Monday, June 14, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Mystic Pizza" (1988)

A few weeks ago I featured "Steel Magnolias" in this space as an example of a good chick flick. It made me curious to see another early Julia Roberts movie I'd heard good things about, 1988's "Mystic Pizza." I wouldn't call it a bad chick flick, but it's closer to the cliche of a flick aimed exclusively at a female audience.

To put it bluntly, "Mystic Pizza" is more or less a movie version of a soap opera, layered in with some quirky humor and gigantic '80s hair. Roberts has a couple of moments in the film where her 'do seems as tall as her entire head. There are other moments that distant memories of being stuck home sick as a kid with the warbling music of "Days of Our Lives" in the background were brought to the fore.

Roberts, Lili Taylor and Annabeth Gish were all 20-ish starlets just starting out, and the main enjoyment to be had in the movie is watching them emerge as actresses. Roberts plays Daisy, the bad girl offspring of a family of fisherman in the seaside town of Mystic, Conn. Gish is her goody sister Kat, who's saving money to attend Yale. Taylor is Jojo, the scrappy friend who gets cold feet at her wedding in the film's opening scene -- actually, she gets knocked cold when she passes out on the altar.

All three work at the Mystic Pizza restaurant, a downscale place that just happens to have the best pizza around. The proprietor, Leona (Conchata Ferrell), guards her recipe like nuclear missile codes, and vows to pass it on only after retiring.

This is the sort of movie in which a local dining critic is watched dispensing his views on the restaurant's television, and we just know it's inevitable that he'll show up at the Mystic.

The film's title, by the way, was based on a shop screenwriter Amy Holden Jones saw in the real Mystic, and she made up a story around it. Inevitably, the restaurant has become a tourist attraction -- though who knows if the pizza is as good as Leona's.

Anyway, all three girls juggle relationships during the fateful fall in which the story takes place. Jojo resists her fiance's attempts to get her to go through with the marriage. At one point, Bill even refuses sex until they are married. Bill is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, incredibly lean and in blue-collar hunk mode. Jojo confesses that even the sight of his manly wrists drives her into a sexual frenzy.

Daisy's guy is Charles, scion of a local rich family. He has one of those great introduction scenes where he and his preppy friends waltz into a rough fishermen's bar and start slinging money around for drinks and bets. Daisy catches his eye, and the next day he presumptuously shows up at her house, informing Daisy's mother that they have a date. Beats having to ask.

The fiery Daisy enjoys the attention, but is seasoned enough to know Charles probably just wants a fling with a townie. In one of the big comedic scenes, she spots him at a local restaurant with another woman, and dumps a pickup truck full of bait fish into his red Porsche. Of course, the other woman turns out to be his sister.

Kat's fling is with the father of the little girl she's hired to babysit. Tim's wife is away for a few months. He's an architect, about 30 and a fellow Yaley, and soon the good-hearted Kat is casting moony eyes at him. We know it's doomed before things even start, but in this sort of movie Kat is obliged to find that out for herself.

Matt Damon makes a very brief cameo in a dinner scene as Charles' younger brother. "Hey Mom, do you want my green stuff?" is his only line. It was his first role, and four years later he would make a bigger impression in "School Ties," a film like this one that gathers a lot of undiscovered talent in one place.

"Mystic Pizza" was directed by Donald Petrie, and he's still around making similar middlebrow stuff with a romantic comedy bent -- "How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "My Life in Ruins," etc.

2.5 stars out of four

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