"The Bachelor" and "Seven Chances"

A loose remake of a Buster Keaton classic plays awkward bridesmaid to the original.

By Michael Sragow

Published June 19, 2000 8:00PM (EDT)

"The Bachelor"
Directed by Gary Sinyor
Starring Chris O'Donnell, Renie Zellweger
New Line Home Video; widescreen and full screen
Extras: Production notes, script-to-screen display for a DVD-ROM drive, theatrical trailer

"Seven Chances"
Directed by Buster Keaton
Starring Buster Keaton
Kino Video
Extras: Keaton shorts "Neighbors" and "The Balloonatic"

"Tell me what you think, but I know this is a chick flick," said the female video clerk who handed me the disc of "The Bachelor." Actually, it's also a self-hating guy flick. Loosely based on Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances," it's the story of a San Francisco commitment-phobe (Chris O'Donnell) who inadvertently insults his true love (Renie Zellweger) when he delivers a marriage proposal so crude it becomes an instant urban legend. (He says he realizes it's time to "shit or get off the pot.") His grandfather passes away just about simultaneously, and leaves a will stating that our hero will inherit his fortune and keep hold of the family pool-table business only if he marries at 6:05 p.m. on his 30th birthday -- 27 hours away.

After waxing maladroit with Zellweger once more, O'Donnell desperately presses his suit on seven marital alternatives. Luckily, they're played by game comic performers -- including Sarah Silverman as a ferocious feminist, Brooke Shields as an Old Money snob in search of a cash infusion, and my favorite, Katherine Towne, as a cook who poetically propagandizes for Brussels sprouts while O'Donnell's eyes glaze over. The setup is labored, and O'Donnell's climactic race from hundreds of women in bridal gowns has none of Keaton's freshness and inventiveness. But that midsection is funny, whether as a female revenge fantasy or a masculine cautionary tale.

Aside from production notes and a script-to-screen display for a DVD-ROM drive, the only extra on "The Bachelor" DVD is the theatrical trailer. So you should supply your own extra and buy or rent, right along with it, last year's digitally remastered edition of Keaton's rambunctious 1925 classic, which takes the same plot and spins it into a paranoid epic that induces euphoria. This often-overlooked masterpiece demonstrates how beautifully Keaton, as star and as director, united comedy and moviemaking. No one knew better than Keaton himself how to exploit his own peculiar ravaged dignity -- every pratfall sprouts straight from his character. When one gal tears up his written proposal and lets the pieces snowflake down on him, the comedy is rock-hard: Keaton's stoic melancholy cues us that he knows he deserves what he gets. The performances, images and cutting coalesce to form the filmmaking equivalent of a droll delivery.

Unlike today's comedy-makers (including the ones behind "The Bachelor"), Keaton doesn't push anything. He trusts the integrity of even his slightest jokes, while enlarging the frenzy to apocalyptic proportions. As in "The Bachelor," Keaton's partner, as a last resort, puts a call in the newspaper for potential brides to come to church. And females swarm there by every conveyance, some in haphazard wedding gear with headdresses fit for Biblical shepherdesses.

But in this film, when the hero freaks out and splits, the escalating surrealism feels inevitable. The women ruthlessly pursue him: At one point they converge on a mason and steal the bricks from his just-laid wall -- as if they were preparing for a stoning. In the film's most famous scene, there is a kind of stoning, but it comes when Keaton, fleeing, sets off a rock slide. Keaton's compositions are as charged and as formal as old comic-book panels; his angular poses complete them like stylized punctuation marks -- and detonate the gags. (The "Seven Chances" DVD has two delectable extras: a couple of Keaton's peerless shorts, the 1920 "Neighbors" and the 1923 "The Balloonatic.")

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Michael Sragow

Related Topics ------------------------------------------