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Woman in Red, The
Playing one of a quartet of horny middle-aged men eager to cheat on their significant others, the movie has dated badly, with co-star Joseph Bologna's character today about as playfully charming as Harvey Weinstein. The bigger problem is the timid ad man Wilder plays. The adaptation has a very inconsistent comic tone, never shedding any insight at all into Wilder's character.
Another problem is that Wilder casts himself in a kind of everyman role any one of a dozen actors could have played as well or better. He is, course, remembered best as likeable but unpredictably and emotionally volatile eccentrics: Leo Bloom in The Producers, Willy Wonka, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, etc. Almost every writer or every Wilder movie was smart enough to work in a scene where Wilder's character would slowly build to a frenzy of hysteria. In one of his last movies, paired with Richard Pryor, there's a scene where the two wind up neck-deep aboard a garbage scow floating down the Hudson River. Pryor's character is worried his ineptitude may have irrevocably damaged their friendship. Wilder responds with a long, initially sweet monologue about the true meaning of friendship that devolves into one of his signature rants. It's a terrible film, but that one short scene is so brilliantly funny that it makes all the dreariness coming before and after it almost worth it.
Wilder seems to have been aware of that quality, his uniqueness as a performer, and wanted to stretch in films like The Woman in Red but the results are mixed.*
Advertising executive Theodore Pierce (Wilder) is one of four sex-obsessed friends, the others being Buddy (Charles Grodin), Joe (Joseph Bologna), and Michael (Michael Huddleston). In the parking garage below his office, one morning Theodore spots gorgeous model Charlotte (Kelly Le Brock) cooling herself with the air rushing beneath her from an air duct a la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Though happily married with kids to devoted wife Didi (Judith Ivey), Theodore compulsively asks her out via an interoffice telephone.
However, he doesn't realize that he's on the line with mousy co-worker Ms. Milner (Gilda Radner, channeling a young Nancy Walker), who's turned on by his lasciviousness. Most of the picture is concerned with Theodore's numerous failed attempts to date and bed down with Charlotte while keeping Didi in the dark.
The Woman in Red suffers from a wildly inconsistent tone. Partly the film is gleefully debauched, such as a very funny, raunchy bit early on where Theodore, arriving in his office, overhears an assistant's seemingly dirty telephone conversation, full of outrageous double-entendres. Several near-rendezvous are also funny, particularly a scene where Charlotte and Didi accidentally meet at Theodore's surprise birthday party, forcing Buddy to gamely attempt to cover for his pal.
However, much of the picture is merely sophomoric and, by today's standards, profoundly sexist. Incorrigible cheater Joe has a meltdown after his wife finds about his dalliances and leaves him, yet Wilder's script asks the audience to sympathize with this wholly unsympathetic jerk. Theodore's determination to cheat on Didi has no clear motivation, given consequences that could destroy his family. Charlotte is a hotty, to be sure, but it's also clear his attractive, stable wife adores him so, other than unbridled libido, what drives such foolish behavior?
The movie is like a chaotic remake of Blake Edwards's superior 10 (1979), which had a far more studier, linear screenplay. The Woman in Red has many funny moments, but they just sort of hang there and don't really connect from one scene to the next. In both 10 and The Woman in Red there are sweet scenes where the protagonist comforts a gay friend, heartbroken after his partner leaves him. But in The Woman in Red that scene is just an isolated little island of nice writing, direction, and acting that doesn't much connect to anything else. When the movie finally gets to the Big Scene of Theodore and Charlotte finally in bed about to have sex, the rest of the sequence plays out in a series of clichés - complete with Theodore have-naked on a high window ledge - at odds with some of the much more clever bits earlier in the picture.
Still, Wilder makes some interesting choices as director. When a vengeful Ms. Milner releases the emergency brake on Theodore's car, sending him sailing down a typically steep San Francisco street, Wilder's camera stays on Gilda Radner's subtly satisfied reaction, the audience hearing but not seeing the mayhem just out-of-frame.
Video & Audio
A Kino Lorber release, The Woman in Red, in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p, looks reasonably good outside of its messy title elements. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is better in terms of its use of the surround channels and in bringing out Stevie Wonder's still effective songs, though the music and effects track does sound mixed at an inordinately higher volume than the dialogue track, necessitating fairly constant adjustment. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a trailer and an audio commentary track by critic and filmmaker Jim Hemphill.
Dated and only fitfully funny, though worth seeing once for its cast, particularly Wilder, The Woman in Red gets a Rent It.
* Wilder's best film role in an atypical, non-Wilder type vehicle was in Robert Aldrich's The Frisco Kid (1978).
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.