Steve Guttenberg seems have an unwarranted taint to him, even in my mind. Yes, he largely was the on-screen personification of the average American male in many mediocre films of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. But he was basically doing the same shtick Tom Hanks was, though that actor was usually offered the better films. Luck of the draw, I guess. Even then, those who think every Hanks movie is a masterpiece have forgotten duds such as Volunteers or Punchline.
In 1990’s Don’t Tell Her It’s Me (sometimes appearing under the alternate title The Boyfriend School), Guttenberg plays a shlub recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which has left him hairless and pudgy. I assume he was already social awkward before the long convalescence.
He’s a cartoonist, and animations under the opening credits are as if he has drawn a satire of his hospital experience. I thought this was interesting and kind of unique, though I hope doctors and nurses didn’t mock him so much in real life. And I doubt the radiation treatments made him glow in the dark, though he tells his sister that was a side effect.
The sister is played by Shelley Long. She narrates an equally unique sequence just before the opening credits where she keeps changing her mind about where we are and what’s happening, so we jump from a seaside resort to a gothic mansion, etc. We don’t know it yet, but she’s a romance novelist, and she keeps changing her mind about the setting and nature of the book she’s starting. It’s a cute device, but the one-two punch of that sequence and then the animated intro is jarring. It is too much whimsy, too early.
But these elements suggest a stranger comedy than one would expect, one that is largely at odds with the boilerplate rom-com that is roughly 75% of this picture. The director is Malcolm Mowbray, who helmed the quirky and gentle A Private Function. I wish the director had been given more opportunities in the vein of that film, which was made for George Harrison’s Handmade Pictures and which starred Michael Palin.
But let’s get the plot out of the way, which is the bulk of the film and yet somehow the dead weight that bogs it down, preventing it from becoming something more special. Long is interviewed by a newspaper reporter played by Jami Gertz at a bizarre convention for romance novel fans called “Loveboree”. Gertz is dismissive of this literary genre and love in general, having been recently jilted by her boss and now ex-boyfriend (Kyle MacLachlan). Long sees an opportunity to play matchmaker, to try to pair her brother with Gertz.
That date is predictably disastrous, though the details of the evening are still mildly amusing, if only in a sitcom kind of way. Maybe a better-than-average sitcom, but television-grade humor, nonetheless.
Long then decides she will put her brother through her “boyfriend school”. Her regimen will have Guttenberg lose weight, grow a mullet and dress like a biker. Curiously, Guttenberg already had the Harley, and I can’t picture the earlier version of him riding that. She also decides he must have a foreign accent, and they settle on that of New Zealand, as they believe nobody will have ever heard one from there before.
So, to summarize: we have a dominating busybody who runs roughshod over the lives of her brother and a complete stranger, to form a romantic relationship founded on deception. Yep, that’s a solid plan for cultivating a long-term relationship. Without knowing anything else about this picture, I’m sure you can guess the beats it will hit, as well as the inevitable conclusion.
What partially redeems the film is the weirdness in the margins. One great recurring gag has Long chastising the daughter she calls “Piglet”, who keeps engaging in potentially lethal activities, prompting bizarre and lengthy reprimands from the mother. One such example: “Don’t stick your tongue in the wall socket. If you complete the circuit, electricity with a frequency of 60 cycles per second will flow through you, paralyzing your respiratory organs and damaging the central nervous system.”
Another scene has Long’s husband, who has forgotten the subterfuge, finding Guttenberg and Gertz visiting his home. He nearly spoils everything by welcoming his brother-in-law, who is pretending to be another person, by welcoming this stranger from a foreign land. Since no such information was relayed beforehand, Gertz keeps asking him how he knew her boyfriend was from outside the US. This bit is played out for a long and uncomfortable time until the bewildered husband blurts out, “Body odor.” This got a solid laugh from me.
I also enjoyed a brief scene where Beth Grant plays an intimacy instructor who Long has brought in to demonstrate, for Guttenberg’s benefit, how to arouse a woman. Grant uses a CPR dummy to hilarious effect. This actress also delivered my favorite line in Donnie Darko, where she shrieks at a mother, “I’m beginning to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!”
The rest of the cast is solid, if not exactly remarkable. Guttenberg is good throughout in a role that isn’t a stretch from what we’ve seen him in before. Long is perfect in this, but this is the type of performance I suspect she could do in her sleep. Gertz seems a bit out of place, though I haven’t seen her in anything before this except The Lost Boys, so maybe comedy isn’t her thing. MacLachlan seems to be having a blast, and the film could have done with more of him. It seems he brought Twin Peaks alumnus Madchen Amick with him, and she is, criminally, given very little to do.
I didn’t expect Don’t Tell Her It’s Me to be especially good but I’m frustrated by how select scenes and elements hint at a potentially weirder and better film struggling to get out. In one scene, I thought it was telling there is an issue of Zippy the Pinhead behind Guttenberg’s head. Parts of this feel like material that could have come from somebody who is a fan of that counterculture comic, but the whole thing succumbs to tired cliches of the genre. An overbearing synth score doesn’t help.
Directed by Malcolm Mowbray
Starring Steve Guttenberg, Jami Gertz, Shelley Long
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray