Actor Robert Wuhl (“Cobb”) makes an impressively assured directorial debut in “Open Season,” a timely social satire about TV’s ratings wars, obsession with winning and corporate power in America. Though the material is mostly familiar and the satire not biting enough, pic’s production values are so accomplished that they make for a most gratifying entertainment. Theatrical prospects are excellent for a comedy that is broad and commercial enough to go beyond its primary target audience of young, hip urban viewers.
Wuhl has high aspirations, aiming to place his satire in the honorable tradition of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. One can also detect the influence of such quintessentially New York writers as Paddy Chayefsky (specifically, “Network”) and Woody Allen.
Wuhl plays Stuart Sain, an ambitious, self-centered Jewish executive at Fielding, a Nielsen-like rating company, who’s itching for promotion and is happily married to psychologist Cary (Maggie Han).
Pic begins with the GPN Network unveiling its amazing new season, which includes such glittering shows as “Daddy Does Dope” and “Kicking the Habit.” Owned by the pompous George Plunkett (Gailard Sartain), GPN has been No. 1 for 10 consecutive years. Indeed, Billy Patrick (Rod Taylor), the arch-conservative programming head, believes that “unless the Lord changes the rules of the game … the numbers are never wrong.”
In a TV special about Fielding, Sain loses his temper and jeopardizes his promotion. But he’s offered a new PR position by Rachel Rowen (Helen Shaver), the politically correct head of the public TV network, PBT, who turns out to be just as obsessed with being No. 1 as her more crass competitors.
For a while, it seems that PBT is winning the race with its more “audacious” cultural programs. Soon, however, it turns out that, despite their reputation, the Fielding boxes have malfunctioned, producing erroneous results. Mishap occurs on the day Sain is to be honored with the Peabody media excellence award. What is this bleeding-heart liberal schlemiel going to do?
Chief problem is Wuhl’s attempt to reconcile the hard edge of a social satire with the soft sentiments of a romantic fable. The comedy is at its best early on , when the material is sketchy, loose and anecdotal. Its center, however, is rather flat, and the last sequence, in which Sain has to resolve his moral dilemma, goes Capra-corn, borrowing quite a bit from the mushy ending of “Meet John Doe.”
“Open Season” wants to be a crazily inventive comedy, but it is not spiked with many fresh or perverse jokes. The film may also be too calculated for its own good, beginning with the casting: Sain’s wife is Asian, his partner black, the greedy executives all white.
Nonetheless, Wuhl proves to be a resourceful helmer, particularly adept with brisk tempo. He keeps things moving so fast that, while watching, the audience doesn’t have much time to notice the script’s shortcomings.
Wuhl, who plays the lead role with gusto, has also coaxed good performances from his talented cast. Sartain is delicious as the megalomaniac capitalist for whom winning has a direct effect on the size of his penis, which he measures daily. It’s good to see veteran Taylor, as the “religious” executive praying to the Lord for good ratings, and Shaver, as the overly excited public TV head, who becomes sexier and more desirable when she hits the big time. A number of celebs and uncredited cameos (Tom Selleck, Larry King) add appealing authenticity.
Production values are superb. Most notable are Marvin Hamlisch’s buoyant score, Stephen Lighthill’s alert camera and Seth Flaum and Craig Kitson’s snappily sharp editing; all admirably juggle the tale’s various lines.