Sequel Rites

Father of the Bride Part II: Directed by Charles Shyer; with Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberly Williams and Martin Short. Rated PG.

Is it my imagination, or do the soundtracks of every movie from Touchstone Pictures include a faux-Leon Redbone vocalist crooning "The Sunny Side of the Street," or some comparable ditty? Touchstone Pictures is the sunny side of the street; and, ten minutes into its films, I'm generally longing for some shade. It's not that I'm opposed to cheeriness; it's that the cold, corporate calculation of Touchstone's product is so obvious. Its sunshine is product-tested and market-researched to the last foot-candle.

That said, I must now turn around and admit that I liked Father of the Bride Part II, Touchstone's winter model, much more than its predecessor from 1991. As is the case with several films featuring our better comedy stars, the Bride movies use roughly the same percentage of Steve Martin's talent as we humans use of our brains: 10 percent, tops. But Martin is such good company that even this is better than not having him at all.

Martin was the titular star of the first remake, too, of course, but there one had to sit through the carefully gauged 105 minutes of homogenized schmaltz and paternal piety in return for just one scene in which Martin really got to cut loose--horsing around in his prospective in-laws' palatial house. The sequel ups the ante on Martin's physical shtick, to the film's considerable benefit.

The script, by Nancy Meyers and director Charles Shyer, is based, often closely, on the script by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich for 1951's Father's Little Dividend, about a man thrown into a zany tizzy when he learns he is going to be a grandpa. But Meyers and Shyer have pasted on a big, lame contrivance: This time, the hero (Martin) and his wife (Diane Keaton) are having a baby as well. Martin's anal-retentive character, who has been looking forward to having his kids grown up and out of the house, is horrified, as if having a baby in one's late 40s were some freak of nature.

There's still a lot of tedium to wade through, including yet another idiotic wild ride to the hospital à la Nine Months, and an unfunny cameo by Eugene Levy--a wonderful TV comedian who's never taken hold in films--as a Middle Eastern high roller. And it's sort of disheartening to see Keaton's beauty and smiling, commonsensical grace being put to such a tame use (it would be less so if her leads in these two pictures didn't represent the most high-profile screen acting she's done this decade--a perfect illustration of the plight of fine, middle-aged movie actresses).

But I found the compensations more plentiful this time: Martin mugging sheepishly when a pretty woman flirts with him, or slouching seductively into the kitchen where his wife's working, or, toward the end of the film, engaging in some broad slapstick with Martin Short. He's in good vocal form, too, even reviving (in the scene where he learns of his wife's condition) that marvelously wooden inflection that was the basis of his standup persona.

In a better comedy, this kind of heavy slapstick might be intrusive. But Shyer is such an aesthetic neat freak--every setting in this film looks like a photo from an interior-design magazine--that Martin's antics give Father of the Bride Part II a much-needed shot of vulgarity.

Sabrina: Directed by Sydney Pollack; with Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear, Richard Crenna, Lauren Holly, Angie Dickinson, John Wood and Nancy Marchand. RatedPG.

In another big-budget remake of a cutesy Fifties comedy, Sydney Pollack's version of Billy Wilder's Sabrina replaces Audrey Hepburn with Julia Ormond, Humphrey Bogart with Harrison Ford and William Holden with Greg Kinnear. Yeah, right, that'll work.

Even granting that the 1954 Sabrina wasn't necessarily Wilder's finest hour (so remaking it poorly doesn't constitute desecration), this new film is pretty anemic. The problem isn't the direction--Pollack's work is passionless, but reasonably deft. The problem is the casting of the leads, and the weariness with which this weary material has been approached.

The plot is a sort of capitalist sequel to the Cinderella tale: What if somebody at the palace were displeased with Prince Charming's new infatuation? Ford and Kinnear are insanely rich, blue-blooded brothers. Ford is Linus, the responsible elder who works hard to fatten the family's fortune; Kinnear is his playboy brother, David, a foolish flirt who's never lifted a finger in his life. The title character, Ormond, is their chauffeur's daughter, who always had a crush on the charmer, David. She's been away in Paris working in the fashion industry, and she returns to the States a dowdy teen no longer: She's transformed into a poised and graceful beauty.

David sees her and is smitten, but he's already engaged--to the daughter (Lauren Holly) of a tycoon (Richard Crenna) with whose corporation Linus has arranged a merger. Fearful of losing the deal if David breaks off his engagement, Linus, a dour sort who appears never to have had a personal life, sets about the task of romancing Sabrina to distract her from David. You'll never guess what happens.

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