The new Michael J. Fox film "For Love or Money" asks th question: Which is more important? And it answers: Both of them. I like a movie that takes a stand.
A true case of having the cake and eating the cake, the movie isn't so much a comedy as a not-so-bad moral dilemma that recalls some of the more cantankerous works of that most misanthropic of directors, the great Viennese-American cynic Billy Wilder.
Specifically, it recalls Wilder's brilliant "The Apartment," in which a great man's gofer and his mistress, each beholden to him in smarmy ways, view each other from the compromised platform of their corrupted states, but fall in love anyway. Of course it lacks not only Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, substituting Fox and the probably too young Gabrielle Anwar, but also Wilder's precision and sure, suave cosmopolitan touch.
This shows up glaringly at the film's most bungled sequence, a Hamptons party in which gofer Fox is desperately trying to intercept mistress Anwar before she makes a scene that embarrasses real estate magnate Anthony Higgins, their master. Wilder, who had wonderful gifts of timing and knockabout farce (in "Some Like It Hot," for example), could have made this aria of deceit and confusion sing like a soprano. Barry Sonnenfeld, on his second movie after a distinguished career as a cameraman and a season at the helm of "The Addams Family," has much less luck.
The sequence just doesn't snap, lurching into an elongated rondelet (the worst kind) of mistaken identity, as Ms. Anwar's declarations of love and pain are misinterpreted by some of the female guests who think she's having an affair with their husbands.
Sonnenfeld doesn't bring crispness or speed to the sequence. Worse, far worse, it's constructed in such a way that both Fox and Anwar have to step wildly out of character and behave like idiots in order to generate the laughs. But when the laughs come at the expense of the story and the characters, there's no story and no characters to return to when the laughs cease.
That's a shame, because the less hectic parts of the film and the less consciously "funny" parts are the most interesting.
Fox plays Doug Ireland, concierge at an old-fashioned hotel on Fifth Avenue, across from Central Park. He's very good at his job, and in a glib, oily universe of barter, he's the magic, unflappable facilitator with a web of contacts and favor-debtors who can get you into "Miss Saigon" or a Knicks game or Lutec or Norman Mailer's living room, in exchange for the big tip. Fox is terrific. He's always had a veneer of slickness and a gift for snappy, gulling patter that this film plays with astutely.
Two chinks in his considerable armor: an unrequited affection for a salesclerk at a nearby department store and a dream of owning and managing his own hotel. The two are merged in conflict when he meets real estate magnate Christian Hanover (Higgins), who may invest in his dream but who also asks Doug to stand in as an innocuous, neutered second when he doesn't have time for his mistress, who turns out, of course, to be the salesclerk (Anwar).
Each, in his or her way, has been bought by Hanover, well-played by Higgins at a pitch of refined hypocrisy so warmly smug that it threatens to melt the lens. Each, therefore, has good cause for detesting the other. Each is also hopelessly enmeshed and sustained by an illusion which the cad Hanover has created for them: for Fox, that he will bankroll the new hotel; for Anwar, that he will leave his wife.
The mechanics of the plot -- too labored by half -- contrive to put them in each other's presence where, when the contempt wears off, they discover some kind of love. But the true drama of the film is whether they will have the strength and faith to see through the illusion and seize the emotion.
Fox, as I said, is terrific. So is Higgins, a Brit who's been in a lot of films but never registered so brightly. He looks like Gregory Peck but has George Sanders' cold-blooded caddishness, a formidable combination.
The weak link is Anwar, who looks like a somewhat puffy 14-year-old. She seems, somehow, indecently innocent to be the subject of all this maneuvering by two men so much older. The whole thing left me feeling a little like an unindicted co-conspirator in child molestation case, and all I did was just sit there in the dark and take notes.
"For Love or Money"
Starring Michael J. Fox and Gabrielle Anwar
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Released by Universal