Denise Calls Up: Lives in Times of AIDS and New Technology

A cute comic idea is at the center of “Denise Calls Up,” a quirky meditation on alienation, love and the folly of urban relationships.

Ideally, this feature-length movie should have been a short since current running-time discloses structural weaknesses that make the narrative a bit tedious and repetitive. Even so, this original comedy deserves limited theatrical exposure and should serve as a calling card for Hal Salwen, its talented writer-director.

A romantic frolic, “Denise Calls Up” is the proper comedy for our increasingly detached and privatized lives in the age of AIDS and modern technology. Weaving the tales of seven workaholics whose lives intersect, the picture owes its very existence to such ubiquitous technological innovations as cordless phones, sophisticated answering machines, call-waiting, conference calls, beepers–and above all, word processors.

The tale starts with Linda (Aida Turturro), a sad-faced woman, as she begins another routine day, turning on her computer and dropping a cordless phone into her robe. Except it’s not a routine day: a table of untouched catered food is a reminder that her birthday party the night before didn’t go so well; in fact, nobody showed up.

Also stationed at her computer is Linda’s hyper, work-obsessed friend, Gale (Dana Wheeler Nicholson), who apologizes for not making it. Gale says she got caught up in work and one thing led to another–an excuse used by all those who failed to attend the party.

However, Gale is now determined to set up a blind date for Jerry (Liev Schreiber) and Barbara (Caroleen Feeney)–via the telephone. When Barbara wishes to see a photo of Jerry, who’s friends of Gale’s ex-b.f. Frank (Tim Daly), an old picture of him as a boy is faxed to her within seconds–while she’s still talking to Jerry.

In a parallel subplot, Jerry’s very Jewish friend Martin (Dan Gunther) donates his sperm to a bank in what he expects to be a confidential act. But soon he begins getting telephone calls from Denise (Alanna Ubach), the woman pregnant with his “child.” So much for the promised protection of anonymity.

The film’s conceit is shrewd. The anxious urbanites socialize, exchange secrets, make love, give birth–even die–without ever meeting. All events take place entirely on the telephone; the actors never share scenes with one another. Writer-director Salwen also resists the temptation of using a split-screen to bring the disparate characters into the same frame.

In this classically structured farce, all the urbanites searching meaningful relationships are contrasted with Denise, the group’s outsider and only innocent member. The contrast is also conveyed visually: Denise is always outdoors using her cell, while the others never leave their home, not even to attend the funeral of one of their dearest, who dies in a car accident while orchestrating a big party on the phone.

For the most part, Salwen’s writing is inspired, occasionally graced by hilarious one-liners, but the conceit is repeated so many times that it gets tiresome. Progressively, the tale becomes predictable, and overstays its welcome by at least one reel. Additionally, for this frolic to really work, the pacing should have been faster and the ending more snappily satisfying.

Production values, particularly Mayers’ sharp lensing and Bolles’ resourceful design, are quite accomplished. And with the exception of Sylvia Miles, whose cameo as Gale’s aunt is too caricaturistic, the acting is uniformly pleasant.

At times, “Denise Calls Up” feels like a one-joke movie that’s been overextended, but the joke is a good one.