In the zany, outrageous tradition of Down and Out In Beverly Hills and Ruthless People, Scenes From a Mall teams up comedy’s ultimate mix of combustible fun-Bette Midler and Woody Allen! She’s a best-selling pop psychologist, he’s a high-powered sports attorney. Together they’re the perfect ’90s couple! During a shopping spree in an upscale mall, this Beverly Hills duo’s seemingly happy marriage takes an outlandish turn for the worse when they try to work out some of their marital differences-and it ends up costing them lots more than they bargained for! You’ll cash in on a great deal of fun when you check out this hilarious adventure about marriage, infidelity and bargain shopping!
eyelights: the dynamic between Allen and Midler. the setting.
eyesores: the ridiculousness of the relationship.
“How many 16th anniversaries does a person have in a lifetime? One… maybe two.”
Woody Allen almost always writes and directs his material, but there are instances where he merely does one or the other. But, even rarer still, are those occasions when Allen acts but doesn’t write or direct. Sometimes it works, as in ‘The Front‘ or ‘Antz’. Sometimes it tanks, as in ‘Casino Royale‘ or ‘Picking Up the Pieces‘.
Sometimes, as in ‘Fading Gigolo‘, it falls right down the middle.
Such is the case for ‘Scenes from a Mall’, a 1991 motion picture by writer-director Paul Mazursky, of ‘Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice‘ fame. Starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler (who had been in Mazursky’s box office smash ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’, five years earlier), it follows a wealthy couple on the day of their anniversary.
Much of the picture, which is named after the Bergman film ‘Scener ur ett äktenskap’, is set at a Beverley Hills mall, where the pair go to retrieve the gifts that they bought each other. The day then devolves as they start to reveal secrets to one another, setting in motion a series of tense and nostalgic discussions at the mall.
Personally, I love the setting. It’s filled with so many distractions that we aren’t forced to fixate on the couple for the whole 90 minutes: there is a goofy mime that keeps popping up, young rappers striking poses from time to time, and carolers that fill the background and soundtrack. Because, yes, it’s set during the Christmas season.
At a mall.
In some ways, ‘Scenes from a Mall’ made me think of a dysfunctional, middle-aged version of ‘Mallrats‘: it’s about a couple of characters hanging around at the mall, who sometimes interact with other people there, but who are mostly totally self-absorbed, talking about their relationships – except that ‘Mallrats’ is much funnier.
The key problem with ‘Scenes from a Mall’ is that the humour, as terrific as it is, is too spare to support the drama that surges forth in the second act and carries on until the end. There are glimmers that break through from time to time, but the picture seems to expect the humour to pour from its characters’ erratic behaviour.
If anything, it’s frustrating how they vacillate so much in the course of just a few hours, with her hating him, them loving him, then him hating her, then loving her, the pair wanting to separate, then not, then again, then making out, …etc.. I suppose that it’s meant to be funny, but I find it infuriating and, thus, not funny.
It doesn’t help that the picture revolves around infidelity. Woody Allen’s pictures frequently use it as a subplot, but here it’s the centrepiece. And infidelity is no laughing matter. The way he reveals some of his affairs is funny, though, because it’s a series of miniscule admissions that add up into a monstrous revelation after the next.
But he’s still a jerk.
And that’s part of the problem with the picture: the characters are hard to like. Allen’s character seems nice enough until he reveals his own secret, choosing their anniversary for the occasion, no less. Jerk. Then he dares to believe that it will be okay, that she’ll understand and forgive him his transgressions. What. A. Dick.
Of course, she has her own secret, which should balance things but only serves to degrade both characters in our minds. Soon they’re talking about getting lovers and he is insensitive enough to ogle younger women and discuss them with his spouse. He even dares to fish for sympathy by saying that he feels like “the scumbag of all time”.
He rightly should, the bastard, because he is one.
Interestingly, Allen does his usual shtick, but with some twists: his characters usually don’t drink alcohol (which he imbibes with ease in one scene and also talks about here), don’t curse (let alone use the loaded F-word a few times), get violent (with mimes), or try to be cool (here he has a small ponytail and wears an Italian suit).
The sight of him walking around with a surfboard in a mall is indicative of some of the subtle humour in the picture. It’s already absurd enough to see, but adding to this is the notion that he would even want one, that he would have a use for one. He ends up leaving it lying around the mall many times over, upsetting his spouse.
While the pair had some fairly real, rather touching moments together, these are frequently quashed by their ceaseless arguments, which has them tossing their 370 dollars’ worth (in 1991 dollars!!!) of sushi a couple of times or screaming at each other in the middle of the mall – much to the annoyance of the other holiday shoppers.
Although I don’t much like mimes, I found that the one here deflated some of these moments. he was annoying (aren’t they always?) but I was amused by the notion that he’s always sneaking up on them, basically performing for no one but himself. His self-contentment was amusing to me; the randomness and pointlessness of it is so absurd.
But such moments of mild lunacy and the subtle humour imbued in the dialogues aren’t enough to lighten up “Scenes from the Mall’ sufficiently to properly call it a comedy, resting instead rather comfortably in the dramedy category. I’ve grown to like it much more over the years, but, quite frankly, it’s just not pleasant watching a couple making a scene.
Date of viewing: April 16, 2015