Directory Assistance

Jeez, has it really come to this? Have cell phones, fax machines, and personal computers assumed such an integral role in our harried lives that we prefer securely chatting away in the comfort of our homes to the more exciting possibilities of face-to-face human contact? Hal Salwen, the first-time writer/director who made the contemporary spoof Denise Calls Up, thinks so. Salwen's single, self-absorbed shut-ins put more faith in their hardware than they do in each other. These people meet, fall in love, have sex, give birth, fall out of love, and even die without ever getting off the phone.

Denise (Alanna Ubach) calls up out of the blue to inform computer nerd Martin (Dan Gunther) that the deposit he made at a sperm bank has paid the desired dividend: She's eight months pregnant. Martin cannot wait to break the news to his buddy Frank (erstwhile Wings flyboy Tim Daly). Frank relays the scoop to his ex-girlfriend Gale (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson).

Director Salwen cuts rapidly back and forth from one caller to another in an effort to speed up the pace of his film without having his characters do anything but talk. All narrative developments are revealed through conversation. Call it a motionless motion picture; Denise Calls Up might have worked better as a play.

Gale still carries a torch for Frank, as does he for her. But neither has the courage to take the initiative and attempt to reignite their stalled romance. Instead they team up to play matchmaker for an unlikely couple: Frank's pal Jerry (Liev Schreiber), who spends an inordinate amount of time in bed smoking and typing away on his notebook computer while conversing via his speakerphone, and Gale's uptight friend Barbara (Caroleen Feeney), a businesswoman who travels constantly. After enduring false starts, answering-machine tag, and hang-ups (telephone and otherwise), Jerry and Barbara commence a torrid three-month tele-tryst.

Salwen means to satirize the modern rituals of telephone dating, mating, and masturbating (to say nothing of call waiting) by exaggerating the importance of telecommunication in the lives of his characters. The novelty of his approach wears thin. "Okay," you want to capitulate. "I get the point. The more dependent we become on technology, the more we sacrifice our humanity." But Salwen doesn't let up; instead, his one-joke movie searches for different ways to say the same old thing. Apparently the filmmaker doesn't realize there's a limit to how long the average moviegoer can sit still and watch neurotic Manhattanites reach out and touch themselves.

Uneven acting doesn't improve Salwen's chances of getting a good connection. Ubach's Denise is one of those kooky-clever, wise-beyond-her-years, serenely grounded twenty-year-old earth mothers you see so often in movies and so rarely in real life. Daly and Wheeler-Nicholson are competent and likable in their respective roles, but their characters never come to life. As Martin, Gunther seeks but doesn't find the right balance of shock, anxiety, and pride in his impending fatherhood. And Feeney badly overplays her early scenes as the stiff, apprehensive Barbara; thank goodness her acting improves as her character loosens up. Only Schreiber -- as the skittish, skeptical Jerry -- impresses throughout.

Even Woody Allen and Henry Jaglom -- both masters at comically chronicling the foibles of modern life -- would have difficulty sustaining interest in an extended collection of shots of people talking to each other on the phone. But Salwen is in neither social satirist's league, nor is his uninspired assortment of players on a par with the thespian company Allen and Jaglom usually keep. No matter what number you dial, you keep getting Salwen riffing on the same theme -- our national love affair with the telephone. It's like listening to an amusing message on a friend's answering machine; the first time you hear it you smile, but eventually you get sick of it.

 
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