Current comedies prove one good guffaw is better than 40 winks

Hollywood's new comedies are falling all over themselves to be knowing and sophisticated. But they're forgetting to be funny. Full of winks and nudges to the audience -- telling us we're more hip and savvy than the people we're watching -- these movies are secretly fascinated by the slices of society they mock, and expect us to squirm with delight at the mere depiction of Yuppie manners, suburban mores, and similar exotic stuff. But the tingle of recognition is no substitute for the guffaw of hilarity, and the new breed of social satire has brought little real humor to the movie scene.

Compromising Positions takes place in a ritzy Long Island town where everyone is a lordly professional or a bored homemaker, depending on gender. The men have work to stimulate them. But the women have no relief from tedium except sneaky sex adventures with the nearest lordly professional.

When a local periodontist is murdered, the grieving widow finds herself surrounded by grieving mistresses, and by some nasty revelations about her husband. It seems he dabbled in things darker and dirtier than dentistry, including the porno scene, which is the movie's symbol for middle-class decadence.

If this doesn't sound very amusing, it's because ``Compromising Positions'' is a self-consciously black comedy with a dour view of the insular community it satirizes. While the film has a basically humorous slant, director Frank Perry and writer Susan Isaacs want us to tsk-tsk a way of life that splits families into warring camps (``breadwinner'' vs. ``housewife'') and turns drab motels into sexual Disneylands for neglected wives.

But the movie seems as narrow and naive as its own most provincial characters. It stacks the deck against them with carefully designed visual details and spiky dialogue. Then it milks their limited lives for laughs and irony without seeking to explore them, and mocks their pretenses without probing the cultural conditions that shape and sustain them.

I may be asking too much from a comedy about a suburban mother (Susan Sarandon) who helps a handsome cop (Raul Julia) solve a neighborhood crime. But the movie takes potshots at so many targets that it ought to show a sense of its own responsibility now and then. ``Compromising Positions'' does no such thing. It just dumps on suburbia -- so busily that it can't find time to tell us what mom does with the kids while she's out sleuthing.

Key Exchange, based on a well-received stage play, takes us to the land of the Yuppie and proves that the suburbs have no monopoly on dull characters. The heroes, a just-married man and his living-together friends, do little of interest during the 95 minutes we spend with them.

As in ``Compromising Positions,'' the filmmakers think they can awe us by simply reproducing the mannerisms, gestures, clothing, and verbal tics of an allegedly hilarious social group. But the story is so slim and the characters so slight that the movie threatens to fade away before your drooping eyes. The director was Barnet Kellman, and the only memorable performer is Brooke Adams, who played virtually the same role in ``Almost You'' -- a more uncannily accurate but equally self-absorbed variation on the same theme.

For moviegoers who'd rather avoid these calculated comedies, there's at least one alternative on the current scene: a new British farce called Bullshot, which packs a stronger satirical punch than both the above movies combined. The title character is a broadly exaggerated version of every supersoldier and supersleuth you've ever seen, and he's hot on the trail of a nefarious villain who has stolen a secret formula from a brilliant scientist whose desirable daughter carries the other half i n a locket that's . . . . But never mind the plot, which couldn't make sense if it tried. (And it doesn't.) The assets of ``Bullshot'' are speed, energy, and a long line of jokes at the expense of movie-style chauvinism. It's very silly, and it crosses the line from brashness to vulgarity at times. But if an evening of knockabout laughter is what's needed, there's no better place to look right now.

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