Signs of the times

Paul Mazursky's art lies in his topical films about the modern American landscape

Enemies is Mazursky's most daring and individual film, and it capitalizes on one of his favorite themes: the adjustment of the outsider to the new world he's been thrust into. Here, that character is a Jewish immigrant, Herman (Ron Silver), who moved to America in the years following World War II. Although exquisitely costumed and designed, it is primarily a story about people, and in dealing with morals and interpersonal dynamics that cross cultures, it succeeds beautifully. The best scenes are the comedic ones dealing with Herman's "accidental" polygamy--married to one wife before the war (Anjelica Huston), he married his bland gentile savior (Margaret Sophie Stein) more out of boredom and a sense of duty than for love, all the while stoking an affair with the sultry Mosha (Lena Olin). When his first wife reappears and his mistress demands marriage, Herman's life becomes a comic (and tragic) interplay of emotions. Mazursky has always been an actors' director, and cajoles good work from Silver and Stein, but Huston and Olin carry the movie. Huston looks like she stepped out of a page from Look magazine--her carriage, demeanor, and style fit perfectly in a somber period piece. As the smoldering Mosha, Olin's beauty belies great sensitivity. Mazursky's adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novella resonates largely because the characters are so delicately observed, and because he knows how to showcase a great performance.

That a film like Enemies was even possible after a fiasco like Moon Over Parador, a cumbersome, unfunny spoof about an actor impersonating a banana-republic dictator, is something of a mystery. That Mazursky would follow it up with lightweight rubbish like Scenes from a Mall is incomprehensible. But there's no denying that Mazursky has made a number of pointed and popular comedies along with some failures, though some have suffered from overstatement. Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a liberal remake of Jean Renoir's classic Boudu Save des Eaux, heralded the career renaissance of both Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss. They played the Whitemans, a crass nouveau riche couple who rescue a suicidal homeless man (Nick Nolte) from their swimming pool. Renoir was a brutal critic of the bourgeoisie, and Mazursky might have been asking too much to invite comparisons. Mazursky is a much noisier presence in film than Renoir, so it's no small wonder that his pictures often contain such brash displays as fireworks, carnivals (Parador), and circuses (Moscow on the Hudson). (Sometimes it's not clear whether he wants to be Renoir or Fellini; Alex in Wonderland was essentially an American take on 8-1/2.)

In recent years, Mazursky has concentrated more on acting, appearing in such films as Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and 2 Days in the Valley. (His basic actor's persona is as the abrasive agent, yelling into a cel phone, "Yeah, well, you tell him for me he's a putz!") It would be a shame if he has lost the desire to direct--maybe he's just waiting to be inspired by a new, ridiculous aspect of the technological age. That's the journeyman life of the social critic: Sometimes the topic you chose warrants lampooning, and sometimes audiences are left scratching their heads. Thankfully, Mazursky's ratio is more than merely respectable. His films have added immeasurably to the ways in which we look at ourselves, our society, and our institutions. He's actually made a difference. And how often can you say that about a movie director?

Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, Tempest, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and Enemies, A Love Story are all screening at the Festival. Mazursky will be presented the Great Director award by Molly Ringwald on Saturday night, after the screening of Tempest, in which she appeared.

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