Three Men and a Little Lady

Take one super-cute infant, give her lots of audience-grabbing close-ups, and surround her with a lighter-than-air story line featuring two mildly charming older hunks from television (Tom Selleck and Ted Danson) and one mildly smarmy younger hunk (Steve Guttenberg) who’d never made it particularly big in the movies. The result? Three Men and a Baby, the top-grossing film of 1987.

Seeing Selleck, Danson, and Guttenberg together in one movie was a little like sitting down to a course of mixed vegetables comprised of three varieties of squash. But in Three Men and a Baby, the collective flavorlessness of the three stars actually served a purpose. Without any major comic talent to get in the way, the film’s one-joke scenario — swinging bachelors relinquish their overgrown-adolescent ways and learn to become caring daddies — could play less as comedy than as a kind of soothing fantasy of domesticated macho.

Where the original film was about three New York bachelors learning to change diapers, Three Men and a Little Lady is about three New York bachelors who’ve given up their freedom, their egos, and — for the most part — their sex lives in order to devote themselves to raising a child. Little Mary is now a five-year-old preschooler. As played by Robin Weisman, she’s adorably angelic one minute and adorably devious the next. The movie takes pains not to overplay her appeal; unlike Three Men and a Baby, it’s conspicuously devoid of the audience ”Awwwww!” factor.

Mary’s mother, the British stage actress Sylvia (played by American actress Nancy Travis), is now part of the household. At first, the filmmakers appear stuck for a gimmick. Trying to defuse the fact that the one-mommy-and-three- daddies arrangement seems well…a bit kinky, they indulge in much earnest hand-wringing about the characters’ ”needs.” For a while, the movie plays like an unholy cross between Three’s Company and thirtysomething.

But this turns out to be an elaborate setup. Pete (Selleck), you see, has fallen in love with Sylvia; since he’s the most naturally paternal of the three men, he also seems the rightful daddy for Mary (even though her biological father is Ted Danson’s Jack — yes, this gets confusing). When Pete proves too insecure to admit his feelings, Sylvia, who really loves him too, scampers off to England with her director, an aristocratic cad (Christopher Cazenove) who has promised to marry her and become a devoted father. Our heroes then follow them to the British countryside, and the movie turns into an enjoyably broad clash-of-cultures farce.

There’s nothing much you haven’t seen before: Selleck drives on the wrong side of the road, and the British characters are a collection of over-civilized lunatics. Yet director Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing) gives the farce routines a likable zest, and the performers carry the day. Selleck and Travis do nicely with their connect-the-dots romance. There’s something to this father-protector role that liberates Selleck. The Three Men movies may be the only occasions (at least in films) when he has shaken the wood out of his acting. And Fiona Shaw has a small comic triumph as the frumpy British boarding-school proprietess who keeps lusting after Selleck. Building up to her twittery ten-dollar words as though they were incredibly erotic, Shaw isn’t just grotesque, she’s imperiously goony. It’s performances like hers that help make Three Men and a Little Lady — for all its limitations — a far funnier movie than its predecessor. B

Three Men and a Little Lady
  • Movie
  • 104 minutes