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A Fish In The Bathtub

     You know Jerry Stiller, he's George's loony dad on Seinfeld. You know Stiller and Anne Meara, they're the comedy-team parents of hot Ben Stiller. I'm struggling for a hook to lure you to the Meara-and-Stiller A Fish in the Bathtub. This charmer is a totally gratifying night at the movies, and a very touching one. Maybe I'm dumb, but I can't imagine anyone not getting a kick out of filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver's cross-generational comedy about the sudden bust-up of a forty-year marriage which affects children, grandchildren, friendships, a whole New York suburban neighborhood.

     All the Jewish humor which has vanished from the last handful of Woody Allen movies is here in abundance, thanks to a sharp, wonderful screenplay by John Silverstein, David Chudovsky, and the filmmaker's husband, Raphael Silver. And you'd have to go back to prime-time Walter Matthau in the 70s (A New Leaf, The Sunshine Boys) for such a consummate Jewish grouch and malcontent and all-around meshugena as Stiller's sourfaced Sam Kaplan, a retired owner of a ladies garment shop, who starts a sentence like a normal person and then, turning bilious, SHOUTS THE ENDING!!! Somewhere, there's a good, though gravely heart. You really can feel it. Meanwhile, he's chronically abrasive, on the edge of verbally abusive, driving his wife, Molly (Meara), crazy.

     He's been barking at her, and everybody, forever. But this week, he sends her around the old bend. There are his ever-smelly cigars, each smoked with relish in the window-shut house. (Molly: "Put that out! You know they give you gas!") There's his foolish new pet: a multi-pound fish which he's brought home on a whim in a plastic bag, and set free in their bathtub. As Sam describes it, "A little gift from me to me."

     Finally, there's public humiliation, when, at a party at their home of age-old friends, Sam screams at his wife again and again to "SHUT UP!!" You don't do that to Molly, proud and stubborn. She packs a suitcase and moves in with her married grown son, Joel (Mark Ruffalo), a real-estate agent deciding whether to dare an affair with a slinky blonde client (Pamela Gray). Soon Molly has taken control of the kitchen of her daughter-in-law, Sharon (Missy Yager), tossed good things out of the refrigerator and rearranged the shelves so splendidly that Sharon can't find a thing.

     Also, Molly instantly starts dating, going out with a gentleman of many arcane facts and statistics (Bob Dishy) who brings her a present of Guinness's Book of Records. As for Sam, he just gets more insulated and more bitter, hiding out in his house, trying to avoid the man-hungry next-door widow (Phyllis Newman), or going for a salami-and-egg lunch then bickering at the diner with all his male friends.

     Yes, there's a sweet happy ending, and a deserved one. But getting there is lots of fun, and, honestly, a couple of tears too. Filmmaker Silver has been directing terrific character comedies since her groundbreaking independent film, Hester Street, in 1975. Other stellar movies: Between the Lines (1976), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), and Crossing Delancey (1988).But A Fish in the Bathtub is her best film ever, a gentle, decent comedy which glides along with (unobtrusive)directorial authority.

     Silver's greatest accomplishment is that her film seems twenty deep in beautifully shaped characterizations, whether it's a two-minute part of a woman at a bar, a Chinese herbalist, an immigrant teacher of driver's ed, or in a lead, the wisdom and warmth of Anne Meara.

     I mustn't forget mentioning the lovely contributions of veteran Paul Benedict as Sam's gentle, soft-voiced friend, and of the great young character actress, Jane Adams, who was so fine as the perenially abused lead in Happiness. Here she's sublimely ditsy and destructive as Sam and Molly's hysterically neurotic grown daughter.

(February, 1999)


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