His and Hers (1997)

Sundance Film Fest 1997 (American Spectrum)–Hal Salwen's sophomoric effort, His and Hers, a screwball comedy about marital squabbling, is a disappointing follow-up to his charming, critically acclaimed debut, Denise Calls Up, which played in many festivals and won an important award in Cannes.

A big question mark hangs over the theatrical fate of this dark comedy of manners, particularly after the domestic commercial failure of Salwen's first feature.

Using two actors of Denise Calls Up's talented ensemble, Liev Schreiber and Caroleen Feeney, the new movie shares many characteristics–and problems–of Salwen's first outing: a bright idea as premise, a good, comical beginning, but ultimately too slight a narrative–and not enough humor–to sustain a feature-length movie.

Is a thought just a thought Or, more to the point: Does thinking about cheating on your mate qualify as real action or is it merely a notion that “has no space,” as frustrated hubby Glenn (Schreiber) says in his opening narration. By the time the adventure Glenn is thrown into is over, this central idea gets a number of variations and mutates in some unexpected directions.

Glenn and Carol (Feeney) have been married for some time, but now the very pregnant Carol seems to have lost her sexual appetite. Bored, Glenn watches TV in his cozy suburban living room, while occasionally throwing a wistful glance at his wife as she prepares dinner in the kitchen. Embracing her from behind, Carol continues to chop carrots–until she chops off Glenn's pinky. The dismembered finger flies outside the window and an exhausting race begins to retrieve it.

Was it an accident or an unconscious act of revenge Leaving no doubt, Glenn claims that Carol's brutal chopping was a symbolic castration of his penis.

Rushing her wounded spouse to the hospital, Carol realizes that Glenn might have been unfaithful to her and, typically, she's more concerned with the identity of the “other woman” than with the problem itself. Rest of the film is structured as a road comedy revolving around Glenn's finger, which keeps moving from one locale to another, with the delirious hubby painfully trails along.

First stop is the house of best friends Pam and Nick (Cynthia M. Watros and Michael Rispoli), where Carol confronts Pam, demanding to know the truth. Having her own marital problems, Pam says that they have discussed “doing it,” but her confession is interrupted when dejected husband Nick suddenly comes in.

In a feat of jealous rage, Nick threatens to deposit the finger into a bank machine, but this time, the quarrel is disrupted by an inept pair of bank robbers, who take Glenn, Carol–and the boxed finger–hostage. The point, of course, is to delay Glenn's going to the hospital, though he's in excruciating pain and his finger gets messier and messier.

Salwen's inspiration–and a number of specific ideas–derives from classic American comedy, both screwball and physical, with a good deal of slapstick thrown into the mix. The search for the finger brings to mind the search for the bone in Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, and the bickering couple routines (lying in separate bed/rooms fantasizing about sex) are prevalent motifs in numerous 30s comedies. As for the bumbling bank robbers, they have appeared in countless comedies of the last decade, most notably the Home Alone pictures.

The problem with His and Hers is not its recognizable sources of influence, for Salwen uses the familiar conventions to explore humorously a rather grave concern: The meaning of fidelity, real and imagined, physical and emotional. Nonetheless, after the first reel, Salwen the writer runs out of ideas and his comedy loses steam and gets irritatingly lugubrious. A number of scenes recall the tediousness in John Singleton's Poetic Justice, which dealt with the same issue albeit in a serious manner.

It doesn't help much that Salwen the helmer lacks the technical skills to orchestrate potentially hilarious sight gags around the continuously disappearing finger. What was great about Hawks, Leo McCarey, and Mitchell Leisen, Gregory La Cava, to name a few screwball masters, was their nuanced mise-en-scene, which is entirely missing here. The big mystery here, is how did Salwen manage to get such awkward performances from his leads, who not only overact, but scream and yell in a manner that calls even greater attention to the flaws in the script and direction.

Made on a bigger budget that Denise Calls Up, Salwen shows some improvement in his greater attention to visual style, though overall tech credits are mediocre.

Credits

An Alliance Independent Films production. Produced by Michael J. Cozell and Hal Salwen. Executive producers, Victor Loewy, Charlotte Mickey. Co-producer, Lisa Kolasa. Directed, written by Salwen. Camera (Duart, color), Claudia Raschke; editor, Gary Sharfin; production design, Susan Bolles; costume design, Stephanie Maslansky; associate producer, Kevin Moore.
Running time: 82 min.

Cast

Glenn……..Liev Schreiber
Carol…….Caroleen Feeney
Nick……..Michael Rispoli
Pam…….Cynthia M. Watros
Robber # 1…….Danny Hoch
Robber # 2…N'Bushe Wright
Captain Barillo….Joe Lisi
Corey Chang…….Jodi Long

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