Hail To The Kin

What is this? Some sort of fluke? How is it possible that Cousins could be the sweetest, tangiest romantic-comedy treat since Moonstruck?

The film's odds for success certainly don't seem very high going in. It's a Yank remake of a popular French comedy (1975's acclaimed Cousin, Cousine), a subgenre reamed in these pages only weeks ago; the star is Ted Danson, who's swell on TV's Cheers, but whose movie work has hardly made him a bankable leading man; and the director is Joel Schumacher, best known for a Brat Pack botch job (St. Elmo's Fire) that prompted one critic to describe him as "a set decorator masquerading as a moviemaker."

Well, the masquerade is over, and it looks like Schumacher is a real moviemaker after all. Cousins is a remake as good as (and in some American ways superior to) the original, filled with delicious characters, tart dialogue and the kind of heart-fluttering romance that went into short supply when Cary Grant stopped mooning over Ingrid Bergman. (Or was it vice versa?)

Danson and Isabella Rossellini--who is, by the by, Bergman's equally radiant daughter--play Larry Kozinski and Maria Hardy. He's a dance instructor, she's a legal secretary, and both are married to others. They become cousins by marriage, and it is at that ceremony that they meet, as their respective spouses (Sean Young and William Petersen) are having a quick fling in the bushes.

Larry and Maria embark on a decidedly platonic friendship that, in time, develops far beyond the handshake stage. Discreet at first, they find themselves bearing the burden of suspicion without reaping any of the benefits. So they go for the benefits, against a screwball background of family weddings and funerals.

Cousins is pure fluff, but it is, somehow, enormously satisfying fluff, springing from what seems the perfect balance of direction and writing. The latter task is handled by playwright and first-time scenarist Stephen Metcalfe, who translates the Gallic material with a distinctly American sensibility and wit (like the leads' straight-faced wisecracks when their spouses return from the bushes).

Schumacher plunges gleefully into the script's wealth of major characters; there are dozens, give or take a few, and by the film's end we know them all. It's no easy thing to juggle this many people with seeming effortlessness--but Schumacher pulls it off, creating in their relationships a cheerful microcosm of modern romance as twosomes from pre-school to pre-grave age give in to sweet desires.

This is the sort of material that lends itself to broad farce and, when it does, Metcalfe and Schumacher follow. But they lead in other directions as well. There are moments of extraordinary emotional complexity--as when Rossellini, in the company of her husband, must pretend she's not thrilled by a less-than-chance restaurant encounter with Danson. She fails wonderfully.

The stars' surprising deftness and chemistry are only part of Cousins' seamless mosaic of performances-- everyone is marvelous. Yet 76-year-old Lloyd Bridges as Danson's foxy, slightly lecherous father seems to have an extra sheen of charm that moves his work from the funny to the memorable.

No one sloughs off in the technical departments, either--especially cinematographer Ralf Bode, who seems to give every interior scene its own magical glow but lets his exteriors (staggering British Columbia landscapes) speak for themselves.

In Hollywood, "romantic comedy" usually means that the agents for two big stars have agreed on billing, percentage points and salaries, and there was a little left over for a script. The money, talent and thought invested in Cousins are evenly spread from first frame to last. The result is a rare delight: a motion picture that reminds you how nice it is to belong to the human race.

When was the last time you experienced that during a visit to your neighborhood octoplex?

COUSINS Directed by Joel Schumacher; screenplay by Stephen Metcalfe; cinematography by Ralf Bode; edited by Robert Brown; music by Angelo Badalementi; with Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini, Sean Young, William Petersen, Lloyd Bridges, Norma Aleandro, and Keith Coogan. Rated

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Michael Burkett