Films, TV, and Theatre

Scenes from a Mall (1990)

Comedy. Bette Midler and Woody Allen shop their way through a wedding anniversary crisis in a
Californian shopping mall. With Bill Irwin.

Stars: Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Bill Irwin
Director: Paul Mazursky

TV Guide

The initial attraction of SCENES FROM A MALL is the combination of its two dynamic stars, Bette Midler and Woody Allen, especially Allen, stepping into his first starring role in someone else's movie in over a decade. But the easy rapport between Midler and Allen is just about all this film has going for it.

By the plastic reindeer adorning the roofs of the beach houses, we can tell that it's Christmastime in Beverly Hills. It's also the 16th anniversary of Nick (Allen), a high-powered sports attorney, and Deborah (Midler), a psychotherapist. They've just sent their kids off on a ski weekend, and are busy planning a dinner party celebration for later that evening. But first they're going to the local mall to pick up each other's anniversary gifts, and spend the only time they'll have to themselves before the party. After accepting Deborah's gift, a personalized surfboard, Nick, apparently uneasy, makes a confession: he's had an affair. Obviously ashamed, he tells Deborah that the six-month fling is over, and that it was his only indiscretion--unless you count a few one-night stands years ago.

Deborah, who ironically is still enjoying the success of her book on how to keep your marriage fresh and alive, is furious, and demands a divorce. Nick is at first shocked, but there is no talking Deborah out of it. Over several margaritas in a Mexican restaurant, they begin to divide up their possessions, getting slightly wistful over their shared experiences and memories. For some unknown reason, they then head into a movie, where Nick starts to panic, realizing he can't live without his wife. While watching the Indian drama SALAAM BOMBAY! their passion is rekindled, much to the dismay of the other patrons, and they walk out together again.

That is, until Deborah confesses her affair, still ongoing, with a fellow psychologist. Nick calmly announces that their marriage is over, and the shouting and recriminations begin anew. The couple start to plan their lives apart, making biting comments on each other's chances at finding romance again. But once more, they talk it out, and after Deborah calls her lover to end the affair they come to the gradual realization that they really are made for each other.

Veteran director Paul Mazursky (BOB & TED & CAROL & ALICE, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY) and co-screenwriter Roger L. Simon have clearly intended SCENES FROM A MALL to be a comedic riff on Ingmar Bergman's astonishing SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, but their screenplay is surprisingly flat and unfunny. The film's idea of a riotous gag is a mime (talented performance artist Bill Irwin, still underutilized by Hollywood) who keeps sneaking up on the quarreling couple, until Allen finally punches him out. As a snapshot of a crumbling marriage, albeit of the shallow, high-powered L.A. variety, the film doesn't wash either. It doesn't display much insight into why these two individuals, who obviously have a great deal of affection for each other, would have cheated in the first place.

To the film's credit, its two stars really do behave like a long-married couple, especially Midler, who tones down her trademark brassiness for the tender scenes. Allen still doesn't seem able to change his standard whine, so seeing him play a fast-track L.A. attorney (with a tiny ponytail, no less) is a joke in itself, possibly the major joke in the film; at one point, he even makes a disparaging remark about a friend who prefers New York to L.A., the ultimate irony coming from dyed-in-the-wool-New-Yorker Allen.

It doesn't help that the action takes place almost entirely within the mall, with no input from friends of the couple or any respite from their bickering. Instead there's a lot of shouting, breakups and makeups, and lots of build-up with little comedic or emotional payoff. There are moments here and there, but it's mostly ordinary, unimaginative writing. Midler and Allen deserve better. (Profanity, sexual situations.)

Variety Staff

Paul Mazursky's 14th film as director is a cozy, insular middle-aged marital comedy that's about as deep and rewarding as a day of mall-cruising.

Talents of Bette Midler and Woody Allen seem misspent in roles as cuddly but squabbling spouses. Pic's title, a takeoff on Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, should be consumers' first clue as to what's in store.

