It's said that animals can smell fear. What about movie audiences? Sam Weisman's remake of the 1969 Neil Simon picture "The Out-of-Towners" (which starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis) is a dismally unfunny comedy, but that's not what's depressing about it. Worse by far is the palpable desperation in Goldie Hawn's performance, the way she pops her big baby blues wide and nibbles that famously rubbery bottom lip -- trademark gestures that by now have become calculation. Hawn seems to live in terror that audiences will decide not to love her, will suddenly decide she's no longer sexy, and she undermines herself because of it. There's no power, no confidence, in her demeanor, no matter how many times her character speechifies about "sucking the marrow out of life." What does it matter that she looks terrific when she throws it all away? Hawn goes through all the motions of playing the strong woman, but her desire to be the lovable boopsie hangs thick around her like an overpowering pheromone.
Not that the blame for the pseudomanic laxity of "The Out-of-Towners" should be laid at Hawn's feet. No one is at his or her best here. Steve Martin carelessly jaywalks his way through his role -- even his smile seems stretched thin. Not even John Cleese, as a supercilious hotel manager (an echo of his character on "Fawlty Towers"), is trusted to carry his part with any snide subtlety (it gets tarted up past the point of tired shtick when he does a lip-syncing number in drag). But Hawn's transgressions always shout out at me, because earlier in her career, she proved herself a fearless actress more than once. In movies like "Shampoo" and "The Sugarland Express," she tempered her vulnerability with the right amount of tension: She knew how to play her characters' determination (sometimes verging on ruthlessness) against the cuddliness of her features. Far from coming off as a ditz, she knew how to zero in on raw intelligence -- a much harder feat to pull off than simply playing conventionally "smart."
In "The Out-of-Towners," though, all Hawn is asked to do (and all she seems willing to give) is a rough approximation of the latter -- if that. As Nancy, a comfily middle-class Midwestern advertising-professional-turned-mom, she finds that all the pizzazz has gone out of her marriage to Henry (Martin), especially now that their youngest has just left home. (You know the union has lost its fizz from the first sequence, when you see Nancy lighting candles in the bedroom and spritzing the pillows with perfume; Henry stumbles in with nary a glance at her clingy nightie and topples into bed, flinging his stinky pillow aside.) But Henry -- who has lost his ad-executive job, though he hasn't told Nancy -- has a shot at changing their life: He's got an interview with a big ad agency in New York. And so the two head out to the big city, where mishap and mayhem are supposed to follow them at every turn.
If you stretched the ratio for this new "Out-of-Towners," I guess that would actually be one out of every 10 or so turns. And if you're not sure when the mishap and mayhem is about to start, there are bushelfuls of hearty swing music to cue you in, blasting off the soundtrack whenever Nancy and Henry run for a taxi, run from a slavering Rottweiler, run simply because there's nothing better to do. In between, these forlorn empty-nesters have lots of heart-tugging discussions about what their lives are going to mean now. Henry wants to spend the rest of his life settled down with a few good books. Nancy has some concerns -- specifically, "Are we on a slow march toward death, or are we going to embrace life?" Hawn -- shot through a special lens that bathes her aging-kewpie features in pixie-dust motes -- opens her eyes especially wide in these moments, lest we be fooled into thinking "The Out-of-Towners" is merely a comedy.
It would be enough of an accomplishment for Weisman, screenwriter Marc Lawrence (working off the original screenplay by Simon), and the cast if we could be fooled into thinking of it as a comedy. The original had its flaws, chief among them its heavy-handed message that the city is evil, and only in the suburbs can we find the grace to lead happy, peaceful, civilized lives. But it was also a miracle of pacing: As its characters' misfortunes stacked ever higher, like a teetering tower of building blocks, it was calculated to drive you crazy, and it came pretty close. And Dennis, playing the wifely foil to Lemmon's high-strung husband, was sheer bliss, narrating the action in her pearly, slightly nasal voice -- "Oh, no, we're being robbed!" "Oh, no, we're being kidnapped!" -- as it happened.
But the new "Out-of-Towners" borrows only a few choice gags from the original (it's easy to spot them -- they're the ones that work), and then goes off on its own slack, wayward path. Its biggest problem is that not that many bad things happen: Nancy and Henry are held up by an Andrew Lloyd Webber impostor on their arrival in the city, which possibly qualifies as pretty bad. Later, they're caught having sex outside Tavern on the Green -- mortifying! But then they spend a night in Central Park and don't even get mugged. (Rudy Giuliani has a cameo in the movie, presumably to make it seem even more like a good-natured travel brochure. Whatsa matter, Gotti wasn't available?) It's true, the new, reformed New York just isn't as red in tooth and claw. But the original "Out-of-Towners" got much of its energy from the way it freely offered up its characters to an insensible god who'd happily eat them whole. It's this movie's final indignity that New York should have to gum its food.