Director of “Denise Calls Up,” Hal Salwen offers another sardonic commentary on modern mores, this time spiced with a post-“Sex and the City” read on feminine entitlement and female friendship that makes “The Women” seem progressive by comparison. “Duane Incarnate” proposes a study in geek envy: Trio of successful, attractive women watch their klutzy, unattractive loser of a girlfriend bag hunky Mr. Perfect, an event which threatens to overturn the laws of the universe. Concept, carried to deadpan extremes, is initially very funny, but one-note satire cannot sustain laughs. “Duane” may register best on cable, given aud’s shorter attention spans.
Writer/director Salwen initially conceived of pic in opposite gender, only to realize that the “schlemiel wins gorgeous girl” concept constituted a recognizable comedic subgenre, whereas the idea of an unattractive woman ensnaring a sexy man was rarely treated, and then almost never comically– except, of course, for the Farrelly brothers. Indeed, both the Farrellys’ “Shallow Hal” and “Duane Incarnate” flirt with some form of magical “explanation” for the anomaly.
Pic stars Salwen regular Caroleen Feeney as Gwen, cattily unreliable narrator/anti-heroine and ring leader of the central triumvirate of beauties. The other two make vague stabs at humanity: Cynthia Watros’ Connie indulges in unbridled sex while Kristen Johnston’s Fran worries about the environment with an obsession that seems to owe more to anal retentiveness than to any humanitarian concern.
But Gwen dares to be openly cruel and selfish. Thus when sad-sack friend Wanda (Crystal Block), usually found on the unemployment line, claims to be dating a new, wonderful boyfriend named Duane, Gwen flatly refuses to believe he exists.
Crystal Block’s Wanda shows a positive genius for appearing unattractive without being the least bit ugly: stringy hair, formless clothes, terminal klutziness and a total lack of conversation are only the tip of the iceberg (Salwen doesn’t saddle her with any aggressively negative traits, but simply refrains from giving her any positive ones).
When Duane (Peter Hermann) actually appears with a degree from Harvard, a prestigious position and a fine-tuned sensitivity to all feminine needs, his unaccountable attraction to Wanda throws the girls’ world view totally out of whack.
Together and, secretly, singly, they stalk the couple, “dropping in” on Duane in transparent and abortive attempts at seduction. Increasingly convinced that the Wanda/Duane coupling is one of the ominous “freaks of nature” reported on television, they gradually lose their grip on reality, free-falling in a downwardly mobile spiral.
The hapless trio’s fixation on Duane might have been funnier had his “perfection,” in Peter Hermann’s incarnation, not read as utter blandness, or had that blandness satirically reflected back on the values of the women. Instead, all the men in the movie suffer from a decided lack of presence or charisma.
Femmes, on the other hand, turn in nicely differentiated, strong perfs, Feeney’s headstrong Gwen complementing Watros’ casually feminine Connie and Johnston’s aggressively neurotic Fran. Nevertheless thesping, along with every other aspect of pic, seems stifled by the need to sync up to Salwen’s overriding high-concept premise rather than expanding or elaborating on it.