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New Life, A
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Home Run for Alan Alda"
4 stars

Pathetic that it managed to gross just under $8 million in the U.S. when there are countless others of its genre that are disposable to the extreme.

In the superb comedy-drama A New Life, Alan Alda gives his finest screen performance to date as Steve Giardino, an ace trader with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange who’s going through divorce proceedings with his unhappy wife Jackie (Ann-Margret) after twenty-six years together. Steve is flabbergasted as to why, with Jackie insisting that since their daughter went away to college the marriage has steadily deteriorated; Steve, a workaholic who comes home late on the weekdays and spends the weekends at golf outings with prospective clients, has largely been ignoring her, but he still can’t see how a husband as financially providing as him could be doing anything wrong. (In a meeting with their divorce lawyers, a foul-tempered Steve insists that not talking while he’s reading The Wall Street Journal in bed should not be a hanging offence.) And already Alda has sold us on the character. He’s not playing the nice-guy milquetoasts that made him so lackadaisical and boring in the long-running television series M*A*S*H, and in the two other movies he’s written and starred in, The Four Seasons and Sweet Liberty; here, he’s wiry, alacritous -- there’s an instinctive verve coursing through him for once, and we’re excited at what he’ll come up with next. Having been out of the dating scene for quite some time now, Steve dyes his gray curly hair and beard black, buys some hilariously lurid-red “in” leather clothing, and starts hitting the single bars, with his first time out a full-fledged disaster with him being robbed by a supposed-woman who turns out to be a male transvestite who leaves him penniless and stripped naked except for his underwear underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the night. Always just a phone call away is his fellow business partner and best friend Mel (Hal Linden), a longtime divorcee who revels in no-strings-attached sex with women half his age; Linden is also a former television actor who played a bland lead character (in Barney Miller) and he, too, acts with reinvigorated elan -- when Mel tells Steve how he could possibly mind bopping anybody young with a pretty skirt, the devilish smile he gleams with could light up thousand-watt bulbs (“That’s the advantage of being emotionally shallow,” he reasons). The two of them are invited back to the Greenwich Village apartment of two particular hotties, but Steve is not only taken aback by being made to wear a condom, but having sex on a bed that’s in plain sight of one of the girl’s roommates, who makes no qualms about watching them with fascinated interest. Suffice to say, Steve hurriedly makes excuses and leaves before things can become heavy. It’s not until he experiences a mild heart attack on the tennis court that he encounters someone compatible, a hospital physician, Kay Hutton (the excellent Veronica Hamel), who’s just a few years younger than his forty-four years. At the same time, Jackie finds herself being romanced by the much-younger sculptor Doc (John Shea, probably the most blandly handsome just-capable actor who ever lived), who ironically winds up the complete opposite of Steve in that he’s a total control freak who smothers her with so much attention that she no longer has any breathing space (“I have to get permission to go to the bathroom”). To make matters worse, he has all of his massive wooden sculptures moved into her place, thus all but cementing his omnipresence.

With the veteran editor William Reynolds and the adept cinematographer Kelvin Pike invaluably contributing, A New Life is by far Alda’s best-paced, best-looking production, not to mention his funniest, most emotionally rich. Where most moviemakers would consider Jackie secondary and not give the character her due, Alda gives Ann-Margret more or less equal screen time, and we find ourselves having just as much interest in the Jackie/Doc relationship as we do the Steve/Kay one. (If that incompetent hack Nora Ephron had taken over the project, Steve’s and Jackie’s lovers would’ve been simplistically presented as one-dimensional stereotypes for the sole sake of us anticipating this divorced couple inevitably coming back together regardless of it being dramatically sound.) In prospecting a potential partner, both Steve and Jackie find themselves nervously teetering a tightrope between what they know didn’t work the last time yet unsure as to just how diametric they should go this time around; Steve finds a career-minded physician a good choice because she’s got a similar energy level, and Jackie can’t help but be flattered by someone who finds her every miniscule fallacy fascinating. Because of Steve’s habitual cigar-smoking and high cholesterol intake, perhaps Steve matching up with a doctor is just a tad bit schematic, ditto the neglected Jackie finding temporary solace with an overly controlling artist whose profession couldn’t be further from Steve’s. Overall, though, Alda has penned a good number of talking-heads scenes that almost always ring true without ever going maudlin or didactic on us in that you really do feel you’re watching genuine people having revealing conversations that are absolutely essential in sustaining and enriching a relationship. (None of it comes off as gibberish that came straight out of a can.) Throughout A New Life you can clearly sense so much going right for Alda that went considerably wrong in his other efforts -- it were as if a bona-fide auteur had invaded his soul and weaned him off his bad habits; for once he doesn’t come off like he’s not substantial enough of an artist to act and write and direct a movie. Granted, like Woody Allen he has absolutely no flair for physical comedy, so when he ventures into that realm he’s strictly an amateur, and those thinking Steve should be relegated to a tragic outcome because of his innate selfishness will no doubt see the happy ending as a cop-out, but these are just nitpickings. Alda gives each character their due, and each and every actor their chance to shine (with him somehow managing to elicit a big laugh when an impatient Steve demands a waiter bring him a piece of “burnt meat”), and there’s a lovely scene where Steve seeks Jackie’s advice when his relationship with Kay is beginning to sour because of his resistance to them having a baby this late in their lives (it might just be the most emotionally accessible scene either Alda or Ann-Margret has ever played). It’s clear by now that Alda stretched himself thin with his prior outings while jumbling a lot more characters and story lines that just didn’t actively engage and involve us as they should; with A New Life, he’s sharpened his focus and delved a lot deeper, and the result is an ingratiating romantic tale only a scrooge could resist.

No DVD release yet.

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originally posted: 06/25/15 01:42:28
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  25-Mar-1988 (PG-13)



Directed by
  Alan Alda

Written by
  Alan Alda

  Alan Alda
  Hal Linden
  Veronica Hamel
  John Shea

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