Legends speak ominously of the financial nightmare it wreaked on the movie studio. Reportedly budgeted in the neighborhood of $50 million by the time actor salaries were negotiated, the movie swelled over the course of two years to an estimated $90 million budget but took in less than 10 percent of that upon release, making it (at the time) the biggest box office flop in history. Those that bothered to see it – no doubt a selected few with morbid curiosity, who must have been roused by all the bad press – were not so much seeing a movie as they were witnessing the disintegration of a handful of reputable careers. Just read the credits list and marvel at the level of talent featured: Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Gary Shandling, Diane Keaton, and Andie MacDowell, for starters. Now think long and hard about the years following their involvement; how many have bounced back from the damage, or at least gone on to negate the trauma it stirred in their otherwise lucrative careers? There is a rare type of bad film that carries the power to undo the pull of admirable screen personalities, and any ten minutes of “Town & Country” is enough to suggest validity to that dubious claim.
The following scenarios are an offering to elucidate specifics. The lead character (played by Beatty) is a successful New York architect whose prestige is diminished by an underlying feeling of boredom; always rubbing elbows at fancy parties with nameless faces and sipping champagne, he has reached complacence in a routine saturated in monotony; when he and his wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) arrive home in the early scenes to discover their children and housekeeper entertaining new love interests – sometimes rather explicitly – he is too bored to muster up the energy to protest or feign enthusiasm for them. Unfortunately, that gimmick more or less suggests Beatty’s own ambivalence throughout the entire movie; it is an emotion he carries well through an assemblage of halfhearted plot twists that suggest how dreary he has become, including several that have him sharing romantic encounters with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski) and a family friend named Mona (Goldie Hawn), who is recently divorced from her own husband (Gary Shandling) for committing infidelity.
Why is he seeking the company of others? The plot implies that he and Ellie have not been sleeping together, and Porter is fueled by the audacious bravado of Griffin (Shandling), who is seen in an early moment entertaining the company of a transvestite while his wife watches on helpless from below a balcony. Beatty’s character chastises him, but then there is an odd dialogue exchange in which he, essentially, confesses to sharing the same desires after being married for so long. This is not a new plot point by any stretch in these sorts of movies, and many modern directors who explore the failure of such relationships – be it for drama or satire – are apt to establish a certainty in the conviction of the characters making those decisions. Yet Peter Chelsom, who directed this dreck, is more eager to leap from one action to the next for no purpose other than to inspire halfhearted comedy. The problem – aside from most of it being very unfunny – is that the transitions don’t have much reasoning backing them up. When Mona catches Griffin cheating, she is visibly saddened and betrayed; why, then, is it so easy for her to jump right into bed with Porter, especially when she is such good friends with Ellie? Inevitably the story must deal with these secrets out in the open with erroneous comic timing, but the story is so distracted by monetary subplots that it robs us of the most important moment: the one where Ellie and Mona should be confronting one another about the betrayal between them.
Then again, it’s very hard to deduce what anyone’s intentions are when it comes to understanding this minefield of a screenplay. The original writer Michael Laughlin could not have been more distant from understanding or modulating these details effectively if he had been a Martian; he clumsily moves through the routines of the characters as if he had never observed a morsel of basic human interaction, and his sense of humor is so utterly tone-deaf that there are stretches of comedic ambition that are embarrassingly shallow. One of the later subplots involves Porter interacting with an attractive socialite named Eugenie (Andie MacDowell), whose first come-on is that she “loves to sleep with architects.” Ho, ho. Then, just when Porter is ready to act on the attraction, she introduces him to her parents (one of them played by Charlton Heston), who bicker and complain with vulgarity and then suggest menacing threats if their little girl is harmed in any way – a move that must inevitably lead to her father confronting Porter with a shotgun at a New York auction. Is the moment justified as comedy, or is it just a plug for the NRA?
As isolated scenes, some of this could have worked. If anyone involved approached what they were reading with some level of enthusiasm, then perhaps there could have been some significant punchlines, however secondary. But “Town & Country” is such a gargantuan mess that not even the ones on screen are roused to giving the camera their best shot; they sleepwalk lazily through the scenes as if exhausted by their very association, working their way towards an ending that involves a sizable paycheck being deposited in their accounts. Money, unfortunately, is just as much the root of stupidity as it is evil. Did no one behind the scenes think for a split second about what they were doing? Or were they misguided by the hopes that a group of great established actors would be enough to sell the material? If we are to read through it without the distraction of the actors, it’s hard to see how any of this could be justified. The material leads to less than nothing. The tonal shifts between drama and comedy have the precision of a seizure. The directing is an awkward exercise of transitions and missteps. And some of the scenes are such pointless excursions that even marginal minds would have discarded them.
But all the same these actors, technicians and filmmakers slog their way through the nightmare with wide-eyed dedication, like warriors refusing to wave the white flag of surrender. The destiny of Porter and all those trapped in his dreary social circle rests on one certainty: each must come to terms with their lost individualism, and see past the boredom of the lifestyle in order to reach a point of understanding, hopefully with some level of honesty thrown in. It’s amusing how movies like this push such agendas on characters that should be too busy working on maintaining their expensive lifestyles, though. Consider the leads, for example: they share a penthouse in the upper west side with their two grown children, can afford a New England beach resort and throw expensive parties in between social galas and public auctions. Yet all they seem to have time to do on screen is go on vacation and sleep with everyone in sight, and then occasionally contemplate what it all means in between orgasms. Show me a six-figure career outside of government that allows for this much free time and I’ll show you my best resume.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Drama (US); 2001; Rated R; Running Time: 104 Minutes
Warren Beatty: Porter
Diane Keaton: Ellie
Goldie Hawn: Mona
Gary Shandling: Griffin
Josh Hartnett: Tom
Andie MacDowell: Eugenie
Jenna Elfman: Auburn
Charlton Heston: Eugenie’s Father
Produced by Michael De Luca, Simon Fields, Lynn Harris, Andrew Karsch, Sidney Kimmel, Michael Nelson, Fred Roos and Cyrus Yavneh; Directed by Peter Chelsom; Written by Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry