Program Notes: Scenes from a Mall (1991)
The Bergman movie (it began as a six-part series on Swedish TV) is a brooding examination of a couple whose life together is rapidly circling the drain. There’s backbiting, infidelity, impotence, anger. Scenes from a Marriage has been blamed for a spike in Swedish divorce rates, which doubled the year it was aired.
No such social upheaval attended the release of Mazursky’s film. Instead of Scandanavian melancholy, Mazursky and co-writer Roger L. Simon offer a couple of well-to-do Los Angelenos who drop emotional bombshells on each other while spending money like it’s going out of style.
Nick and Deborah Fifer (Woody Allen, Bette Midler) have an ultramodern home high in the hills above the smog. Nick’s a lawyer specializing in product placement by famous athletes. Deborah’s a psychologist who has written the best-selling I Do! I Do! I Do! It’s about how to keep your marriage fresh.
Oh, the irony.
Nick and Deborah have shipped their kids off on a skiing trip and are preparing to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary, which necessitates a trip to the mall to pick up presents for each other and sushi for a party they’re throwing.
First, though, they find time for a morning roll in the sheets (interrupted regularly by telephone calls) and to marvel that among all their friends, their marriage is the strongest. (This is a theme Mazursky has often returned to in his films. He and his wife Betsy have been happily wedded for more than 50 years while the marriages of all their friends have crashed and burned.)
Just how strong the Nick/Deborah marriage is will soon be put to the test. Awaiting the happy couple are admissions of infidelity, airings of petty jealousies, and public displays of anger.
Not to worry. This is a Mazursky film, which is to say that as real as the issues may be, they are handled with humor and a genuine affection toward the characters.
There’s a third character in this film: the mall.
It’s one of those hermetically sealed, multileveled shrines to commerce where everything is out in the open and nobody pays any attention to anybody else. Here a barbershop quartet in Dickensian costumes sings Christmas carols to people in shorts and flipflops who ignore them.
It’s an atmosphere of conspicuous consumption where Nick can wander around all day lugging his ostentatious anniversary present – a yellow and green surfboard that looks like a huge mutant banana – without drawing any attention.
A white-faced mime (Bill Irwin) manages always to be looking over Nick and Deborah’s shoulders, silently mimicking their conversations.
“Mimes are worse than Hare Krishnas,” Nick sputters.
And why is it that the mariachi musicians in a Mexican restaurant instinctively gravitate to the one table where diners are engaged in a life-or-death discussion?
Over this long day’s journey into comic angst Nick and Deborah mutate from lovey-dovey coziness to high-volume combat. They heave sushi rolls at each other, get drunk on margaritas and discuss possible divorce settlements.
But that leads to reminiscences of old times, melancholy, and a bit of sexual hanky-panky in a multiplex theater showing Salaam, Bombay!, a grim tale about India’s homeless children.
Scenes from a Mall is the only film in which Mazursky directs his fellow Brooklynite, Woody Allen.
But the Woodman’s presence here may be a mixed blessing. Yes, he provides most of the movie’s big laughs. The hang up is that Allen is less an actor than a caricature of himself. On screen he’s always Woody, which means that on one level Mall isn’t quite a Mazursky movie, since Allen’s persona dominates even when he’s reading someone else’s dialogue.
Scenes from a Mall is, in comparison, strictly lightweight.
But that’s OK. Sometimes you don’t want a banquet.
You just want a bite of sushi.
Other films in the series “Paul Mazursky: Love and Laughter”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 7: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) Rated R
- April 14: An Unmarried Woman (1978) Rated R
- April 21: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) Rated R
- April 28: Scenes from a Mall (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.