Holiday season's crop of comedies is a mixed bag
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.
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.
Hence the standard Hollywood excuse for foot-dragging on topical subjects. Producers claim they would love to tackle the latest issues but can't, because the headlines will be different by the time the movie gets to theaters. Let the TV people churn out quick docudramas that gain in timeliness what they lose in polish.
But what about headlines that don't change? The threat of nuclear war, for example? It has been around for decades and is clearly the most urgent issue facing our planet. Still, except for occasional left-field productions like ''On the Beach'' and ''Dr. Strangelove,'' the screen has rarely faced up to it.
The current ''Testament'' may signal a change. True, it started as a TV production aimed at PBS, according to Film Comment magazine. But its shooting and editing schedules were generous, and despite its $750,000 budget (mere pocket money in Hollywood), it grew from an hour-long TV show to a 90-minute feature presented in theaters by Paramount Pictures, a foremost Hollywood studio.
And audiences are warming to it, despite the grimness of its story about a California town groping through Armageddon's aftermath. In a few months it has spread to 15 American cities, and has appeared among the high-grossing films tabulated each week by Variety, the show-business newspaper. While it's not a hit by ''Terms of Endearment'' standards, it has established itself in the marketplace. Its message is being heard.
But is it the right message? Or is the film being overrated by viewers and critics, perhaps because its subject is so rarely treated on screen? I feel ''Testament'' dodges too many issues by focusing on a town untouched by immediate destruction. True, there's much pathos in its argument that misery and death would stalk even the survivors of a nuclear holocaust. But the film errs by treating physical considerations almost entirely in emotional terms, some of them thinly artificial. And its insistence that people would cling to everyday habits, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances, seems dangerously sanguine.
Even with these doubts, I think ''Testament'' marks a step forward for the movies by its very presence on theater screens. Ironically, though, a film without the prestige of theatrical showings has recently handled a similar subject far more effectively: the ABC-TV movie ''The Day After.'' I was especially moved by a moment about halfway through this picture, when American and Soviet missiles are streaming toward their targets and a soldier remarks that ''the war's over.'' It's a strange thing to say, but it's absolutely correct. Although not one warhead has exploded, the fighting is finished, and there's nothing to do but wait and see where the horror hits hardest. This is the kind of concise, to-the-point insight that ''Testament'' loses by concentrating all its energy on domestic melodrama.
On a more purely cinematic level, I was also struck by the ''Day After'' scenes of missiles rising and mushroom clouds billowing over real landscapes with real people in the foreground. Incredibly, nothing quite like these images has appeared before now in the American mass media - and that's a vivid, even frightening sign of how effectively the subject of nuclear war has been repressed in the American consciousness.
Surely that repression must end. ''Testament'' makes a small and tentative gesture in this direction, while ''The Day After'' marks a breakthrough in its imagery if not its dramatic structure. Now it's time for others, in Hollywood as well as TV territory, to probe this urgent subject more fully and carefully yet.