Writer, director and actor Eric Schaeffer attempts to reinvent the romantic comedy for the 1990s with “If Lucy Fell.” Cobbling together elements of Woody Allen, Preston Sturges, contempo pop psychology and magic realism, he comes close to meeting his goal. But the picture’s modern idioms don’t quite mesh with attitudes toward love and romance that belong to a bygone era, when such stars as Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, William Powell and Carole Lombard made the genre sizzle.
Nonetheless, the sparks fly with some memorable verbal sparring and screen chemistry between the principals. Even if a bit ragged, the movie should find a core young-adult audience and deliver midrange domestic B.O. returns. Ancillaries also look strong, with a better than fair chance that the picture will translate in upscale offshore situations.
Lucy (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Joe (Schaeffer) are friends sharing a Manhattan apartment, but their mutual affection stops just short of sharing the same bed. Lucy, a therapist, is despondent about finding Mr. Right, while Joe, a teacher and painter, is fixated on Jane (Elle Macpherson), a neighbor to whom he has been attempting but failing to say hello for several years.
A month shy of her 30th birthday, Lucy reminds Joe that they had made a pact years ago that’s about to come due: If they hadn’t found their life mate by 30, they would join hands and jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He cannot dissuade her, so Joe reluctantly agrees to honor the deal, and both step up their pursuit of happiness.
The turning point for both characters occurs at a gallery opening for Joe’s paintings. Lucy meets and is pursued by Bwick Elias (Ben Stiller), a noted conceptual artist with a flamboyant personal style. Joe, who anonymously sent his dream date an invite, finally gets to meet her up close.
“If Lucy Fell” doesn’t have much to say that’s fresh or provocative. It concludes, like so many films before it, that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Schaeffer effects an odd mix of modern travails and absurd situations that would require a master of sleight-of-hand to pull off with precision. It’s not that any particular component misfires, simply that the bizarre juxtapositions work to varying degrees. But because the pic’s destination is generically predefined, it has a built-in safety net that prevents the material from going seriously off track.
Parker is fast becoming the contempo embodiment of the smart, sexy and slightly neurotic woman adrift in the mating game. She brings a ferocious veracity to such roles. The other leads are equally good, with Schaeffer assaying the good-hearted schnook and Stiller injecting a manic energy into his offbeat character. Macpherson instills her character with guile and confidence that’s dead-on and a delightful surprise.
Making a quantum leap from the bargain-basement whimsy of “My Life’s in Turnaround,” Schaeffer provides “If Lucy Fell” with a more cohesive style and narrative. It’s a handsome production, effectively utilizing the light and ambience of Gotham in late winter and early spring. While the picture periodically skids into sentimentality and characters lapse into shtick, its good-natured quality and winning cast sustain sympathy.