It must have been some self-destructive impulse that led Woody Allen to adapt his 1966 play “Don’t Drink the Water” into a TV movie. This hopelessly dated comedy is the sort of work that should be kept hidden in a shoe box in his bedroom closet, to be unearthed by future historians who can use it to show how far Allen progressed over the years.
The play was adapted into a feature in 1969, not very successfully and without Allen’s participation. Now it has been adapted into a telepic, not very successfully and with Allen’s participation as writer, director and star. One can only hope no one is considering the possibilities of interactive video.
The farcical plot revolves around the Hollander family of Newark, N.J., who are vacationing in an unnamed communist country. Walter Hollander (Allen) snaps a photograph of a building and is immediately assumed to be a spy. The startled caterer, with his wife, Marion (Julie Kavner), and their daughter, Susan (Mayim Bialik), are chased by soldiers into the U.S. embassy, where they are forced to settle down for a lengthy stay. The ambassador is in Washington, and he has left his bumbling son (Michael J. Fox) in charge. The junior diplomat can do little but look on helplessly as the Hollanders virtually take over the place, ruin the stay of a wealthy emir and generally embarrass the U.S. government.
Allen has not updated this material, and many of the jokes feel like they come from a different era. A caricature of a powerful Arab traveling with a harem of 14 wives seems culturally insensitive, as well as unfunny. The many jokes about Marion’s fastidiousness as a housewife — she waxes the embassy floor so often that the emir slips and breaks his leg — come across as similarly ancient.
There are, of course, some amusing one-liners. But most of the comic ideas, such as a priest who is always attempting to perform magic tricks, wear out their welcome long before Allen is willing to let them go.
In terms of dramatic writing, the characters are thin, to say the least, and plot developments are telegraphed far in advance. Viewers will figure out the obvious solution to the Hollanders’ dilemma at least 45 minutes before any of the characters think of it.
The impressive cast does what it can with this material. Allen does his basic exasperated-little-man shtick, and does it expertly, as always. Bialik is appealing as the daughter, and Dom DeLuise is surprisingly restrained as a man of God who tirelessly asks anyone around him to pick a card, any card.
“Years of insanity have made this guy crazy,” Allen’s character jokes at one point. Years of practice have made Allen a much better writer than this early effort would suggest. If you have any doubt, go see “Bullets Over Broadway.” In fact, Sunday night would be an excellent time to catch a screening.