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Used People

From the Fried Green Tomatoes school of indigestible tragicomedies comes this family saga starring Shirley MacLaine as Pearl Berman, a Jewish housewife from Queens, New York, circa 1969. At her husband’s funeral, Pearl gets picked up by Joe Meledandri (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian charmer. Pearl’s decision to meet Joe for coffee creates friction with her overweight daughter, Bibby (Kathy Bates), her neurotic daughter, Norma (Marcia Gay Harden), and her cranky mother, Freida (Jessica Tandy).

Since writer Todd Graff based Pearl on his grandmother and the young British director Beeban Kidron showed a flair for relationships in Antonia and Jane, you expect more than an ethnic hodgepodge that keeps throwing in period details without ever feeling authentic. The faux-Jewish acting from shiksas MacLaine, Bates and Tandy is a major irritant. When three Oscar winners give performances that verge on gross parody, someone is asleep at the switch. It may be a chore to decipher the great Mastroianni’s English, but at least he’s the genuine article.

The only performance worth cheering is Harden’s. She is wonderfully funny and touching. When depressed, which is always, she dresses as her favorite movie star — Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn or Barbra Streisand in that infamous see-through Oscar get-up. It’s the film’s single witty conceit. Harden even wins tears without working you over. The rest of Used People leaves you feeling mauled.

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