Thursday 23 May 2013

Movie Review: Phffft (1954)

A divorce comedy, Phffft boasts smooth chemistry between Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon, but otherwise offers little in the way of crisp content.

Robert and Nina Tracey (Lemmon and Holliday) have been married for eight years, and have just about had enough of each other. He's a tax lawyer, she's a television writer, but their relationship has deteriorated to the point of constant bickering. They quickly agree to get divorced. Through flashbacks, Robert remembers the origins of their relationship: his best friend Charlie Nelson (Jack Carson) introduced Robert to Nina just after the war, the attraction was mutual, and he offered tax filing advice to get closer to her.

Now both single again, Robert crashes at Charlie's apartment, and Charlie is quick to set up dates for his friend with younger women, including a night out with Janice (Kim Novak), a first class airhead. Meanwhile, Nina dates conceited television actor Rick Vidal (Donald Curtis) and gets advice from her mother Edith (Luella Gear), the woman blamed by Robert at least partially for the breakup of the marriage. But for Robert and Nina, finding happiness with new partners will prove surprisingly difficult.

Phffft, which represents the sound of air escaping a relationship according to a newspaper gossip columnist, enjoys one terrific scene on the dance floor. Robert and Nina both try to reinvent themselves by taking dance lessons after their break-up, and they subsequently have a chance encounter at a club which turns into an energetic and prolonged dance duel. Comedy mixes with determined sassiness as Lemmon and Holliday let loose, attempting to both impress and out-do each other. It's an original, well-executed moment in a film that otherwise struggles to overcome a relatively predictable George Axelrod script.

In only his third film role, Lemmon is already establishing his screen persona as an unimposing typical man facing life's challenges with humour and false bravado. Lemmon has sympathetic presence, and easily portrays his problems as representative of society, his clumsy attempts at solutions only slightly more pronounced than real. Holliday is all about comic timing, and she nails her role as Janice with perfect pauses, expressions and reactions. Janice is written as a slightly less realistic character than Robert, but this allows Holliday to shine bright without descending into farce.

Together, Lemmon and Holliday are by far the best thing about Phffft. The film only threatens to sparkle when they are on screen together, and otherwise drifts into predictability. Carson is his usual strong presence but is undermined when his character takes a ridiculous detour towards the end of the movie. Kim Novak, in only her second credited role, attempts to purr herself into busty brainless blonde breathlessness, but her character is thinly written and quickly freefalls into repeating the same jokes to poor effect.

Filmed in rather bland black and white, director Mark Robson is unable to inject much in the way of style. While the escapades of this divorced couple provide harmless entertainment, Lemmon and Holliday at least ensure Phffft doesn't fully deflate.

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