Closer to a cloying "thirtysomething" episode than to vintage Woody Allen, "The Souler Opposite" is as awkward and precious as its title. Meandering, overlong romantic comedy stars Christopher Meloni as a struggling L.A. standup comic whose nonstop quips eventually drive off the woman of his dreams. Commercial chances are the theatrical equivalent of a frosty comedy-club reception.

Closer to a cloying “thirtysomething” episode than to vintage Woody Allen, “The Souler Opposite” is as awkward and precious as its title. Meandering, overlong romantic comedy stars Christopher Meloni as a struggling L.A. standup comic whose nonstop quips eventually drive off the woman of his dreams. Commercial chances are the theatrical equivalent of a frosty comedy-club reception.

Writer-director Bill Kalmenson, himself a vet of the comedy circuit, would do well to return to the editing bench: Though there are moments here, they’re slow in materializing, thanks to rambling, desperately hip narrative and endless “Was it good for you?” pillow talk.

Pic begins promisingly with Joshua Keaton and Jed Rhein as Barry and Robert, horny Valley boys drooling over Woodstock-generation artifacts. Flashsing forward to 1992, Barry (Meloni) is a struggling comic whose material betrays fatal fear of commitment; Robert (Timothy Busfield) is a married dentist. The joke (lifted from “Carnal Knowledge”): Best friends haven’t progressed beyond their objectifying adolescent fantasies.

Feminist campus activist Thea (Janel Moloney) materializes to question Barry’s quippy, uptight take on life and relationships. Their “When Harry Met Sally” courtship is spiked with Shakespeare, Valley jokes, yoga and astrology bits and obligatory New Age drivel. Tone, like dialogue, veers between the farcical and the drippy.

When Thea — now stumping for candidate Jerry Brown — finally gives the compulsive comic the heave-ho, one can only wonder what took her so long. Barry begins shadowing Thea, but pic plays out as squishy, self-indulgent stab at a West Coast “Manhattan” (like Allen, Meloni’s Barry even plays the clarinet).

If anything, Meloni and Moloney are too much alike, which sort of defeats the purpose. Meloni annoys as much when he’s being serious as when he’s pummeling his date with one-liners. Busfield, formerly of “thirtysomething,” has moments as his increasingly cynical bud coping with a lesbian wife, well-played by Allison Mackie. Rutanya Alda appears as Thea’s back-to-nature mom, and vet comic Steve Landesberg inhabits the sidelines in comedy club scenes, which, of all things, involve Barry’s stolen jokes.

Production values are par to slightly above. Cinematography by Amit Bhattacharya and jazzy, understated score by Peter Himmelman are in keeping with pic’s overall optimism.

The Souler Opposite

Production

A Curb Entertainment presentation of a Buffalo Jump production. (International sales: Curb Intl., Los Angeles.) Produced by Tani Cohen. Directed, written by Bill Kalmenson.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color, widescreen), Amit Bhattacharya; editor, Timothy Snell; music, Peter Himmelman; production design, Jane Anne Stewart; costumes, Lynn Bernay; casting, Laura Adler, Shana Landsberg. Reviewed on videocassette, San Jose, Oct. 19, 1997. (In AFI/L.A. Film Festival.) Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Barry ..... Christopher Meloni Thea ..... Janel Moloney Robert ..... Timothy Busfield Lester ..... John Putch Diane ..... Allison Mackie Thea's Mom ..... Rutanya Alda Young Barry ..... Joshua Keaton Young Robert ..... Jed Rhein Steve Landesberg ..... Himself
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