used people

Several weeks back, I offered up several short reviews I’d written for the “Best of 1992” episode of our movie review show on the radio. On the back of one of those pages was a true rarity from my time doing that program: a hand-written script. I wonder if that means I wrote it in an odd place, far away from a word processor, as if I needed to get my animosity down as quickly as possible, hoping to lose none of my spite for the film in question in the journey to a more familiar writing space. Regardless, from the back of the “Best of 1992” script page, here’s my review of one of the worst of 1992.

When the film Used People initially got released in December, one of the critics for People magazine had an impressively sharp-edged line to end the review. The critic wrote, “At the end of the movie, the only Used People are left sitting in the audience.” At the time, I thought that whether or not the reviewer’s opinion was one I would agree with, that closing sentence was a great way to end the piece. Realizing that People is not the best publication to look toward for intelligent film analysis, I didn’t lend much weight to the views of the critic. Now, some three months later, the platform release of Used People has allowed the film to find a temporary — very temporary — home in Central Wisconsin, and I can report that the People reviewer was being kind. Focusing on a Jewish family in New York, during the summer of 1969, the film is shrill and mean-spirited, dominated by people in showy arguments, and distinctly lacking in warmth. Shirley MacLaine plays the recently widowed mother of the family the same way she has played virtually every role she has had since her Oscar-earning turn in Terms of Endearment a decade ago. She pulls her lips into a tight frown, glares at everyone around her, snaps off cranky wisecracks, and slowly builds up steam until the moment comes when she can explode with an angry rant and probably throw a plate. In this film, she’s angry at her elderly mother, played with predictable wisdom and silly sweetness by Jessica Tandy; her overweight daughter, played with supreme self-pity by Kathy Bates; and her new suitor, a suave, playful Italian who’s been in love with her from afar for over twenty years, played by Marcello Mastroianni. Each performer is tackling a role so familiar to them that could play it in their sleep. And in fact, the film film does come across as hopelessly lazy as the cast relies upon screeching arguments to develop their characters. There are countless scenes of a meal, or a funeral, or a phone call, or preparing for a meal erupting into a bitter fight. There are no tender, subtle moments to counter these or to give the characters added depths, just pointless verbal assaults. Only Marcia Gay Harden is given the chance to do something new onscreen, but she is being asked to a play a gimmick rather than a character a woman so disturbed by the death of her infant son that dresses up as her favorite characters from movies. Though she has a tender scene by the end, we’ve already given up on caring about any of these characters. Everyone gets a turn with a showy scene involving tears and anger, but that doesn’t draw us to these people. Instead, it makes them ridiculous and tiring, and makes Used People the cinematic equivalent of having a swarm of beers racing around inside your head.

1 star, out of 4.

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