What is Pleasure, pumpkins?
It was Germaine Greer who said: “The essence of Pleasure is Spontaneity!” So, out of the clear blue sky, I dump Pleasure into your lap. Whomp! There it is. A Good Time. A Contented Moment. Unplanned. Unexpected.
It’s like when you miserably scan the rotten and useless cable-TV listings in search of something good to watch and, amid the hour-long specials dealing with the glories of linoleum, and the 118th showing of “Bio-Dome”, you discover that some nice programmer has slipped in a good version of “Jane Eyre”, or “The Three Musketeers”, or a marathon of “Thin Man” films.
Pleasure is what makes you feel good. It’s what makes me feel good. And sometimes, pumpkins . . . sometimes that pleasure comes not from what is great, but simply from what makes you feel good at the moment. Your favorite pillow, for example, is not your favorite pillow because it was consciously designed to be such. It did not come out of the Pillow Factory stamped “Pumpkin’s Favorite Pillow”. It is not a Great Pillow, it simply makes you feel good.
Which is why I am going to spend some time today discussing the 1986 movie “Just Between Friends”. Here’s where you go “huh”?
(tick tick tick tick)
Thank you. Yes. “Just Between Friends”, directed by Allan Burns, is not a great movie. It is not an immortal cinematic classic. There are no memorable scenes or lines. But it is a film which has made me feel good in the past. To me it is a pleasant way to spend 110 minutes. I do not watch it to be transformed, or to achieve the heights of movie experience. I watch it simply because it’s a nice little story simply presented.
Everyone of us tends to have films like this. They’re sometimes called Guilty Pleasures (although I never feel guilty about watching “Just Between Friends”). They’re movies which you enjoy watching over and over again, but which you might have trouble explaining to your friends why you watch it.
Because of this trouble I feel obligated to introduce you to Uncle Mikey’s Sliding Scale of Movie Appreciation. The way it works is that you’re not trying to justify why you’re seeing a particular movie; instead, you’re setting a range of measurement to work with here.
Let me give an example. I would rather watch “Just Between Friends” than “Guns at Batasi”, “Love Story”, “Grand Prix” or “Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People”. On the other hand, I would rather watch “Bonnie & Clyde”, “Ice Station Zebra”, “Tarantula” or “Destination Gobi” than sit through “Just Between Friends”. See how that works? It’s simple. Feel free to try this at home.
In the meantime, back to “Just Between Friends”. To begin with, Allan Burns is not the sort of director who’s banging on the doors of the Hall of Fame. “Just Between Friends” was, in fact, his only feature film project to date. Besides that he has directed two television series: “Automan” and “Eisenhower & Lutz”. Yeah. I know. He has spent the majority of his time writing for television shows as varied as the excellent “He & She” series from the 60s, as well as practically everything put out by MTM Enterprises (“Just Between Friends” looks like a made-for-TV film and, just between you and me, it shows!). He also wrote for “The Bullwinkle Show”, and anyone who’s written for Jay Ward immediately gets a free pass to Heaven as far as I’m concerned.
(He also invented the character of Cap’n Crunch.)
Burns also wrote “Just Between Friends”, and if he had decided to instill a bit more of “The Bullwinkle Show” into the mix, then cinema history might’ve been made. But, in this case, he decided to play it fairly straight. The story deals with Holly Davis: a housewife raising two wonderful teenaged kids (I call them wonderful because they don’t intrude too much into the story, and because neither of them is neurotic. Two clear clues that Steven Spielberg was not the director). Holly is married to Chip, a seismologist (and, praise God, the movie has no “did the Earth move for you?” jokes. But are there still people named “Chip”?).
Holly is played by Mary Tyler Moore (like I said earlier: MTM Enterprises); one of those people I am totally incapable of saying anything mean about. Okay, I’m smitten. I admit it. Serious case of Smit here. She might not be tapped to play Hecuba in “The Trojan Women”, but c’mon people. She’s not that bad an actor. She can turn the world on with her smile. She can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
(She also spends quite a bit of time in “Just Between Friends” in a leotard. That alone should justify watching this film.)
