Martin is hysterical, but his 'Bride' isn't

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Father of the Bride: Part II" is less a movie than a series of blackout sketches depicting how hard pregnancy is on men. It's about a guy about to become a father and a grandfather simultaneously, though not with the same woman, thank God.

It helps enormously -- in fact it is the whole movie -- that the man in question is Steve Martin as we know and love him the best: loose-jointed, dithery, stumblingly vulnerable and silly, self-deluding, as close to an Everydad as anyone could imagine.

The film follows on the 1991 success "Father of the Bride," which in turn traces its lineage back to the early '50s film with Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and a youngster named Elizabeth Taylor. This is the rare sequel that isn't creatively downgraded by an inferior production unit: Instead, the writing team of Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer repeats, with Shyer continuing as director. They know the territory.

They also know the formula and understand the appeal in the first film of Martin Short and so, illogically or not, they find a place for him. Again he's a chap of odd nationality and unknowable gender called "Franck Eggelhoffer," no longer a planner of weddings but now an interior redecorator. His assignment is evidently something like: walk funny and make strange sounds, simultaneously if possible.

Pretty much any bright 8-year-old could do the same thing, but the least funny parts of "Father of the Bride: Part II" are made up of just that: Martin Short, once the funniest man in the world, now given over entirely to making while walking like a duck in high heels too small. Sic transit gloria Hollywood.

Meanwhile, back in the real movie, we watch the laborious ways Shyer and Meyers set things up. It takes a bit of time. The deal is that when Steve Martin's George Banks learns that his daughter Annie (the adorable Kimberly Williams) is pregnant, meaning that he's about to become a grandpop, he goes into an aging panic. Trying to prove to himself that he's still got what ittakes, he dyes his hair brown and ambushes his prim, proper wife, Nina, in the kitchen with love on his mind.

Later, he comes to his senses, but too late. The result, of course, is that both the mama and her daughter end up pregnant, and if you don't guess that they're going to deliver on the same hectic, cold night somewhere down the line, then you ought not to be allowed out without your keeper.

Diane Keaton repeats her role as Nina, but not that you'd really notice. The script doesn't give her much to do but endure unflappably even as term approaches and make room to let Steve Martin be the flappable one.

And flappable he is, particularly as he plays off Keaton's stolidity. His best thing is a kind of feathery panic that seems to begin to unhinge him from the knees up, and we can watch as it takes over his body, turns his limbs to vulcanized rubber and sets his vocal cords gibbering with unintelligible sounds. He's graceless under pressure and, almost always when he gets one of these nutty things going, hysterical.

The movie has a last oddness that I'm not sure can be held against it, but upon which I cannot help but comment. Possibly in a calculated appeal to a sense of nostalgia and possibly by utter accident or indifference, the film is set in an almost completely insulated world. Other than the car models, it could have been filmed just as easily in 1955 as in 1995: a comfy, secure, untouched world of suburban serenity that appears as unmalleable as hardened bronze.

Only one incidental person of ethnicity is glimpsed, that being a Hispanic worker in George's shoe manufacturing company, and then only for a second. Even Short's apparent homosexuality is of the old pansy style of Franklin Pangborn, heavy on the mince and light on the soul, purely for comic effect. The next-door neighbors must be Ozzie and Harriet on the left, June and Ward just behind and Jim and Margaret across the street. Everybody likes Ike. There's no hint of modern times anywhere, or of the current complexity and stress of the world. The movie seems to take place in one of those little glass globes; you feel that if you shake it, it'll start to snow.

"Father of the Bride: Part II"

Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Martin Short

Directed by Charles Shyer

Released by Touchstone

Rated PG

** 1/2

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