WHEN one considers ”personal” films, one usually envisions something small and low-budget, photographed in a black and white that is solemn, self-effacing and artistic. Not Blake Edwards. He hasn’t lived most of his life in and around the southern California movie community without coming to share many of its gaudy values, which he also enthusiastically ridicules.
Mr. Edwards’s personal films are no less big, glittery and comically irreverent than ”Darling Lili,” his most romantic comedy, which was so expensive that it almost broke Paramount Pictures, and his classic farces, including ”Victor/Victoria” and several of his Pink Panther films. Introspection needn’t be a drag. Mr. Edwards likes Hollywood’s style, both in his life and his movies.
”That’s Life!,” which opens today at the Coronet and Guild Theaters, is so rich-looking – and so full of sunlight, warm feelings and wonderfully rude gags – that its worried psyche is obscured much of the time. Yet ”That’s Life!” may be this singular director’s most somber comedy to date.
Its immediate antecedents are ”10” (1979), in which the Edwards surrogate, an acclaimed Hollywood songwriter, faces spiritual decrepitude at age 42, and ”S.O.B.” (1981), a merciless satire about a Hollywood producer made suicidal by his own megalomania and a series of box-office flops.
The Blake Edwards character in ”That’s Life!” is a successful southern California architect named Harvey Fairchild (Jack Lemmon), who’s going to emotional pieces on the eve of his 60th birthday. As his children gather at his ultra-modern oceanside house to celebrate the occasion, Harvey edges toward the brink of total meltdown.
He whines about his car. He ridicules his clients. He’s had to accept the fact that he isn’t Frank Lloyd Wright. He tells Gillian (Julie Andrews), his remarkably patient wife of many years, that he’s never accomplished what he wanted to do, and that time is running out.
He’s also convinced that he’s impotent, and possibly the host to any number of terminal diseases. All the people around him, including the medical doctor who’s given him a clean bill of health, urge Harvey to seek psychiatric help, which only infuriates him more.
What Harvey doesn’t realize, though the audience knows from the film’s opening sequence, is that Gillian, who has her own career as a singer, is confronting the possibility that a small tumor in her throat is malignant. Having had a biopsy done on the Friday afternoon of the birthday weekend, Gillian won’t receive the results until Monday. Thus, as Harvey behaves with increasing nastiness toward all those near and dear, it’s Gillian who suffers most profoundly.
”That’s Life!” is full of funny things, including Mr. Lemmon’s legitimately comic performance as the impossible Harvey. He refuses to see a psychiatrist though he doesn’t hesitate to seek aid from Madame Carrie, a roadside fortuneteller. At his wits’ end, he goes to confession for the first time in decades, only to discover that the priest (Robert Loggia) is his old Notre Dame roommate, whose life and career seem in worse shape than Harvey’s.
However, unlike Harvey, who’s given to hysterical worry and fret, the priest sails blithely through his days, always a little drunk.
Though Mr. Lemmon’s role is the flashiest in the film, it’s Miss Andrews who dominates ”That’s Life!” in the same way that her Gillian keeps the other, overly indulged Fairchilds in some kind of semblance of a family unit. Like ”Darling Lili” and ”Victor/Victoria,” ”That’s Life!” is another Edwards celebration of the deepening talent and immaculate beauty of the actress who’s also his wife.
The film maker has pulled off a fascinating trick here: though he focuses on Mr. Lemmon most of the time, Miss Andrews is always the heart of the movie. By the way the film is structured, she becomes its practical center, in a performance that skirts sentimentality to work in easy, amused counterpoint to Mr. Lemmon’s.
”That’s Life!” is very much a Hollywood ”family” film. Appearing as the Fairchild children are Mr. Lemmon’s son, Chris, playing a charmingly egocentric young man who’s hit television stardom in a ”Miami Vice” type of series, as well as Mr. Edwards’s daughter, Jennifer, and Miss Andrews’s daughter, Emma Walton. Felicia Farr, Mr. Lemmon’s wife, plays Madame Carrie, the unorthodox fortuneteller who bestows gifts on her clients they hadn’t expected. Everyone, including Sally Kellerman as a helpful next-door neighbor, is first-rate.
Though it contains a number of big, explosive laughs, and though it’s so brightly colored you almost need sunglasses to watch it, ”That’s Life!” is considerably more contemplative than its manners initially suggest. According to Mr. Edwards, mortality, though inevitable, is as out of place and unsightly in southern California as surfers in gray flannel suits.