Chip (and I grimace every time I contemplate someone having that name) is played by yet another television stalwart: Ted Danson. Seeing as how I was never quite that big a “Cheers” fan, that would make “Just Between Friends” my favorite among his performances (followed by his role in “Made in America”). If Mary Tyler Moore will never play Hecuba, Danson will probably never play Talthybius. But it doesn’t really matter. What Burns was looking for here were straightforward dependable people capable of presenting a straightforward dependable story. At least give Burns credit for not mining the cast of “The Love Boat” to fill roles here.
Anyway . . . Holly becomes involved in teaching a class at an exercise studio where she meets and becomes close friends with Sandy Dunlap: a local television news commentator. Sandy is played by Christine Lahti. You can take all the comments I made about Mary Tyler Moore, scratch out her name and scribble in Lahti’s, and there you’d go. On points it might be argued that Lahti is the better actor, but not by a whole heck of a lot. Arguments aside, Moore and Lahti work well together (one pro and another pro equals two pros) and their efforts here have made me wish they’d do another film.
(And yes, Lahti also spends a lot of time in a leotard. C’mon, guys, what does it take to get you interested in a movie?)
But back to our story. Holly wants Sandy to be best buds not only with her, but with her family as well, and invites Sandy over for supper. It is then that the audience realizes (omigosh!) that Chip and Sandy have a secret! In euphemistic terms: they have been dancing the Dance of the Double-Gilled Armadillo! All this naturally behind Holly’s back. Chip and Sandy are both thoroughly despondent (because, this being a soap opera, they both have considerable feelings for Holly and don’t want to hurt her), and neither of them know what to do.
Fortunately, the gods of Soap Opera Fate take a hand, and Chip dies in an airplane accident. Whoa! Holly is naturally devastated by all of this, and Sandy provides all sorts of moral support. Then Holly discovers that Chip and Sandy have been trippin’ that old Light Fantastic. Then, on top of that, Sandy learns she is pregnant with Chip’s baby!
And there you have the movie in a nutshell. All that’s needed is one of those organs that used to provide the soundtrack for television soap operas (with respect to Patrick Williams, who provided the soundtrack, nothing memorable occurs musically in this film. Seeing as how Williams’ usual forte was for television episodes he was accustomed to non-intrusive sounds). The majority of the film involves Holly finding out about Sandy and Chip, and then the baby, and then Holly and Sandy trying to deal with the situation. “Just Between Friends” is listed as a Drama, but it makes me feel there should be a category marked “Softcore Drama”. To me, “Drama” is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, or “12 Angry Men”. “Just Between Friends” serves up several angry moments, but nothing requiring any sort of memorable intensity. If this story had involved my Mom, for instance, there’d be scenes involving power tools and spearguns (with a John Barry soundtrack). “Just Between Friends” is marshmallow drama. You spend a lot of time watching this and going “awwwww”. Harmless.
I should mention that the film also features Sam Waterston as Harry Crandall: Chip’s best friend who’s initially In On The Secret and is obligated to help Chip sneak around behind Holly’s back (although he’s not only Chip’s best friend, but is very fond of Holly). Waterston can definitely act, and seeing him bounce back and forth between Moore and Lahti provides some of the better moments in this production.
So here we have it. Just a basic time-waster of a film; albeit one which features several performers that I like. Nothing spectacular . . . no memorable scenes (I sort of halfway hoped for a kickboxing bout between Moore and Lahti in the exercise studio, but no dice). As I’ve mentioned, this is definitely not for those seeking a Great Movie Experience or Classic Immortal Drama. It simply serves as an example of what I go for when I’m looking for something good. Sometimes you want the Gods to rain fire and Creation on you.
Sometimes you just want Mary Tyler Moore in a leotard.
I Enjoyed the Movie!