By Hal Hinson

March 11, 1988

In Woody Allen's "September," friends and family convene to moan and cogitate on the bleakness of the world around them the way other people gather for bridge. Grousing for these characters is recreation, a form of bloodless sport. Or it would be if they ever did anything else.

The action (if we can call it that) in "September" takes place entirely within the walls of a Vermont summer house during a 24-hour period just as the season is drawing to a close. The house's owner, Lane (Mia Farrow), is recovering from a suicide attempt and trying to cope with an extended visit from her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a flamboyant former showgirl, and her physicist husband Lloyd (Jack Warden).

Like the Maureen Stapleton character in "Interiors," Diane is the designated life force. Brassy and unself-conscious, she's the type of impulsively gregarious woman who says whatever comes into her head and is unaware of the pain she inflicts on others; the kind of woman, her daughter tells us, who picks flowers and then forgets to put them in water.

She's also meddlesome and competitive and unsympathetic to her daughter's problems. When Lane comes to her for help, Diane's inclination is to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she snaps out of it. And who can blame her? The movie turns on a deeper secret between mother and daughter, though, one involving a scandal in which the 14-year-old Lane shot and killed her mother's lover. But this part of the story doesn't express anything -- it just fills in the blank left for The Big Secret. And when the final twist is revealed, you're left thinking, "Is that what this was all about?"

Caught in the middle of this familial mess are Peter (Sam Waterston), the advertising man who's come to Vermont for the summer to write a novel, Lane's best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest), and Howard (Denholm Elliott), who lives nearby, all of whom have crushes on each other that for one reason or another are either unreciprocated or cannot be acted upon.

Has a more tiresome collection of insufferable, navel-staring bores ever been gathered together on screen? The disarming truth that Allen revealed in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," even in "Hannah And Her Sisters," was that people could be intellectually overactive, tormented, self-destructive and still be interesting. They were basket cases, but you wanted to be around them, if for no other reason than that their afflictions grew out of their engagement in life, out of their misdirected brain waves.

It helped, of course, that in past films Allen's characters were funny about their misery. And what their creator seemed to understand was that misery is funny -- as long as it's happening to somebody else. In "September," the misery is unleavened by any such understanding. People are miserable and their suffering turns them into world-weary, despairing slugs. Allen seems to insist that his characters don't deserve to be liked, and he proves it by knitting their brows and stuffing their mouths with the most uninspired sort of third-rate playspeak.

The movie is audacious but not in any way that you would want to reward. And Allen must have known that something was wrong because he shot the material twice, with substantial changes in the cast the second time around, and has said that he would like to try it a third time. But can he really think that this stuff is salvageable?

"September" may be the one film in which all of Allen's worst tendencies -- his inclination to mistake seriousness for depth, his intellectual insecurity, his sense of art as something beyond his own experience, as "other" -- are most obviously manifest. And certainly there is room in a career to experiment, crash and burn. But for Allen not to see the deep, intrinsic flaws in his material is perhaps more disturbingly revealing than his impulse to create it in the first place. With the film comes a feeling of foreboding, a sense that there are other disastrous conflagrations in store.

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