Friday, July 11, 1997


‘FOR ROSEANNA’ has many grave concerns
REVIEW: Escapist black comedy could have used more laughs

JANET MASLIN: The New York Times

At one point during the not-very-black comedy “For Roseanna,” two characters use hair dryers and space heaters to thaw a frozen corpse. The film tries no less desperately to warm hearts. Nominally about the approaching death of a healthy-looking coronary patient named Roseanna (Mercedes Ruehl), this gallows farce actually cares more about the cute scheming of her husband. Marcello (Jean Reno) is the gravedigger in small Italian village. To guarantee his beloved a space in the crowded local cemetery, he must work overtime to keep all the other townspeople alive.

No, this doesn’t sound any too funny, but at least it has Reno doing his best to make it work. In his first starring role in an English-language comedy (after gloomier English turns in “The Professional,” “Mission Impossible” and “French Kiss”), he recalls Giancarlo Giannini’s ability to seem proudly Italian while mugging in the broadest, most all-purpose international fashion. This genial French star tries everything, including rude asides about French people and French cooking, to adapt himself to the film’s jokey and obvious tone.

Directed in an ersatz European style by Paul Weiland (whose credits include advertising, children’s television, the series “Mr. Bean” and “City Slickers II”), and written with the connect-the-gags purposefulness by Saul Turteltaub, the film unfolds in a picturesque Italian village. Many of the citizens speak with spectacularly fake Italian accents, but there are enough pointed references to garlic and oregano to establish authenticity.

Marcello and Roseanna run a trattoria, which provides the film with one of its more agreeable settings. A wide-screen look, scenic backdrop and colorfully extroverted cast are among the film’s tourist attractions.

Ruehl seems neither sick nor local, but that suits the escapist mood as well as Reno’s zany scams do. These two manage to make a warmly likable couple even when the story indulges its great big sentimental streak. But “For Roseanna” presses its luck too hard with a particularly far-fetched final twist. The feel-good storytelling and sad subtext are hopelessly at odds in the closing scene.

Among the secondary characters breezing through “For Roseanna” is Polly Walker as Cecilia, the dying heroine’s beautiful sister from Rome. If it’s hard to believe Walker’s Roman brogue, it’s even harder to buy the notion that Roseanna’s dearest and most uncomplicated wish is for her husband and sister to marry each other some day.

A kidnapper, a rich tyrant and a lost fortune also figure in the story, as does Mark Frankel as Cecilia’s young suitor. There are enough antic elements here to keep the film dizzy, but its better moments are those that have Reno trying to prove he can be nonchalantly funny under the most improbable and even grim conditions. One of the film’s ruder comic bits even finds him and a doctor arguing over a man on a respirator. They wave and holler as they fight about whether to pull the plug.

Stars: Jean Reno, Mercedes Ruehl, Polly Walker, Mark Frankel and Giuseppe Cederna

Behind the scenes: Directed by Paul Weiland; written by Saul Turteltaub
Playing: Opens today at the Edwards Town Center in Costa Mesa
Running time: 1 hour , 39 minutes