By DONALD PORTER
Good roles for women are so few and far between that it’s something of an event when a film like “Used People” comes along.
Basically a tale of women whose lives have been made miserable by their associations with men, “Used People” is offbeat and quirky, offering no easy conclusions or solutions for its characters. It’s also a film about loosening up after the tragedy of divorce and death, and the consequences of freeing oneself, or refusing to.
Shirley MacLaine plays Pearl, the cranky widow and matriarch of an eccentric New York City clan. Imagine the character she played in “Terms of Endearment” and you’re in synch.
Pearl’s marriage was not a good one. Her husband, Jack, provided financially for the family, but the relationship between husband and wife wasn’t close or loving. Now, on the day of his funeral, an Italian named Joe (Marcello Mastroianni) – a casual acquaintance of Jack’s – has interrupted the family gathering to ask Pearl for a date.
Joe’s inappropriate but genuinely affectionate advances trigger a chain reaction in Pearl’s family, eventually causing the members of the dysfunctional brood to confront their myriad problems.
There’s Bibby (Kathy Bates), whose weight problem and failed marriage have been a constant source of friction between herself, Pearl and sister Norma (Marcia Gay Harden).
Norma, on the other hand, has taken flight from the depression surrounding the death of one of her children by masquerading as a series of movie stars: Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn among them. In turn, her surviving son, nicknamed Sweet Pea (Matthew Branton), has retreated into a delusion of his own, believing he has become invincible.
The calming character in this combustible mix is Joe, the love-sick romantic. He pleads with Pearl to cast aside her doubt and apprehension, and to go with her heart – to for once in her life be daring and carefree. His philosophy has a rippling effect on the other characters, including Frieda and Becky, played by Jessica Tandy and Sylvia Sydney, two longtime friends who disagree about almost everything. Soon, everyone’s thinking about change and taking chances.
Some have compared “Used People” to “Moonstruck.” While it’s not as dramatically cohesive or rigidly plotted as that film, “Used People” does have its charms – primarily contained in the odd assortment of characters.
The script by sometime actor Todd Graff – who also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming American remake of the Dutch thriller “The Vanishing” – ranges from cute to sarcastic to wacky. And director Beeban Kidron joins in the fun by employing more close-ups than a Sergio Leone Western.
“Used People” is a nice alternative to the kiddie-driven movie marketplace. Imagine that, a movie made for adults.