In the opening scene of Fast Food, Fast Women, Bella (Anna Levine) lies down in the middle of a busy New York street and is very nearly run over by a car. When a man asks her what she's doing (and he's remarkably polite about it, given the fabled brusqueness of New Yorkers and the fact that the woman is behaving like an A-1 nut job), she airily replies that she's trying to put some excitement in her Sunday morning. At that instant, your defenses go up in anticipation of being subjected to a determinedly, obnoxiously quirky experience, one of those New York comedy/ romances made by a guy who watched too much Woody Allen and came away having learned all the wrong lessons. All you can do now is slump down in your seat, glumly anticipating the scene in which the lovers stroll at sunset whilst smoky jazz plays on the soundtrack and soap bubbles dance in the air.
But the terrible opening scene is by no means characteristic of the film. Yes, there is a touch of Allen damage here and there, the film is just a tad too quirky for its own good, and there is actually a scene featuring both smoky jazz and dancing soap bubbles. Despite all that, this is a remarkably painless, even enjoyable experience.
The story by writer/ director Amos Kollek (Sue) revolves around some offbeat characters who try to outthink their new relationships so they may avoid the hazards of past entanglements. This naturally causes them to react against their better judgments and make choices that threaten their quests for happiness. That we care about the outcome is thanks in no small part to the mostly splendid performances of the film's large cast. Jamie Harris (Richard's son) is quite good as Bella's on-again, off-again boyfriend, an aging Lothario whose dissipated Englishman's charm is in danger of going all Keith Richards on him. His ex-wife has just saddled him with a couple of kids, and his amazement at just how much he loves them is tempered by the crimp they put in his swinging bachelor lifestyle; he's so accustomed to shagging anything that moves that at one point, he comes perilously close to hopping in bed with the kids' teenage baby sitter.
Unfortunately, Harris isn't given any great support by Levine, probably the closest this film has to a weak link. She's fine enough, and we do eventually grow to care what happens to her character, but it's hard to tell if her distracted, spacy stare and high, star-child voice are actorly choices or simply unfortunate aspects of the performer herself. We're even more distanced by the film's continued insistence that the woman is in the throes of her 35th birthday. Not to be unkind, but the woman obviously said goodbye to her 30s some time ago (the Internet Movie Database puts her in her early 40s), and the picture does itself no favors by asking us to believe otherwise.
It's an especially odd move for a picture that otherwise has such a healthy, forthright attitude about aging. There are some genuinely lovely moments between Louise Lasser and Robert Modica as two graying folks who prove that dating can be beautiful agony at any age, and Victor Argo is a grumpy delight as an old cuss who falls hard for a delectable exotic dancer who is probably young enough to be his granddaughter. Fortunately for him, she has a jones for old guys, and while it all sounds unlikely as hell on paper, these characters are all lovable enough we're willing to cut the plot a little slack if it means everybody gets a happy ending. Sure, you could sit through it with a sneer. Or you could relax for once and let a film have its gentle way with you.
Fast Food, Fast Women was written and directed by Amos Kollek; produced by Hengameh Panahi; and stars Anna Levine, Jamie Harris, Louise Lasser and Robert Modica. Now playing at select LA theaters.