Ira Levin succinctly defined the stage thriller as "the one-set, five-character moneymaker." That's the basic design of Faithful, Paul Mazursky's film of Chazz Palminteri's play, adapted for the screen by and co-starring the author. Apart from a few expendable bit players, there are five characters and, except for a few brief cutaways and flashbacks, there is only one location--a well-appointed house outside New York City.
Margaret (Cher) lives there with her husband (Ryan O'Neal). She's alone in the house on the afternoon of their 20th-wedding anniversary when Tony (Palminteri), a hit man, shows up claiming that he has been sent by the philandering husband to kill her.
Tony's been instructed not to finish the job until he hears the phone ring twice--the husband indicating that he's far enough away for a comfortable alibi. While he waits for this signal, he and Margaret talk, delving into each other's dark secrets. By the end of what is quite obviously act one, Margaret seems to have gotten the psychological upper hand on her would-be assassin.
Palminteri is trying for a tone of slightly nasty comedy with a few mild chills, but his touch isn't light enough for this deceptively easy-looking task. Palminteri seems to be presenting Tony as a sort of amusingly blunt goombah--in his frankness and virility, it's hinted, he's at least preferable to the weasely husband. For us to accept this leap, Tony would have to be a truly fascinating character--something other than the growling thug that Palminteri gives us--or else he'd have to have first-rate jokes. The dialogue is blah--not inept, but somehow warmed over, lacking in any deep wit. When Tony refuses Margaret a final cigarette for fear of secondhand smoke, or places frantic calls to his shrink (Mazursky), we feel like we're seeing stuff that a high-end TV sketchwriter would throw out.
Mazursky, at his best, has one of the lightest touches in film comedy, but this project confounds him. His direction is fast and fluid, and the film is handsome to look at, but he's no more able to balance the tone than Palminteri. It isn't farcical, so when Tony finally starts manhandling Margaret we may feel queasy. But since the tone isn't one of genuine dramatic involvement, our queasiness comes more from a distaste for the crass filmmaking than terror at the character's plight.
Palminteri, on the basis of this film and of A Bronx Tale, seems to be an entirely conventional writer. As an actor, he is clearly talented, though I can't warm up to him. O'Neal, as usual, is competent, more or less, but uninspired. The only real juice in Faithful comes from Cher's performance. Save for cameos in The Player and Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter), she's been absent from films for about five years, and that's too long for an actress who can take the screen with her kind of authority and unforced comic soulfulness.
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As Margaret, with no particular help from the script, Cher projects a broad spectrum of womanhood. Rich as she is, she's so forlorn that two guys on the street mistake her as homeless, yet later she's equally persuasive when she turns into a seductress. If Faithful isn't nearly so fine a vehicle as the Rolls Royce that Margaret drives, Cher still gets a decent ride out of it.
Directed by Paul Mazursky; with Cher, Chazz Palminteri, Ryan O'Neal, Paul Mazursky and Amber Smith.