Midler and Allen are a Hollywood Hills-dwelling twin-career couple of the 1990s. He's a successful sports lawyer; she's a psychologist who's written a high-concept book on how to renew a marriage. They pack their kids off for a ski weekend and head for the Beverly Center mall to spend their 16th anniversary indulging their every whim.

Allen drops the bombshell that he's just ended a six-month affair with a 25-year-old. Midler confesses to an ongoing affair with a Czechoslovakian colleague, played by Mazursky. These emotional storms never achieve any veracity. They seem like just another indulgence on the part of the pampered, secure spouses.

Pic shot exteriors at the Beverly Center and moved to a mall in Stamford, Conn, for two weeks of interior filming. For the remainder, a huge, two-story replica mall was constructed at Kaufman Astoria Studios, NY, and 2,600 New York extras were outfitted in LA garb.

Rita Kempley, Washington Post Staff Writer

When Woody Allen agreed to star in "Scenes From a Mall," he probably thought Paul Mazursky meant to remake Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage." And, well, he uh-uh-uh kinda did. That would be just dandy, mind you, had Mazursky not set out to make a comic narrative. But "Scenes From a Mall" is a close-up look at a couple's painful catharsis so well wedded to marital discord it's like going through a divorce with yourself.

Allen becomes everything he fears and loathes as Nick Fifer, an L.A. sports lawyer with a ponytail, a beeper and a perpetually ringing car phone. He's still "Annie Hall's" Alvy Singer on the inside, though, and his tart, neurotic New Yorker's soul shows through the aging yuppie. That's probably for the best, since "Scenes" is another outsize California joke, better -- as usual -- when delivered by an elitist from the East Coast.

Allen is nicely teamed with Bette Midler, without a song in her heart here as Nick's understanding wife, Deborah Finestein-Fifer, a successful psychologist who recently authored a bestseller on marriage called "I Do, I Do, I Do." A daylong flap ensues when Nick decides to take advantage of her modern notions by announcing that he has just ended an affair with a younger, more sexually tantalizing woman. Shocked and confused, Deborah counters with hurtful revelations of her own.

All this takes place at the posh Beverly Center -- "Kafka in California," as Nick refers to it -- on the heretofore happy couple's 16th wedding anniversary. The Fifers have packed the kids off on a ski trip, made perfunctory love and are congratulating themselves on their successful marriage when Nick's confession opens up a dam of criticism, accusations and petty gripes.

Shadowed by a particularly irksome mime, an overdressed mariachi band and a barbershop quartet singing carols, the two trade barbs at the mall's various milieus. Sometimes the situations are fresh and funny -- as when they are overcome by lust at a matinee of "Salaam Bombay!" -- but mostly they are stale and therapeutic. Mazursky and "Enemies, a Love Story" collaborator Roger L. Simon didn't do a whole lot of creative thinking when they put their heads together over this slight screenplay.

Still Allen and Midler, with their various other flaws in common, recall partners who have been together so long they are starting to look like each other. They do indeed seem caught up in the conflicting emotions of breaking up, alternately furious, tenderhearted and aggrieved. The trouble is that as California trendies, they make such familiar targets, like the ones shot full of holes as recently as "L.A. Story." How many times can we really be expected to laugh over traffic jams and the rising cost of sushi?

Sky Movies

Bette Midler and Woody Allen together. It's an idea good enough to start you laughing while the titles are still running. And, for a while, it works. The trouble is that the scriptwriters have no idea what to do with the terrible two once they get them inside a massive shopping mall. It was certainly not a great notion, either, to cast them as long-term husband and wife who, after they've told each other about their recent affairs, just make up and bicker, make up and bicker, through the rest of the film. There are occasional good moments (but not many) in the last hour of a film that mercifully is at least short. What a waste of these two tiny titans of talent to have them go even semi-serious on us under circumstances like these.