A catchy but irrelevant title is the first of many problems with “Excuse Me for Living,” which throws together a lot of superficially flashy elements that never gel in any organic way. The second feature from writer-director Ric Klass (his first in 22 years) traces a rudderless, suicidal youth’s unconvincing road to recovery via an awkward mix of farce, drama, romance and whatnot. Best looked at as an attempted screwball comedy, the pic faces long odds as it launches theatrically Oct. 12. The cast’s veteran names and young soap stars will aid later rental prospects.
Dan (Tom Pelphrey) is introduced preparing to throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge, an act thwarted by a no-nonsense cop. The poor little rich kid, a substance-abusing med school dropout, awakens in an upstate New York treatment center/mental hospital under the care of Dr. Bernstein (Robert Vaughn). Having been declared a danger to himself, Dan is further dismayed to realize his warring parents (Wayne Knight, Maureen Mueller) have signed over their custody rights to the tough-loving doc.
Sole therapy on the agenda, however, seems to be Bernstein’s insistence that Dan sit in on a rap-group circle of accomplished local Jewish men over 60 who meet at a local synagogue, presumably so he can soak up the accumulated wisdom they impart when they’re not kvetching about broken marriages, estranged kids and so forth. These sequences (featuring Jerry Stiller as the group’s star member) in a way seem to be the pic’s raison d’etre, but they’re also the film’s feeblest, and the ones least necessary to an already wayward plot.
Meanwhile, Dan can’t help sneaking away to decadent parties thrown by his old friend Bruce (David A. Gregory), at first to indulge his now-forbidden habits, then to pursue Laura (Melissa Archer), who inconveniently turns out to be Dr. Bernstein’s daughter. She’s also best friend to bombshell Charlotte (Ewa Da Cruz), a cutthroat divorce lawyer with whom he has a brief fling before finding True Love.
At heart the kind of traditional romantic comedy that can end with a double wedding, “Excuse Me for Living” nonetheless gets lost in myriad digressions: indulgently overwrought dialogue, gratuitous cameos (notably Dick Cavett as an irreverent reverend), broad but unfunny yuks, glimpses of moneyed youth that feel like an old man’s creaky, circa-1965 fantasies. (It’s typical of the pic’s weirdly out-of-synch morality that Bruce has thrown cocaine-blanketed parties for years, yet confesses he and his mates were always too scared to try the stuff themselves.)
Dan begins to straighten up and fly right the second he meets some inspiring oldsters and a Ms. Right. It’s a poorly articulated narrative spine (one the film can’t even keep its wandering attention on after a certain point), although thesp Pelphrey — like all the younger leads here, a soap-opera veteran — is the pic’s major plus. Playing an erstwhile Yale valedictorian run amuck, he’s quick-witted, unpredictable, jaded yet endearing in a Robert Downey Jr. kind of way, elevating the material even as it lets him down.
Otherwise, the acting is highly variable, with Christopher Lloyd gnawing scenery to a pulp as Dr. Bernstein’s craziest patient; the actresses seem to have been cast (and dressed) primarily for their bra sizes. Packaging is adequate, though composer Robert Miller’s eagerness to underline every antic or maudlin moment doesn’t help a movie that has trouble enough finding a unified tone.