Hal Salwen’s “His and Hers,” a screwball comedy about marital squabbling, is a disappointing follow-up to his charming, critically acclaimed debut, “Denise Calls Up,” which played in many festivals and won a special mention in Cannes two years ago. A big question mark hangs over the theatrical fate of this dark comedy of manners, particularly after the domestic commercial failure of Salwen’s first feature.
Using two actors from “Denise Calls Up’s” talented ensemble, Liev Schreiber and Caroleen Feeney, the new movie shares many characteristics — and problems — of Salwen’s first outing: a bright idea as premise and a good, comical beginning, but ultimately too slight a narrative — and not enough humor — to sustain a feature-length movie.
Is a thought just a thought? Or, more to the point: Does thinking about cheating on your mate qualify as real action or is it merely a notion that “has no space,” as frustrated hubby Glenn (Schreiber) says in his opening narration. By the end of Glenn’s ensuing adventure, this central idea gets a number of variations and mutates in unexpected directions.
Glenn and Carol (Feeney) have been married for some time, but now the very pregnant Carol seems to have lost her sexual appetite. Bored, Glenn watches TV in his cozy suburban living room, while occasionally throwing a wistful glance at his wife as she prepares dinner in the kitchen. When he embraces her from behind, Carol continues to chop carrots — until she chops off Glenn’s pinkie. The dismembered finger flies outside the window, and the race is on to retrieve it. Was it an accident or an unconscious act of revenge? Glenn claims that Carol’s brutal chopping was a symbolic amputation of his penis.
Carol, realizing that Glenn might have been unfaithful to her, is more concerned with the identity of the other woman than with the problem itself. Rest of the film is structured as a road comedy revolving around Glenn’s finger, which keeps moving from one locale to another, with the delirious hubby painfully trailing along, in excruciating pain.
First stop is the house of best friends Pam and Nick (Cynthia M. Watros and Michael Rispoli), where Carol confronts Pam, demanding to know the truth. Having her own marital problems, Pam says that she and Glenn have discussed “doing it,” but her confession is interrupted when dejected husband Nick suddenly comes in. In a jealous rage, Nick threatens to deposit the finger in a bank machine, but this time, the quarrel is disrupted by an inept pair of bank robbers, who take Glenn, Carol — and the boxed finger — hostage.
Salwen’s inspiration here is classic American screwball comedy, with a good deal of slapstick thrown into the mix. The search for the finger brings to mind the search for the bone in Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby,” and the bickering-couple routines (lying in separate bedrooms fantasizing about sex) are prevalent motifs in numerous ’30s comedies. As for the bumbling bank robbers, they have appeared in countless comedies of the last decade, most notably the “Home Alone” pictures.
Salwen uses these familiar conventions to explore humorously a rather grave concern: the meaning of infidelity, real and imagined, physical and emotional. Nonetheless, after the first half-hour, Salwen the writer runs out of ideas and his comedy loses steam.
It doesn’t help much that Salwen the helmer lacks the technical skills to orchestrate potentially hilarious sight gags around the continually disappearing finger. What was great about Hawks, Leo McCarey, Mitchell Leisen and Gregory La Cava, to name a few screwball masters, was their nuanced mise en scene, which is entirely missing here.
The big mystery in “His and Hers” is how Salwen managed to get such awkward performances from his leads, who not only overact, but scream and yell in a manner that calls even greater attention to the flaws in the script and direction.
Made on a bigger budget than “Denise Calls Up,” pic demonstrates some improvement in Salwen’s greater attention to visual style, though overall tech credits are mediocre.