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A Modern Affair

Friday September 13, 1996

     Having it all is an admirable aspiration, to be sure, but at a time when plenty of people would be content to have some, it isn't a theme that tends to send wildly positive impulses to the sympathy gland. And when a movie is titled "A Modern Affair" and involves a highly successful--and highly inquisitive--female executive getting pregnant via a sperm bank, you pretty much know what's going to develop. And when one of the major plot devices is masturbation . . . well, perhaps it makes perfect sense.
     "A Modern Affair"--a dubious crossbreed of "Baby Boom" and the infamous "Frozen Assets"--stars the too-rarely-seen Lisa Eichhorn ("Cutter's Way," "King of the Hill") as Grace Rhodes, a woman unlucky in love, or just the victim of a male conspiracy. A workaholic Park Avenue executive, she and her wisecracking pal Elaine (the Ann Sothern-esque Caroline Aaron) amuse themselves cataloging the ways they've been misled and mistreated by men and Elaine suggests that the maternity-minded Grace go to a sperm bank. "I'm not going to a sperm bank," Grace declares. Cut to the scene at the sperm bank.
     This kind of sitcom-inspired direction--by first-timer Vern Oakley--makes "A Modern Affair" trite where it might actually have been affecting: Grace, while not a particularly heartwarming character, burns with intelligence and a certain self-deprecating awareness of both the egomania of her mission and the betrayal of trust she's committing once she decides to find the father (donor) of her child.
     He is Peter Kessler (Stanley Tucci), a manly, sensitive, flannel- and denim-wearing photographer--"Bridges of Madison County," anyone?--who also turns out to have some deep-seated problems with his own parents, is conducting an affair with a married woman and worships the Yankees. All of which are signs of, if not a profoundly disturbed psyche, then at least a suspect soul. In addition, his "work" as a donor seems to dominate an inordinate amount of Peter's time; what most people consider recreation he thinks of as a second job. It's weird territory that remains largely unexplored, and perhaps we should be grateful.
     After an "I Love Lucy"-inspired scam to retrieve Peter's records from the sperm bank--where we're told far more than we want to know about specimen retrieval--Grace pursues Peter to his upstate New York gallery and they hit it off. This poses the problem of full disclosure, of course, and an already shaky relationship suffers major tremors.
     "A Modern Affair," which was completed in late 1994, has been kicking around ever since and feels like it. What it does have in its favor is Tucci, whose career has been following a kind of Humphrey Bogart arc as he moves from predominantly villainous roles (ABC's "Murder One" last season) to the kind of leads that are clearly within his realm (the upcoming "Big Night"). But Tucci and Eichhorn are too smart for Paul Zimmerman's script, which in a movie as talky as this should be a lot more, uh, potent.


A Modern Affair, 1996. R, for language. A Vern Oakley production, released by Tara Releasing. Director Vern Oakley. Producer Vern Oakley. Screenplay by Paul Zimmerman. Cinematographer Rex Nicholson. Editor Suzanne Pillsbury. Costumes Gayle Alden Robbins. Music Jan Hammer. Production design Cathy T. Marshall. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Lisa Eichhorn as Grace Rhodes. Stanley Tucci as Peter Kessler. Caroline Aaron as Elaine. Robert Joy as Ernest Pohlsab. Tammy Grimes as Dr. Greshem.

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