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Such Good Friends (DVD Review)

23 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Dyan Cannon, James Coco, Jennifer O’Neill, Ken Howard.

After a solid-plus 1965 duo where he directed both Laurence Olivier in Bunny Lake Is Missing and John Wayne in the equally underrated In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger’s career took a precipitous dive — for good. Admired when it came out, if I recall correctly, by both Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert, this Otto adaptation of Lois Gould’s novel about a woman’s interior thoughts brought on by her husband’s coma is arguably the one later movie Preminger did that had significant merit. (But to fudge, I’d like to take a fresh look at Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, which was one of about a hundred releases from that great movie year 1970 that I took to at the time).

A critic like, say, Judith Crist was never going to take the clothespin off her nose regarding Friends, and the name of Elaine May (who took the pseudonym of old-time character actress Esther Dale) is a significant no-show on the screenplay — though it’s been said that this was only because she inherited the project from other writers. This is too bad because the movie sounds like May, and lead Dyan Cannon really knows how to throw away a deadpanned line about how her mother (Nina Foch, good casting as well) is at Elizabeth Arden “having her thighs waxed.”

Cannon and Preminger supposedly hated each other, and there were stories about how the director superimposed her head on a full-frontal torso to represent a Polaroid shot that the movie’s Ken Howard character snaps of her. Again, too bad. Friends has been unfairly lumped together with the inarguably appalling Doctors’ Wives and The Love Machine as another of the overheated early ‘70s sex sagas that did Cannon’s career substantial harm, as least as a lead asked to carry a film. But she’s very good here playing a wife who can’t parlay her obvious hotness into any kind of satisfaction — which means that before we even get into any discussion of characterization, the actress hired had to have the right physical tools. And if there were ever a movie to convince us that Cannon really did those 500 daily sit-ups she used to claim for herself on talk shows, this is it.

Friends’ black-comic premise starts with her art-director husband (Laurence Luckinbill), who has now suddenly become a hugely successful children’s author and is committing adultery with everyone in sight (itself a not-bad gag). He then becomes one of those people too many of us have known: the person who goes into the hospital for a relatively benign procedure — and never comes out. This allows the script to get in some funny observational zingers about how the couple’s well-heeled Manhattan family and friends remain oblivious to what’s really important as the Luckinbill’s neck mole surgery evolves into the failure of major body organs. As a satire of conspicuous consumption and what later became Yuppie-dom, the movie was ahead of its time. Preminger even manages to get chuckles out of the series of loud shirts worn by James Coco (as the oiliest of doctors).

I like the way Preminger blocks his actors here, though I can’t tell if the movie’s harsh, grainy look (quite unlike other Paramount releases of the time) is intentional or a product of Preminger working fast when production money wasn’t flowing as freely as it once had. In any event, it’s still a better-looking movie than the year’s other medical-mishap comedy The Hospital — which its congenitally impersonal director Arthur Hiller let get out of control despite Paddy Chayefsky’s bombastic Oscar-winning script. And though it had to have been a challenge to come up with right tone when juggling the Cannon character’s numb despair vs. the May (or Dale) satirical skewering, the movie was and is a mild grabber. I put it on late at night a couple weeks ago intending to watch 20 minutes before retiring and ended up seeing about three-fourths of it before fatigue set in.

Here and there, there are surprises: the appearance of actors from other screen eras (Nancy Guild, Rita Gam) showing up in very small roles plus the sight of Lawrence Tierney as a security guard more than 20 years before Quentin Tarantino revived his career with Reservoir Dogs. Nothing, though, beats the fantasy sequence where Burgess Meredith dances near-nude and full-fledged bare-assed. It’s kind of like the reverse of something you would have seen on TV’s old “You Asked for It” program.

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