Housesitter June 6, 2017
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
ou know you’re in trouble when the finale of a romantic comedy, covered in kisses and exclamations of “I love you,” prompts groans. Much as I despise being manipulated into rooting for a fictional would-be couple, I’m okay with getting persuaded into such action as long as the manipulations are softened and covered in enough comedy.
But 1992’s Housesitter, written by Mark Stein and directed by Frank Oz, is neither smart nor funny enough to excuse how abominably its characters act as ways to somehow attain the love they’re looking for. Either narcissistic or terribly obnoxious — sometimes both — they indulge in the telling of lies (not white ones, either) and other means of deception as vehicles to get what they want. By its end, we’re supposed to have bought that all the skirting of basic morals and ethics was worth it all along. Elsewhere, such could work. Just look at Cactus Flower (1969), the zany rom-com cum great lie able to work simply because its ensemble complemented the material so well.
Guess Housesitter can’t as easily get away with cinematic murder. The movie, at least charmingly cast, stars Steve Martin as Newton Davis, a struggling architect whose life has taken a turn for the worse after the woman of his dreams, Becky (Dana Delany), rejects his marriage proposal. And the proposal itself wasn't one without its stakes: Davis additionally presented her with a house he designed and built himself — wrapped in a behemoth of a red bow — that they would have ostensibly lived in together.
Though the building of the home cost him a fortune, leaving him with a lifetime worth of debt, Davis is unable to bring himself to live in it given what came before it. So he leaves it abandoned, unfurnished, and collecting dust. A short time later while drowning his sorrows at a nearby Hungarian restaurant, he shares his tragedy with a waitress (Goldie Hawn) he believes doesn’t speak English.
But such is untrue. The waitress, named Gwen, does, in fact, speak English, and is a visual representation of the male fantasy. Taking pity on Davis, she lets him walk her home. And a connection is obvious. But it’s clear that Davis is not necessarily ready to pursue a meaningful romantic relationship, and it’s also clear that Gwen, who reveals herself to be something of a drifter who restarts her life just as things start getting real, doesn’t want anything deep. The two end up sleeping together, though Davis abandons ship the morning after.
But it turns out that Gwen isn’t your average hit-and-quit: she wasn’t lying when she characterized herself as a free spirit, but she wasn’t being wholeheartedly honest about herself either. While she takes on new personas quite frequently, she also has some con artist tendencies that aren’t nearly as comely as her face and body.
Rather oddly, she decides that her next chance to change her life has come in the form of Davis’ abandoned home. She will head up to property, refurbish the place — by pretending to be Davis’ new bride and thus enabling herself to scatter IOUs around the neighborhood — and live there without question. To skeptics, she concocts an elaborate story regarding how she and Davis met. She doesn’t consider there’s ample chance he’ll react negatively the moment he founds out what she’s been doing.
And he does. Initially.
But then something changes in him. He realizes that, during her lying spree, Gwen has charmed his parents and his boss. And has made Becky more jealous than she’d like to admit. So he figures he can use her as a tool to mend all the shortcomings in his life, his utmost goal luring Becky back.
Inevitably he comes to love Gwen more than he loves Becky, and Gwen comes to like her life with Davis and like Davis even more. But I don’t much enjoy the routes they choose to take to get themselves there. In watching Housesitter did I find Davis to be a mostly inconsiderate busybody with a Ross Gellar mindset and a more subtle Beauregard Decker attitude, and in watching Housesitter did I find Gwen, delightful as she sometimes is, to be a selfish schemer willing to put the lives of others on the line for her own well-being. Becky strings someone along and doesn’t seem to realize the damage she’s doing.
It’s all rather unsightly, though its premise does have enough personality to show that Housesitter is made by competent people, just ones who forgot a thing or two about the importance of emotional ingenuity this time around. One just wishes a film starring such a charismatic comedic duo were lighter on the duplicity and more on the romance and the comedy. C