Savvy marketing and simpatico reviews might help "Enemies of Laughter" click with its target aud of sophisticates. A better title wouldn't hurt, either. Indie comedy about an unsuccessful playwright who very nearly talks himself out of his last best chance for happiness recalls the early work of Woody Allen. But pic stands on its own merits as witty and well-observed grown-up fare. Limited theatrical exposure is likely, followed by a long shelf life in ancillary markets.

Savvy marketing and simpatico reviews might help “Enemies of Laughter” click with its target aud of sophisticates. A better title wouldn’t hurt, either. Indie comedy about an unsuccessful playwright who very nearly talks himself out of his last best chance for happiness recalls the early work of Woody Allen. But pic stands on its own merits as witty and well-observed grown-up fare. Limited theatrical exposure is likely, followed by a long shelf life in ancillary markets.

As Paul Halpern, a TV writer who’s a chronic loser in the game of love, seasoned supporting player David Paymer credibly and creditably rises to the occasion in his first romantic lead role. Still smarting after the latest in a long line of disastrous blind dates, David is pleasantly surprised when he’s invited to lunch by a Manhattan-based director, Carla (Rosalind Chao, in a charismatic perf). The good news: She’s a bright and beautiful woman who takes more than a professional interest in David. The bad news: She hopes to stage a play that David wrote but wants to keep from public view.

Years earlier, David explains while the aud views his flashback, he enjoyed a brief but torrid fling with an enigmatic beauty. The affair inspired him to write a play — not a very good one, judging from what’s excerpted in pic — that was critically savaged when staged in L.A. by a pretentious, self-indulgent director. Since then, David has come to believe the play is “cursed,” causing him no end of heartbreak. And so, despite his obvious attraction to Carla, he refuses to grant her the production rights to his ill-starred script, thereby dousing — temporarily, at least — the first sparks of romance.

Vet TV writer Glen Merzer (“Blossom,” “Boy Meets World”) laces his “Enemies” script with clever dialogue and laugh-out-loud one-liners. Under different circumstances, the facile wordplay might ring annoyingly false. But when razor-sharp lines are delivered by a sitcom scribe and others in his orbit — including the scribe’s boss, a sardonic head writer played by Merzer himself — there’s a reasonable amount of verisimilitude. Still, a nagging question arises: Has any sitcom writer ever written a feature script in which sitcom writers were happy in their work?

As counterpoint to David’s personal and professional misadventures, Merzer periodically segues to a “documentary” about the writer. Sam (Judge Reinhold), the doc’s director, is David’s slacker best friend, and he gets some amusing responses from interviewees, particularly David’s less-than-supportive parents, robustly played by Peter Falk and Bea Arthur.

Director Joey Travolta juggles a variety of tones and styles with unobtrusive dexterity, so that his episodic but smoothly paced pic comes off as seamless, not scattershot. He gets fine work from familiar supporting players, including standout Marilu Henner as the blind date from hell.

Paymer strikes the right balance of romantic yearning and seriocomic angst. He and Chao develop a smartly spirited give-and-take that encourages a rooting interest in the possibility of happily-ever-aftering for their characters. Tech values suggest Travolta — who has a few direct-to-video pics on his resume — has mastered the art of making the most of a limited budget.

Enemies of Laughter

Production

An Eternity Pictures/Sferrazza Prods. presentation of a Two Sticks production. Produced by Richard Salvatore. Executive producers, Carmen Miller, Marc Sferrazza. Directed by Joey Travolta. Screenplay, Glen Merzer.

Crew

Camera (color), Kristian Bernier; production designer, Joe Lemmon; costume designer, Lexi Nikitas; sound, Ken Hathcock; assistant director, Eva Franzen; casting, Lisa London. Reviewed at Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Nov. 9, 2000. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Paul Halpern - David Paymer Sam - Judge Reinhold Carla - Rosalind Chao Paul's Mother - Bea Arthur Paul's Father - Peter Falk Jennifer - Vanessa Angel Regina - Christina Fulton Cindy - Kathy Griffin Dani - Marilu Henner Waiter - Paul Sampson Judy Kravitz - Daphne Zuniga Josh - Glen Merzer
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