BetteBack Review February 22, 1991: Roger Ebert – Even Allen and Midler can’t save ‘Scenes From a Mall’

Cedar Rapids Gazette
February 22, 1991


There is a theory about Film directing that teaches that every shot is wasted that does not further the story. When details are added to make things “interesting” or “colorful,” they only distract from the forward progress and bore us.

For example, I tell you, “A guy is on a lonely road in cold weather trying to get his car started.” What do you want to know? What he does to get his car started, right?

Now what if I say, “A balding, middle-aged appliance salesman is on Alaska Route 47 trying to get his Ford Victoria started when it’s 47 below zero.” More interesting or less? l^ess, I’d say, because the additional detail was not crucial for the thrust of my story.

In a mediocre film with nothing to say, the details might provide momentary flashes of distraction.

But the pure story line would be lost: the guy against the elements and a stubborn machine.

When a movie seems overflowing with interesting, colorful details, that is often a sign of desperation – a way of saying, if the picture’s no good, get a gaudier frame.

These remarks are inspired by Paul Mazursky’s “Scenes From a Mall,” a movie that stars Woody Allen and Bette Midler and is very bad indeed.

Ever since seeing the film I’ve been trying to Figure out what went wrong. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to since it was First announced. How could Mazursky (“An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story“) possibly make a bad movie starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler?

Yet the movie doesn’t work, except for a short time at the beginning, when we meet the characters. They’re affluent professionals who have packed the kids off to camp and are now embarking on a shopping trip to the local mall. There are laughs in these opening scenes, but more important, interest is generated:

We learn enough about these people to become curious.

We wait patiently to see where the day will lead them.

Where it leads them, alas, is into a fog of arbitrary storytelling and desperate gimmicks, in a movie that seems to have been written without having been thought about very much. The screenplay – by Roger L. Simon, with Mazursky – creates big gestures for its characters because it doesn’t know them well enough to give them small gestures.

What happens is, midway during a day that seems destined to be happy, the husband confesses he’s been having an affair. This revelation inspires a series of arbitrary responses in Midler – calm, outrage, grief, rage, analysis, acceptance, a decision for divorce, a willingness to compromise – after which she tells him she’s been having an affair, too.

O.K. Few moments during this series of mutual revelations contain any degree of psychological truth. What’s worse is the conspiracy by Mazursky and his collaborators to surround their unconvincing story with items intended to be interesting and colorful.

And then there’s the matter of the mime, played by Bill Irwin in a performance that must go immediately into the hall of shame for supporting actors.

Everywhere Allen and Midler go. they’re shadowed by this obnoxious mime who has been hired by the mall to entertain the customers but has a face and manner that inspires immediate dislike.

Irwin’s performance distracts from and diminishes everything else on the screen. The mime is so repellant that he spoils even a scene that should have raised a cheer in the audience: when Allen socks him in the jaw.

Allen and Midler struggle heroically with their characters, but there is nothing in this story for us to believe. Every moment feels arbitrary. Nothing flows from genuine human feelings.

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One thought on “BetteBack Review February 22, 1991: Roger Ebert – Even Allen and Midler can’t save ‘Scenes From a Mall’

  1. I haven’t watched SFAM in years. Maybe now, being a little older (and possibly wiser) I’ll see it in a new light. I agree with this review however. Didn’t like Woody Allen in this movie and I loathed the mime too. It’s really the only movie of Bette’s (besides Stepford and Women) that I allow people to talk poorly of in my presence haha.

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