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Holiday season's crop of comedies is a mixed bag

By David Sterritt / December 29, 1983

A Christmas Story has become a hit, and I'm not surprised. It isn't an imposing picture, with its modest story and occasional poor taste. But it has a warmth and humor that soar with the season.

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It's set in the Midwest a few decades ago, and the plot centers on young Ralph, whose idea of a good Christmas is finding a BB gun under the tree. Mom's against the idea, of course, so Ralph puts his wiles to work, pulling his teacher and a department-store Santa Claus into his machinations.

Along the way he copes with school, grapples with the local bully, and generally lives a full nine-year-old life. The tale climaxes in a chop-suey restaurant on Christmas morning and concludes with a shimmering vision of domestic peace.

Although the performances are all first-rate, including those by children, the movie's dominating presence is the narrator: Jean Shepherd, one of the great talkers of our time, and still at the peak of his powers. ''A Christmas Story'' is the kind of long, digressive yarn he used to spin years ago on his eccentric New York radio show, full of oddball characters and off-the-wall twists. He tells it with a blend of terrific enthusiasm and wry amusement at the built-in absurdities, all tempered with just the right dash of nostalgia. Inimitable.

The director, Bob Clark, has earned a reputation for childish leanings in some of his earlier work, and ''A Christmas Story'' does have a few stupid and vulgar touches. But these pass quickly, while the movie's overall sense of goodwill lingers. I hope ''A Christmas Story'' becomes a regular midwinter visitor.

Other current comedies impress me less. Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? comes from independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who gave us the perky ''Sitting Ducks'' a few seasons ago. As in that movie, the main ''Cherry Pie'' asset is Michael Emil , a unique comic actor whose effervescent wit seems forever at war with his earnest intellect. He walks away with nearly every scene, except when costar Karen Black hits high gear, which is not often enough to give Emil serious competition.

As for the story, about two lonely Manhattanites who strike up a ''relationship,'' it would seem stronger if Jaglom's visual style weren't so studiedly offhand. The screenplay is sometimes inventive, other times just coarse.

The Man Who Loved Women takes its cue from Francois Truffaut's comedy of the same title. Again the protagonist is an ardent romantic who loves all womankind so much he can't settle for one representative. Again the results of his fervor are bittersweet.

What's missing is Truffaut's transcendent attitude to the situation. In his original version, the title character writes a book that emerges as the true, enduring hero of the picture. The new edition is resolved more mundanely, although its melancholy overtones give it uncommon resonance. Also present are common sex gags and one-liners which account for the R rating.

The director, comedy veteran Blake Edwards, deserves credit for the many thoughtful and intelligent touches, which remove some of the sting from the excesses that crop up. In all, it's an odd hybrid of a movie. Edwards and company almost bring it off, and deserve at least some kudos just for trying such an offbeat project. Needed: topical films

When it comes to quality, theatrical movies have an edge over their made-for-TV cousins. Deadlines are less urgent in Hollywood, so more time - and thus more money - is lavished on the average film there.