Way Too Little

Ever notice how you can never wager on really interesting propositions? For example, you could have made a fortune betting that Fernando Trueba's Two Much would be a mess. If only some bookmaker had offered odds against the made-in-Miami movie's success. All the ingredients for a flop were in place before the first frame of film was shot: A Spanish writer-director (Trueba) follows up the smash success of his last picture (1992's droll, winsome Belle Epoque) by relocating to America -- Miami Beach, no less -- to make his first English-language film. He hires his brother David (nepotism, anyone?) to help him fashion a romantic comedy out of a Donald Westlake novel that qualifies as more thriller than yuk-fest. In the lead the director casts a Spanish star (Antonio Banderas) whose unexpected comedic gifts have far less to do with his stateside screen success than with his sex appeal. And last but not least, the director, having apparently never seen Milk Money, courts disaster by hiring Melanie Griffith to play one of two pivotal female roles.

This is what passes for screwball comedy in Two Much: Antonio Banderas, playing a crooked gallery owner named Art Dodge (hold your groans), attempts to woo a pair of sisters (Griffith and Daryl Hannah) by inventing a phony long-lost twin brother named Bart. Contrived circumstances force Art/Bart to spend the same night with both sisters without revealing his deception. As luck (and a half-baked screenplay) would have it, the sisters maintain bedroom suites on opposing sides of an indoor swimming pool. Art/Bart concocts a series of dubious excuses to buy time while constantly streaking back and forth from one bedroom to the other, skidding precariously close to the edge of the pool each time. You've seen variations on this don't-fall-into-the-drink setup a thousand times; even TV sitcoms consider it too hackneyed -- and the eventual soggy outcome too predictable -- to meet their standards. But not Trueba. He stages -- and dwells on -- the waterlogged set piece as if he had just invented slapstick. When Banderas finally splashes down, the glub-glub you hear is the sound of the movie tanking.

Two Much suffers from more credibility problems than Mark Fuhrman at an NAACP convention. One minute the movie portrays Melanie Griffith's Betty as a sexy, wealthy, worldly divorcee who rescues Art Dodge from her Mafioso ex-hubby Gene (Danny Aiello); the next minute Griffith plays Betty like a total ditz who wants to leap into marriage with her newfound boy-toy despite his obvious reluctance, not to mention the fact that she knows nothing about him. So unconvincing is this essential plot point that you assume Betty has something up her sleeve, that she's playing a lovestruck airhead in order to use Art as a pawn in some larger game. No such luck. Even less believable is the notion that neither Betty nor her arch, hypercritical sister Liz would so much as question the sudden appearance of Art's long-lost twin, who just happens to embody all the characteristics of Liz's ideal man. Not for a second does the ruse seem plausible. Trueba has often stated his admiration for the madcap comedies of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, but such glaring character inconsistencies and plot holes would never have gotten by either of those two masters.

Nor would the venerable directors likely have gone into production with a pair of leading ladies as weak as Griffith and Hannah. The performances that won Griffith respect -- in 1986's Something Wild and 1988's Working Girl -- now seem like ancient history, anomalies in a career where 1993's critically reviled Born Yesterday is more the norm. (Speaking of that failed remake of a Billy Wilder classic, what is it about Griffith that attracts directors of Wilderesque modern films? Is she the only popular actress willing to take on the ghost of Judy Holliday and play a dumb blonde? With the ascendancy of tough-talking sex symbols like Demi Moore and Sharon Stone or girls-next-door like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, has Hollywood entered a period of bimbo deprivation?) Perhaps Griffith's much-publicized off-screen romance with Banderas hit her so hard she forgot how to act. Then again, maybe audiences just expect too much of Griffith, whose career has been swooshing downhill faster than Alberto Tomba.

Hannah's Liz is as exaggerated in her own way -- stiff, cynical, and icy -- as Griffith's lovestruck Betty is in hers. Both actresses completely eschew subtlety and nuance in their performances. And Hannah suffers the additional handicap of a mind-bogglingly uncomplimentary 'do that cuts short her trademark golden tresses and makes her look so hard that it discredits Art's case of love-at-first-sight when he lays eyes upon her.

Antonio Banderas, however, emerges relatively unscathed. His closeups here offer little evidence to contradict those who find him sexy, nor does he embarrass himself as a thespian. And the sultry Spaniard displays a knack for physical comedy that enlivens brain-dead gags such as the swimming pool sequence. Perhaps this is the ultimate confirmation of star power -- the ability to headline a succession of turkeys like Assassins, Never Talk to Strangers, Four Rooms, and Two Much, and walk away with your reputation intact. But does the actor's appeal, however considerable, compensate for the sorry work of his costars or the miscalculations of his director? Don't bet on it.

Two Much. Written by Fernando and David Trueba; directed by Fernando Trueba; with Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Danny Aiello, Joan Cusack, and Eli Wallach.

 
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