We don’t necessarily think of Woody Allen as a good actor. In most of his movies, the mythical ”Woody Allen character” — fretful and cranky, a born whiner whose neuroses popped out in compulsively surreal and hostile wisecracks — seemed little more than an on-screen version of himself. That’s what makes his performance in Paul Mazursky’s Scenes from a Mall such a kick. The movie, which teams Allen with Bette Midler, is a seriocomic duet about a happy marriage that collapses during an afternoon shopping spree. From the moment Allen appears as Hollywood Hills lawyer and family man Nick Fifer, sporting a futuristic white jogging suit, a pair of stylishly circular specs, and a two-inch ponytail…Wait a minute, I can’t go on. Woody Allen with a ponytail?! In Scenes From a Mall, Allen isn’t just cast against type, he’s cast against his entire screen image. Nick is one of those transplanted East Coasters who moved out to the land of sunshine and never looked back. A cocky, tough-talking attorney with one foot in show business (he negotiates multimillion-dollar product-endorsement deals for famous athletes), he has made money — a lot of money — and he’s proud of it. Yet he’s no shallow-souled materialist. Nick has a cozy, joshing relationship with his two kids, and he and Deborah (Midler), who have been married for 16 years, toss affectionate zingers at each other like some Angeleno version of Nick and Nora Charles.
With one or two exceptions (the romantic denouement of Hannah and Her Sisters comes to mind), Woody Allen has never played a character who walked through life with this sort of jocular ease. Nick speaks with Woody’s familiar, argumentative vocal rhythms, but he also has confidence, charm, and warmth. He’s a genuine surprise. Unfortunately, he’s the only surprise in the movie.
Scenes From a Mall is set entirely on Nick and Deborah’s wedding anniversary. The two are throwing a dinner party that night, and since they have some last-minute shopping to do, they jump in one of their two Saabs and drive out to the Beverly Center, the gleaming, two-story mall that sits in neighboring L.A. It’s there, amid much good-natured banter, that Nick makes a confession: For the past six months, he has been seeing another woman. And she’s only 25!
Nick feels guilty, but not too guilty. Deborah, you see, is a clinical psychologist who has recently written a pop-psych best-seller about how to sustain your marriage. Her theory is that contemporary wedlock requires constant renewal: In a figurative sense, you’ve got to keep getting married over and over again in order to keep a relationship alive. Nick figures he’ll own up to his affair (and a couple of one-night stands, while he’s at it), wipe the slate clean, and the two can start over again. After all, this is Southern California, isn’t it? A little fling here or there is practically expected. What’s more, Deborah has spent her entire professional life listening to people come to grips with their weaknesses. Surely she’ll understand.
Instead, she knees Nick in the groin and starts demanding a divorce. Scenes From a Mall has a familiar setup, even if you haven’t seen the many Paul Mazursky movies (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, An Unmarried Woman) that it echoes. Once again, a man confesses his adultery, gets the boot, and begs forgiveness. In this case, forgiveness comes quickly. Momentarily shocked out of their complacency, the Fifers are soon reminiscing about old times and walking, arms around each other, through the mall. Then, out of the blue, comes another confession, another breakup, and another reconciliation.
As the afternoon winds on, the two keep breaking up and making up, and the movie keeps shifting back and forth from marital squabbles to sentimental reunions. It’s like watching four straight episodes of The Flintstones. Before long, we’ve gotten the idea: that whatever their petty sins, the Fifers belong together. They’re part of each other. They have intertwined roots, and those roots are further entangled with a madly indulgent life-style that neither one really wants to lose.
The trouble is, we see and grasp all of this way before the characters do, and so their bickering just seems like shtick. Scenes From a Mall has its hook, of course — Woody and Bette together — and the California mall setting provides a nice, teeming backdrop. Watching Allen and Midler chase each other through jewelry boutiques, fluorescent-lit drugstores, and frozen-yogurt shops, we really believe the two characters are married. Their intimacy feels casual and convincing. Yet Scenes From a Mall is finally a thin and monotonous movie, a case of a talented director rehashing what he has done with greater wit and insight before. Mazursky, working from a script he cowrote with Roger L. Simon (his partner on Enemies, a Love Story), keeps the two performers nattering at each other. Though their wisecracks are sometimes funny (just hearing Woody Allen bark out the f-word has a certain outré charm), after a while I started to think, ”Can’t something else happen to these people?”
If Mazursky was going to do a light-comic version of marital discord, he needed to throw in a few more surprises. The mall itself — many of the interiors were shot at the Stamford Town Center in Connecticut — is nicely photographed, but the only character to emerge from it is a mime (played by performance artist Bill Irwin) who walks around caricaturing everyone he sees. Is he precious and obnoxious? Of course. At this point, though, jokes about the egregiousness of mimes have become every bit as tiresome as mimes themselves. What Mazursky really misses is a chance to tap the satirical possibilities of malls, those comfortingly synthetic consumerist bunkers that, in the past 15 years, have helped make the entire United States feel like a giant chain store.
Scenes From a Mall is certainly watchable, and the actors do everything they can to invest it with life. Midler gives a nicely balanced performance. When Deborah tells the adulterous Nick, ”You’ve ruined my life,” the line has a tearful sting, and when she decides to ease her heartache by purchasing an expensive (and thrillingly vulgar) dress, Midler proves yet again that no other actress can make princessy hauteur seem more comically divine. At the same time, she doesn’t do much here she hasn’t done before. And though Allen does, his sharply drawn portrait of a well-meaning heel doesn’t get a chance to develop in an interesting way. Scenes From a Mall feels like half a Paul Mazursky movie. It’s the skin and bones without the guts.