A modern, absurdist sensibility informs the soap opera Used People [from Todd Graff’s The Grandma Plays], which harks back to ’50s weepies.
Set in 1969 in the Sunnyside section of Queens, NY, film limns the colorful family life of a Jewish matriarchy centered around Shirley MacLaine, whose husband (Bob Dishy) has just died. Key characters include her protective mom (Jessica Tandy), dysfunctional children (Kathy Bates and Marcia Gay Harden), both of whom have been divorced, and Tandy’s best friend (Sylvia Sidney).
Enter Marcello Mastroianni, MacLaine’s secret admirer who uses the family’s sitting shiva after Dishy’s funeral as his occasion to make his platonic affections for her manifest.
The family’s rejection of Mastroianni and cross-cultural antics between them and Mastroianni’s Italian-American clan make for some effective comedy in the middle reels but Graff’s work is built around highly dramatic confrontation scenes, in particular, a heart-rending fight between MacLaine and daughter Bates.
MacLaine’s precise acting is laudatory and balanced by a very sympathetic turn by twinkle-eyed Mastroianni, in his best English-language role by far. The support ensemble is excellent.