Yankee Panky

As Goldie Hawn traipses through it early in Housesitter, the fictional New England town of Dobbs Mill (Concord and Cohasset, Massachusetts) is a patch of retro-colonialist Americana: star-spangled flags hang over modestly ornamented homes, the wood-panel architecture recalls the idealistic haze of Norman Rockwell's illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, the bare yards and porches match Edward Hopper's eerily tranquil storefront settings. Pastels predominate in Dobbs Mill; everything is tastefully scaled down. The handful of gardens and ponds could have been divined by Barbara Bush for Kennebunkport. It's a whitey-white nirvana, and, it scarcely needs adding, a Republican one.

The folks who inhabit this imperturbable Yankee retreat are no less consistently drawn - men wear tight-collared shirts and red bow ties a la George Will, women bear monikers like Becky and Edna, and both sexes match the emotional openness of a turtle and the warmth of raspberry sorbet. All of which could make for an agreeably trenchant treatment of the WASP contingent and its vaunted dysfunctionalism - perhaps a mean-spirited spoof on Ordinary People. But Housesitter is a comedy - a wanna-be broad comedy about coldness and displacement, with the least amusing quarter of American society - led by an ever-implosive Steve Martin - playing straight man to Goldie Hawn's liberated bird. This film is directed by Frank Oz, a disciple of the late Jim Henson and whose previous movies, Little Shop of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, also featured Martin as funnyman. Which should give potential viewers ample warning of the film's pedigree.

In Housesitter, Martin reprises his Everyman/clown persona as Newton Davis, an architect living in Boston, who designs and builds a dream house in Dobbs Mill for his perenially plaid country sweetheart, Becky (Dana Delany), who, believing Newton to be benign buffoon, turns him down on matrimony. It's a predictable role for Martin, one he could play in his sleep (and has, in several pictures): the promising loser. And yet, we're intended to assume that the design of Newton's dream house is proof plenty that he's some order of architectural genius. But only the huge red ribbon around this uninhabitable post-modernist structure suggests any degree of invention. (For instance, where did Newton purchase that elongated strand? Ribbons 'R Us?)

The agent provocateuse fueling this predestined progress is Goldie Hawn's Gwen, a pert but street-smart waitress working at the Cafe Budapest, a Hungarian restaurant in Boston. Newton meets and taunts her with plays on her name (such as "Gwen do you gwet off?" and "Gwhere do we gwo?"), then manages to lay her. During the course of their one-nighter at Gwen's apartment, he describes the dream house and, when she wakes up the next morning and sees Newton has fled the coop, Gwen hits the road for Dobbs Mill. Hell hath no fury like a waitress scorned.

Then comes the funniest sequence - albeit unintentionally - of the entire affair. After getting off the bus, Gwen walks around Dobbs Mill, and edges her way toward Newton's empty manor. This sequence means to present the town to us, but it serves as more of a reminder than an introduction. I'm referring, of course, to Goldie Hawn's butt, which swings ever so winningly from one shot to the next as Gwen makes her way. Every aforementioned passageway and corner of Dobbs Mill is preceded, or followed, by Goldie's denimed bahoola. This gluteal glut must be a clause in Hawn's contract, for there can be no other conceivable reason for a director, cinematographer, and crew to devote so many camera angles in praise of the Hawn posterior, which, I report, is as shapely as ever for a 46-year-old star. (If it is contractual, Goldie Hawn and Rob Lowe must share agents.)

Thereafter, Gwen meets Newton's parents (Julie Harris and Donald Moffat), claims to be his wife, and, as if by magic, warms their frosty Brahmin hearts and wins them over. When Newton finds out that Gwen has taken over his house, he flips out, then sees a way of using the new situation - and Gwen's indefatigable supply of fabrications - to woo back the buck-toothed Becky he so loves. None of these lies are terribly original, but even so, Newton calls Gwen "the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit." Everything comes to its slapsticky conclusion at a party at the house, where Gwen sees to it that Newton's boss (Richard B. Shull) hands him a promotion - and he sees the truth in himself, that he loves her, not Becky. A happy ending, then, with money and love offered again as mutually inclusive metaphors for the glory of America.

A word about Richard B. Shull. I have no idea who he is, but I have a rather definitive impression of what he is. The press information informs us that he's a veteran stage actor. But the Parkinsonian delivery and silent-picture mugging of this aging thespian is one of the few remaining gut-bursting attributes in Housesitter - providing, that is, anyone has the stomach to stick it out to the bitter end.

Candice Russell, the film critic for the Sun-Sentinel and a good friend, called him "a General Hospital reject" whose oratorical style was "pure Kate Hepburn." For some reason, though, she didn't include this right-on-the-money observation in her review, so relaying it falls on me. What I will say is that anyone whose aesthetic and histrionic tastes are satisfied by Housesitter should sit a while longer on it.

 
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