Peter Chelsom’s “Town & Country” was a history maker in 2001 and not for reasons the production had reason to celebrate.
This Warren Beatty comedy cost around $90 million and made less than $10 million domestically. It gets better. The filming began in 1998 but, according to multiple reports, it ran over schedule and over-budget, due to Beatty’s disagreements with Chelsom and a cast that kept leaving to make other movies and returning to finish this one.
Meanwhile, re-shoots and rewrites led to Buck Henry entering the film, not only as a new screenwriter (Michael Laughlin still gets co-writer credit) but as an entirely new character.
Following numerous missed release dates, it hit theaters not as an event but an instant cautionary tale. Is it as bad as you’ve heard? No, but it’s a truly wacko botch of a questionable premise, which is why it’s both a flop and a tantalizing failure.
Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton play Porter and Ellie Stoddard, a long-married couple whose best friends Griffin and Mona (Gary Shandling and Goldie Hawn) are splitting up over Griffin’s infidelities.
This shakes Porter to the core, as he’s hoping to keep his affair with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski) a secret. When Porter agrees to help Mona, his best friend, with her divorce, it causes both of them to make self-destructive choices and potentially ruin everything.
Chelsom’s film is quirky but nearly devoid of laughs. It’s at least been beautifully shot by William A. Fraker (when Beatty and Shandling are commiserating in front of a night time carnival, its lush enough to be a visual from a Fellini film).
A major problem that arises long before the screenplay finally derails is that everyone in this is spoiled, casually rich and completely insufferable. These are not likable characters, to say the least.
“Town & Country” is woefully old fashioned for a 21st century sex farce. It’s not difficult to imagine this being made in the 1960s with Cary Grant or even Dean Jones in the lead. Since it’s not of the French-inspired door-slamming variety (ala “Noises Off”), it can’t rely on sharp comic timing and momentum to elevate it.
This would barely pass for a sitcom and seems better suited as a stage play.
FAST FACT: “Town & Country” made an anemic $6.7 million at the U.S. box office.
Another aspect that makes it feel painfully behind the times but very-60s: there are lots of “wacky foreigner” characters, which our ensemble notes in condescending fashion. All that’s missing a climactic cream pie fight, or a soundtrack set to Herman’s Hermits.
The details of the multiple infidelities are so bitter that if you take away the bouncy score, this wouldn’t play like a comedy. It lacks the bite, wisdom or satire of Danny DeVito’s still terrific “The War of the Roses” (1989). This tries for easy yuks by having Beatty stumbling upstairs with his pants around his ankles, hiding from his wife, but its less zany than sour.
Beatty followed this after his bold, confrontational and still jarring “Bulworth” (1998) and it’s a wonder why. Did he want to send up his former image as a hopeless womanizer? How did poor Annette Bening feel about this?
When Beatty and Shandling are consoling one another over their relationships, I wondered if this is what it looked like in real life for the actor and his actual best friend, Jack Nicholson.
Beatty had nothing to prove at this point in his career, and the same could be said of Keaton and Hawn as well. Were the earlier drafts of the screenplay that promising? Why on Earth are so many great actors in this? The ones who come off best are Keaton and Hawn, who are experts at these kinds of roles and give them an enthusiastic spin the film doesn’t deserve.
Because this didn’t make it to theaters until the spring of 2001, resulting in a work so belated, the opening credits announce “Joshua Hartnett,” and the young actor appears as Beatty’s son, looking like he just stepped off the set of “The Faculty.”
Actually, 2001 was the year the actor’s career exploded, due to starring in “Pearl Harbor,” “O” and “Black Hawk Down.” Tis movie wound up as a footnote in his career.
It begins in truly odd fashion, as a post-coital Kinski plays her cello for Beatty in the nude as he pretends to watch appreciably from bed. Beatty’s narration, which always sounds sloppily tacked-on, explains that “this is not my wife.”
Later on, Keaton uses a fishing pole to knock a weathervane off a roof (!).
It’s all over the place, though it goes from disheartening to surreal levels of bad at the mid- point, when Beatty and Shandling go on a wilderness retreat. We’re reacquainted with Andie McDowell’s aggressive but strange character, who recognizes Beatty from a magazine cover.
She hits on him at a ski resort then takes him back to her mansion to meet her parents, played by Charlton Heston and Marian Seldes. The family is completely crazy, which they demonstrate by the mother’s non-stop profanity, the father’s vaguely incestuous attitude towards his daughter and MacDowell’s character playing with dolls.
It’s a bizarre sequence that goes for lowbrow laughs and feels like a segment from a completely different movie. By the time Jenna Elfman turns up, “Town & Country” becomes bug nuts insane.
There are scenes here so positively wacky in their awfulness, it took a second viewing to fully absorb them. For example -- I remember the scene where Elfman dressed as Marilyn Monroe and attempts to have sex with Beatty while he’s dressed in a bear suit (who wouldn’t?).
However, I had forgotten that she attempts this while they’re outside at night, in probably sub-zero temperature (none of the actors seemed to have remembered to act cold).
The big gala finale winds up a giant anti-climax, though there is the ambitious attempt to get the entire cast in a single room (which must have been a nightmare to coordinate).
I have to hand it to this movie -- its far more fascinating than some of the forgettable duds this cast made that had a higher profile, like Hawn’s “The Out-of-Towners” (1999) or Keaton’s “Hanging Up” (2000).
Chelsom survived this debacle and course corrected himself with the successful and charming John Cusack comedy “Serendipity” (released later the same year). Everyone in the cast was able to shrug this off, though Beatty’s belated comeback, “Rules Don’t Apply” (2016), which he also directed, was another box office casualty, though undeservedly so.
A final indication that the film wasn’t going to work is the trailer, which not only has scenes that are not in the film (rarely a good sign) but is set to Yello’s “The Race,” a choice that would have been hip a decade earlier.
“Town & Country” died a very quick and public death, becoming a source of film trivia infamy rather than the curiosity item that, let’s face it, fans of these stars should see once. It’s such a bizarre concoction, a too-many-cooks bungle that resembles multiple films being forced into a single, misshapen movie. It’s also far better than “Pluto Nash,” the current title holder of the Biggest Box Office Bomb of All Time.
There’s a weird exchange of dialog between Keaton and Henry at the very end that sums up the entire film:
Henry: Did I say something funny?
Keaton: No, you said something sad.