Latest batch of comedies are nothing to laugh at

Not funny. That's the word on the latest comedies. They have bright moments , and appealing moments, but not many moments you'd laugh at. And that's disappointing.

The most promising of the bunch, and the most disastrous, is Second Hand Hearts. Advertised as "a recession romance," it was written by Charles Eastman, who has waited many years for his script finally to see the light of day. More important, it was directed by Hal Ashby, who has made such good pictures as "Being There" and "Coming Home," "The Last Detail" and "Harold and Maude." What a track record. And what a surprise that "Second Hand Hearts" is a firsthand failure.

This is the kind of movie where everybody has a silly name. The main characters are Loyal Muke and Dinette Dusty. They got married when they hardly knew each other -- or what they were doing -- and now they're driving from Texas to California, utterly suspicious of each other, but gradually falling in love despite themselves. What begins as a sleazy farce, full of noise and booze, ends as a celebration of old-fashioned virtues.

Apparently the idea was to make a warm romance about really marginal people. The original title was "The Hampster of Happiness" -- a sentimental symbol for folks who can't quite find the famous bluebird, and couldn't afford it if they did. Ashby likes these characters and wants us to like them, too. But his movie is so poor it's hard to watch, much less identify with.

The biggest problem is Robert Blake's desperately overplayed performance as Loyal. It's bad enough in the quiet scenes, when he seems to be imitating Alan Arkin. But in the loud scenes he behaves like the fourth member of the Three Stooges, mugging and grunting and practically snorting. As his wife, Barbara Harris does her best to keep her dignity, but it's an uphill battle.

For the rest, the story rambles and doesn't have much point. Ashby punctuates it with comic bits and pretty landscapes, which don't help much. The pity is, there are fascinating characters all around the edges of the tale -- a wistful little boy who never speaks, a whole family of Chicanos, and a wonderful old woman played by Shirley Stoller. Ashby does nothing with these people, though, except throw out tantalizing hints and then abandon them. that's "Second Hand Hearts": one miscalculation after another.

Modern Romance has more class and more humor. Albert Brooks plays a Hollywood film editor whose work --on a lousy science-fiction movie -- is no more ridiculous than his on-and-off love affair with a beautiful woman.

I would have enjoyed "Modern Romance" more if Brooks weren't such a Woody Allen clone. As the star of the show, he goes for the same vulnerability, the same wide-eyed sexuality, the same naivete mixed with a touch of real savvy. As writer and director, he takes pot shots at the same sort of targets: sexual mores, popular fads, intellectual pretensions. You might think it wasm a Woody Allen movie, except for Brook's face on the screen, and the tired pace of the film, which shuffles when it should be galloping.

I respect Brooks because he clearly wants to make meaningful comedies, and he clearly works from his own heart. In both "Modern Romance" and "Real Life" he plays a character from the filmmaking world, and pokes plenty of fun at his own neck of the woods, with little of the venom that Woody Allen finally vented in "Stardust Memories." Still, for all his gifts, Brooks is the second-comer to this territory. And his movies will remain second-best if they don't find a more distinctive tone.

And now for the Jerry Lewis Debate. Did you know there is a Jerry Lewis Debate? Yes, and it's raging all over again, in the wake of his new movie, Hardly Working.

You see, a number of European critics take Lewis quite seriously as a great comedian and a major filmmaker. They look at his wild mugging and bumbling and stumbling and conclude that he is an absurdist wit, a philosopher of the physique, a poet of the child that lies hidden in us all.

I can't agree, but -- based on "The Nutty Professor" and a few scenes in other films -- I see some merit in the argument. I also think it's stimulating to consider a popular artist like Lewis in serious terms, even if the evidence doesn't stretch very far.

Unfortunately, the new "Hardly Working" provides little ammunition for the pro-Lewis forces, even though there are some very funny gags in its story of an out-of-work circus clown trying his hand at a number of different jobs. Perhaps because it was cut from its original length, it's a bumpy movie, no more graceful than its buffoonish main character. Worse, the star tries to have it two ways, alternating between manic physical comedy and softspoken self-pity. The result if often awkward, and sometimes downright weird.

Nonetheless, "Hardly Working" has done quiet well in Europe and marks an overdue comeback for a director/performer who may yet match his on-screen achievement to his lofty ambitions. Call it high art or low entertainment, at least it's alive and reasonably well. And where would we be without an occasional Jerry Lewis Debate to liven up a dull season like this one?

I won't say much about Polyester. Tab Hunter has a leading role opposite the female impersonator Divine, who plays a suburban housewife driven mad by her unfaithful husband and perverse kids. Of course it's gross and distasteful: That's a main goal of filmmaker John Waters. What bothers me more is the sadistic relation Waters has to his performers, whose willing debasement carries his movies over the thin line between childish camp and real ugliness.

By the way, "Polyester" is in Odorama -- you get a card impregnated with odors, so you can actually smell the goings-on. Like the rest of the picture, it isn't all roses.

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