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The Telephone
1988 - R - 94 Mins.
Director: Rip Torn
Producer: Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Katz
Written By: Harry Nilsson, Terry Southern
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Severn Darden, Elliot Gould, John Heard, Amy Wright
Review by: Jake Cremins
Here it is, the first comedy without a single joke. 'The Telephone' may well be one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and given what I usually watch that's nothing to sneeze at. It also makes history in another way, by finding an entirely new method in wasting a good actor. The actor in this case is the talented Whoopi Goldberg, and while "wasting" usually means hiring and then giving nothing to do, 'The Telephone' gives her just about everything to do, and nothing to do it about.

This movie is appalling. It could not be more of a waste if Goldberg were asked to sit on a couch for ninety minutes while someone filmed her. Actually, it would be less, because then we would not have to watch her mug and screech and put on funny accents in a desperate attempt to keep us entertained. There is a scene where her character pretends that she is hosting a party featuring a British Shakespearian actress, a blaxploitation thug named "Leroy," and about four other people, and as she rockets frantically back and forth from one character to the next, standing there in her living room, surrounded by such silence, you can see the desperation and exhaustion in her eyes. Goldberg goes through most of the film with the air of a woman who's just shattered a kneecap but can't stop running the marathon, because the whole world is watching.

And no wonder. She has been given a script that requires her to play--are you ready for this?--an actress who likes talking to herself and to people on the phone. That's it. Nothing happens except that we see her talk about something. Then she calls someone. Then she mutters to herself. Calls someone else. Talks back to an unseen neighbor who keeps banging on the wall for quiet. Talks some more. And so on and on, for 94 minutes that last longer than eternity itself.

Even that could have been fine; 'My Dinner with Andre' was nothing but dialogue, and it's one of the greatest films of the 1970's. But nothing Goldberg has been given to say is true, honest, believable, interesting, or funny. It's all bad racial stereotypes and kooky caricatures strung together in an unending chain, with no buildup or payoff. Rarely does the shapelessness and desperation of a bad screenplay show itself so obviously. One of the writers is Terry Southern, who once wrote 'Dr. Strangelove' and has now written 'The Telephone.' The other is Harry Nilsson, who was perhaps looking for new work after writing the songs in 'Popeye,' and should keep looking. I recommend spelunking.

It's not surprising that this film shoots itself in the foot by buying into the big mistake of every Goldberg film since 'The Color Purple,' namely to make her character a weirdo whose only friends in life are a goldfish and a small owl. It is surprising that it does it more thoroughly than all of her previous films put together. Is it really so off-the-wall to have Goldberg play a character who lives a somewhat normal life, with friends, a boyfriend, even a husband and kids? Why is she always this person, with an apartment full of eccentric gewgaws and a shapeless baggy sweater? Why do writers and directors keep thinking we'd rather see her dancing around to old records and wearing hideous wigs than acting like a real person?

The answers to such questions are not to be found here, in a movie which far outdoes 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' 'Burglar' and 'Fatal Beauty' in its attempts to alienate Goldberg's character from the rest of the human race. This, of course, short-circuits all the comedy, because if we can't believe that her character exists, we can't believe anything she does, and we can't even start to find any of it funny. All we have here is a series of glum, disconnected scenes that don't build to anything, and could have been assembled in any order with the same basic effect. The result is about the same as a movie in which she tries on funny hats for an hour and a half.

Are there any laughs at all to be had here? A couple. Goldberg is a very funny, very talented woman, and even she couldn't get away without being funny at least a little. She works best in the early scenes, before we realize how low this movie is going to sink. Soon, though, it all falls down dead, and we're left watching this great actress prattle on about the Kama Sutra into a telephone while, no doubt, her offscreen hand frantically tries to pick the lock on her legcuffs.

The only people in this movie who deserve acclaim are Christopher T. Love, Elizabeth Toth and Christopher Serrano, the animal wranglers, who must have thought up some pretty good tricks to keep that owl from cutting its losses and flying out the window.
Movie Guru Rating
Unwatchable.  One of the worst of the year.  Skip it.
  0.5 out of 5 stars

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