The problem with HBO's "Breast Men" is too many breasts on the screen and too many men behind the camera.
The result is a film totally lacking in humanity that leers at flesh when it should be looking hard at how our culture defines femininity and warps some women's lives.
HBO calls "Breast Men" a "satiric historical dramatization" of silicone breast implants, comparing it to the acclaimed "Barbarians at the Gate." But, in fact, the film is closer in tone to the adolescent giddiness of a boys' school locker room on Friday night than it is social satire. This is not one of HBO's better moments, despite the best acting efforts of the likable David Schwimmer, of "Friends."
Schwimmer plays Dr. Kevin Saunders, one of the plastic surgeons who invented breast implants in Houston in the early 1960s, according to the film. Dr. Saunders made lots of money putting the implants in. Then, he lost lots of money inhaling cocaine and fondling women's breasts (in one scene, he actually snorts coke off a topless dancer's breast) as the implant business started imploding.
Is there a real Dr. Saunders?
Of course not. This is docudrama at its worst. By the time this kind of production comes to an end, you are not even sure you should believe there was a Houston in the early 1960s.
The HBO disclaimer says: "The story is inspired by actual events. Most of the events happened to someone during the development of the implant. However, the two lead characters are fictional. Actions, events and attitudes attributed to them came from a number of sources and interviews. The 'breastimonials' came from women who shared their real-life experiences with writer John Stockwell."
Much of what's wrong with this film is found in that disclaimer.
As history, we have reached a new low in docudrama deniability with, "Most of the events happened to someone." The next step, I guess, is "happened to someone, sometime, somewhere in some galaxy or not."
But the two main characters -- the only two in the entire film who are even remotely more than one-dimensional -- are made up. That's Saunders and his partner and then enemy, Dr. William Larsen, played by Chris Cooper ("Lone Star"). (Breast men was a term used in some medical circles to describe plastic surgeons like them who specialized in breast augmentation.)
And, then, you get the cutesy "breastimonials" to describe repeated breaks in the film narrative during which director Lawrence O'Neill shows us bare-chested women photographed from the waist to the shoulders only, while we hear their voices explaining why they had implants.
At first, since it is HBO and the network has such a splendid track record of quality films, you think the strategy must have a deeper meaning: maybe a commentary on women being reduced to body parts by television or, possibly, the director trying to de-sexualize and recontextualize breasts for the viewer.
But, noooooooooo, not in this film. It is just a way for the male writer, male director, male producer, male executive producer and male president of HBO Pictures to fill the screen with more breasts.
The audio text of what the women say is every bit as meaningful as the print text that accompanies a Playboy centerfold.
In the end, because of all the breasts and all the confused Puritan-to-Freudian baggage many of us bring to any mention of them, "Breast Men" will probably do good business for HBO.
I say take a pass on "Breast Men" and let's hope HBO gets back to doing quality drama for grown-ups with its next made-for-television movie.
What: Original movie
When: Premieres tonight, 9-10:36
Pub Date: 12/13/97