Comedy group The Firesign Theater used to satirize what they called "tales of little people as played by real Hollywood stars," but it's no joke anymore. Big-star, little-people dramas are everywhere lately in the wake of low-budget, big box-office hits like DRIVING MISS DAISY, STEEL
MAGNOLIAS and MOONSTRUCK, whose Oscar-winning Olympia Dukakis co-stars with Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd in this uneven comedy-drama about Jewish widows trying to cope with single life in Pittsburgh.
Calling themselves the "The Cemetery Club" for their group visits to their late husband's graves, the three widows always then retire to Nader's Delicatessen to commiserate and swap stale jokes with garrulous waiter Al (Hy Anzell). Lucille (Ladd) fancying herself the flamboyant swinger, looks
forward to wreaking sexual revenge on her late, unfaithful mate. Doris (Dukakis) maintains a matronly, fiercely traditional widowhood, while Esther (Burstyn) is somewhere in between.
A chance encounter between Esther and widowed cop-turned-cabdriver Ben (Danny Aiello) at the cemetery leads to another, then to phone calls, a date, and finally an affair, shocking Lucille and Doris. Esther and Ben decide that they moved too fast and back off, but when Esther decides she's made
a mistake, she finds he already has new "company." Ben tries to make amends, but this time it's Esther's turn to close the door. Following a wedding for their much-married friend Selma (Lainie Kazan), the three quarrel, causing Doris to develop chest pains. Later she dies while Lucille waits with
her for an ambulance. Lucille, finally admitting that she's no swinger after all, confesses that she'll miss Doris the most. Meanwhile, Ben comes to see Esther at her music store, where they reconcile and celebrate by dancing in the street.
Although in unfamiliar territory, veteran actor and director Bill Duke (A RAGE UP IN HARLEM, DEEP COVER) proves so strong at etching in the details of his characters' lives and milieu that it's hard not to wish he had a more original script. It's an old story, but CEMETERY betrays its stage
origins in playwright-adapter Iven Menchell's screenplay with its anti-cinematic emphases on character over plot and talk over action. But the real problem is that the characters are largely predictable and the talk ranges from mildly amusing to schematically therapeutic. What character
revelations to be had can be spotted a reel in advance and would have served as better starting points for a film than endings.
However, aside from Duke's quiet, sensitive direction, what also redeems CEMETERY somewhat is Burstyn's performance, which turns out to be the film's real dramatic core. Her delicate deliberations as she negotiates the minefield of singlehood prove compelling through a delicately nuanced
performance that winds up easily upstaging veteran scenery devourers Ladd, Dukakis, and Aiello, making her sidewalk waltz a quirky pleasure rather than the oppressively life-affirming fadeout it easily could have been. Unfortunately, though a nice moment, it's not quite nice enough to make
CEMETERY much more than passably entertaining. (Adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Comedy group The Firesign Theater used to satirize what they called "tales of little people as played by real Hollywood stars," but it's no joke anymore. Big-star, little-people dramas are everywhere lately in the wake of low-budget, big box-office hits li… (more)