Scenes From a Mall

By Rita Kempley

February 22, 1991

When Woody Allen agreed to star in "Scenes From a Mall," he probably thought Paul Mazursky meant to remake Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage." And, well, he uh-uh-uh kinda did. That would be just dandy, mind you, had Mazursky not set out to make a comic narrative. But "Scenes From a Mall" is a close-up look at a couple's painful catharsis so well wedded to marital discord it's like going through a divorce with yourself.

Allen becomes everything he fears and loathes as Nick Fifer, an L.A. sports lawyer with a ponytail, a beeper and a perpetually ringing car phone. He's still "Annie Hall's" Alvy Singer on the inside, though, and his tart, neurotic New Yorker's soul shows through the aging yuppie. That's probably for the best, since "Scenes" is another outsize California joke, better -- as usual -- when delivered by an elitist from the East Coast.

Allen is nicely teamed with Bette Midler, without a song in her heart here as Nick's understanding wife, Deborah Finestein-Fifer, a successful psychologist who recently authored a bestseller on marriage called "I Do, I Do, I Do." A daylong flap ensues when Nick decides to take advantage of her modern notions by announcing that he has just ended an affair with a younger, more sexually tantalizing woman. Shocked and confused, Deborah counters with hurtful revelations of her own.

All this takes place at the posh Beverly Center -- "Kafka in California," as Nick refers to it -- on the heretofore happy couple's 16th wedding anniversary. The Fifers have packed the kids off on a ski trip, made perfunctory love and are congratulating themselves on their successful marriage when Nick's confession opens up a dam of criticism, accusations and petty gripes.

Shadowed by a particularly irksome mime, an overdressed mariachi band and a barbershop quartet singing carols, the two trade barbs at the mall's various milieus. Sometimes the situations are fresh and funny -- as when they are overcome by lust at a matinee of "Salaam Bombay!" -- but mostly they are stale and therapeutic. Mazursky and "Enemies, a Love Story" collaborator Roger L. Simon didn't do a whole lot of creative thinking when they put their heads together over this slight screenplay.

Still Allen and Midler, with their various other flaws in common, recall partners who have been together so long they are starting to look like each other. They do indeed seem caught up in the conflicting emotions of breaking up, alternately furious, tenderhearted and aggrieved. The trouble is that as California trendies, they make such familiar targets, like the ones shot full of holes as recently as "L.A. Story." How many times can we really be expected to laugh over traffic jams and the rising cost of sushi?

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