Friday February 16, 1996
Will you wake up laughing? Or screaming? In her big-picture debut, TV comedian Ellen DeGeneres ("Ellen") has a movie that takes an overworked genre--modern, angst-ridden romance--and drives it right around the bend. It's a movie that plays on fear--the fear of the possibly dangerous but mostly embarrassing lover--that works as fantasy because so much of it rings so true.
DeGeneres is Martha Alston, a capable, intelligent producer for a San Diego morning show who has it all--good friends like Jane (Ellen Cleghorne); nice parents (Polly Holliday and Peter White); a would-be suitor in Walter (John Livingston), whom she can easily keep at arm's length; and an all-around manageable life.
But her younger sister's wedding ratchets up the matrimonial pressure: Stop being happy and single and get on with your life. And even though Martha possesses a convincing amount of irony and general skepticism, she falls head over heels for Whitman Crawford (Bill Pullman), a poet-investor who's got charm, sex, looks and is more than anyone could ask for. Or want.
"Mr. Wrong" abides by the widely accepted social tenet that under a facade of civility and whatever good points they do have, most men are complete psychos, even while smiling. And among smiling psychos, Whitman is grand poobah, exalted ruler, fearless leader and most valuable player.
Poor Bill Pullman. In his films the women are lethal ("Last Seduction"), infatuated with someone else ("The Favor") or pretending to be infatuated with someone else in a coma ("While You Were Sleeping").
Here, however, he inflicts the pain. Once he's revealed to Martha what a nut he is--and she beats a retreat--Whitman subjects her to the most excruciatingly humiliating, suffocatingly attentive and embarrassingly magnanimous kind of courtship, proving himself unstable, totally immune to her rejection of him, and a polished con man who can convince Martha's friends and family that she's standing in the way of her own happiness. He's demonic, demented and makes you squirm.
But does he make you laugh? This is, after all, a comedy. The situations--his breaking of his own finger to prove his love for Martha, for instance, or his episode with Mom (Joan Plowright)--are trips into a dark, twisted place where comedy and anxiety walk hand in hand, alongside an abyss. This is not a Chris Farley movie. Whether one finds it all mirthful--or absurdist or surrealistic--will depend on how close to home this stuff comes. Those who've been stalked might think about something lighter, like "White Squall."
DeGeneres is as unlikely a romantic (or in this case frantic) movie heroine imaginable, but her lack of glamour makes her far more convincing as Martha than some ingenue might be. She's imperiled, but not helpless, and she exhibits the misguided kind of self-recrimination common to women who've dated recklessly and found themselves saddled with the Thing That Wouldn't Leave. "Mr. Wrong" is, in the end, a very modern comedy, whose humor is rooted in how wrong things can go.
Mr. Wrong, 1996. PG-13, for crude language, some sex-related scenes and drug content. A Mandeville Films/Marty Katz production, released by Touchstone Films. Director Nick Castle. Producer Marty Katz. Screenplay by Chris Matheson & Kerry Ehrin & Craig Munson. Cinematographer John Schwartzman. Editor Patrick Kennedy. Costumes Ingrid Ferrin. Music Craig Safan. Production design Doug Kraner. Art director Nancy Patton. Set designer Cloudia. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Ellen DeGeneres as Martha Alston. Bill Pullman as Whitman Crawford. Joan Cusack as Inga. Dean Stockwell as Jack Tramonte. Joan Plowright as Mrs. Crawford. John Livingston as Walter. Robert Goulet as Dick Braxton. Ellen Cleghorne as Jane.