be appropriately worn in addition to basic black.

Allen and Alley have proven themselves subtle and persuasive light comedians in small- and large-screen formats. There’s an inkling of that subtlety in this movie pairing, but Spicer propels them to antic extremes from the outset, threatening to alienate audience affection. The two leads, and the movie, do improve as the story proceeds. Considerably more effective is the Amish ensemble, led by Sanders.

Tech credits are at a high sheen, but again rely on extremes to underline the pic’s two environments. The film’s Manhattan is cold and gaudy, and rural Pennsylvania is bathed in soft sunlight.

For Richer or Poorer

Production

A Universal Pictures release of a Universal/Bubble Factory presentation, in association with Yorktown Prods., of a Sheinberg production. Produced by Sid, Bill and Jon Sheinberg. Executive producers, Richard Baker, Rick Messina, Gayle Fraser Baigelmen. Co-producers, Michael S. Glick, Bruce Economou. Directed by Bryan Spicer. Screenplay, Jana Howington, Steve LuKanic.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Buzz Feitshans IV; editor, Russell Denove; music, Randy Edelman; production design, Stephen Hendrickson; art direction, Bob Shaw; set decoration, Beth Kushnick; costume design, Abigail Murray; sound (DTS Digital), Jim Sabat; assistant director, Steve Love; casting, Victoria Burrows. Reviewed at the Cineplex Odeon Century Plaza, Century City, Dec. 4, 1997. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 min.

With

Brad Sexton - Tim Allen
Caroline Sexton - Kirstie Alley
Samuel Yoder - Jay O. Sanders
Phil Kleinman - Michael Lerner
Bob Lachman - Wayne Knight
Derek Lester - Larry Miller
Frank Hall - Miguel A. Nunez Jr.
Levinia Yoder - Megan Cavanagh
Henner Lapp - John Pyper-Ferguson
Rebecca Yoder - Carrie Preston
Anna Yoder - Katie Moore
Judge Joan Northcutt - June Claman
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