I love Gene Wilder. There are a number of movies that he made that I will treasure from my youth. This film was made and I first saw it as an adult, and that makes a difference. Some of the high spirited silliness that made up his earlier work just does not fit in an adult style comedy. There are all sorts of things wrong with the movie that stem from the original screen story it is based on but Wilder adapted the screenplay himself so he does have to take some of the fall. “The Woman in Red” is not as terrible as I remember, having seen it only once thirty years ago, but it is not good either.
This is a bedroom farce based on a French film and it co-stars Joseph Bologna. Does that sound familiar to you? If you read this blog you may have encountered “Blame it On Rio“, another French farce that co-starred Bologna. He basically plays the same character here only this time he is a peripheral cast member. Repeating a pairing from way back in January, in “The Lonely Guy“, are Charles Grodin and Judith Ivey. This appears to be the cast of actors that you want if you are making an adult comedy about mid-life crisis and it is 1984.
Model Kelly Le Brock makes her film debut as a model. So there is not a big leap in acting ability required here. She was definitely lovely to look at and her impact on the lead character is a lot more understandable because of how attractive she looks on screen. Wilder is Teddy Pierce, a mid-level administrator for San Francisco’s transit authority, he appears to be connected to the publicity project for a restored cable car event. One morning, as he arrives at work, he observes a moment of playful dancing and eroticism, mixing right in front of him.
An attractive woman strolls across a blowing air vent and momentarily recreates that famous Marilyn Monroe image. Thinking she is alone, she steps back over the grate and does a little celebratory dance.
From that moment on he is obsessed and he will not be satisfied until he and “the Woman in Red” are together. Of course Teddy is a slightly older man, he is married quite happily it appears and he has two daughters that he seems to have a good relationship with. None of that matters as he begins to pursue this walking wet dream he is having.
The story consists of a series of unrelated events being plugged into an awkward narrative of trying to meet and woo the girl. It is a comedy so there need to be some missteps and misunderstandings. The main example of this is Teddy’s belief that he reached the woman on a phone in another office in his complex. It turns out that he has actually made a date with a mousy co-worker who recognizes his voice and is excited about the prospect of connecting with him. Now a month after this film was released, Gene Wilder married Gilda Radner, the woman playing the harsh and less attractive co-worker. They had fallen in love on the set of the previous movie they had made together and he cast her in this film. It is hard to imagine the self confidence it would take on both their parts to carry out this casting. Asking the woman you love to play a harpy seems like a bad romantic strategy, and what woman in love would want to appear to the man she is in love with in this thankless part. She gets stood up and does not take it well. In a second encounter Teddy literally jumps out of his seat when he sees she is next to him at the rendezvous. What follows is meant to be a light revenge fantasy but is really a moment of homicidal indifference to anyone involved, so it is not funny in the way it is intended. It seems strange at this point that Teddy cannot figure out the mistake he has made.
Back at the main plot, Teddy has to find a way to meet the mystery woman. It turns out she is the model that has been hired to be in the campaign to alert the public that the cable cars are back. Since part of the purpose of this blog is to remind people of the times and not just review the movie, I want to point out that this was a real historical event. The Cable Cars in San Francisco had been closed down in 1982 to be upgraded for safety. The goal was have them back in time for the Democratic National Convention that was taking place in the city by the bay in the summer of 1984. So this was a nice tie in to a current event. Teddy learns that the woman does horseback riding and he becomes an equestrian stalker. He really knows nothing about horses but with comedy in mind he plays it as if riding is old hat to him.
Ted and his buddies play tennis and his pal Joey hits on every woman they meet. He has salacious stories to share with the four guys, despite the fact that he is, like Teddy, a married man with kids. Mikey, their youngest friend is carrying on an affair with his doctors wife, and Teddy begins to see the grass being a little greener on the cheating side of town. When Joey’s wife leaves him, Teddy’s wife commiserates with Ted and reveals how jealous she is and it turns out she owns a gun. There are a series of pranks that the guys engage in that have nothing to do with the story and really don’t add much to their characters. At this point the movie meanders and the plot goes nowhere. It is not until Ted connects with the beautiful Charlotte, that the story gains any focus. Once again because it is a comedy, there are events that take place that keep the potential lovers apart or threaten to reveal Ted’s plans to his wife.
Another side plot involves the fourth member of the group of friends, also cheating on his partner and suffering the consequences. Charles Grodin adds a little life and a little pathos to the movie as the member of the group that backs Ted up the most in a practical sense.The truth is that all these middle age men are a little creepy. That makes it difficult to empathize with them when the circumstances call for it. Instead of pitying the schmucks, we are cheering a little as they get some comeuppance. I will say as a side note that when I saw the name of Michael Huddleston in the credits, my first thought was that he must be related to David Huddleston, who plays the other Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski“, in fact he is David’s son and there is a strong resemblance.
Stevie Wonder is a national treasure and I love his music from the sixties and seventies. He did the song score for this film and it is filled with soulless platitudes and meanderings that make it difficult to reconcile with his previous level of genius. Of the songs nominated for the Academy Award this year, two were from “Footloose“, one from “Against All Odds“, one from “Ghostbusters“, and the last one was from this list of Stevie Wonder disappointments, the lachrymose “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. It was the least deserving song and of course it was the winner because it was written by the biggest star. So if for no other reason, “The Woman in Red” can claim some distinction for that tragedy.
Some have said that this is one of the worst movies of 1984, I can’t agree. It is one of the most disappointing, and it is one of the most lackluster, but it has the charm of some good actors to keep it afloat occasionally. It also has an image that will not replace Marilyn’s but does update for a generation. My question to you is, what image of a woman’s dress being blown up over her knees has added to this pool in the last thirty years? I can’t think of one.