Author! Author! is, among other things, a movie about a playwright who has lost his ability to write coherently. More often than not, it feels like it was written by a screenwriter suffering from the same affliction. It would be painful enough to see the great Al Pacino slumming his way through a cutesy, formulaic family movie, but the film is so indecisive about what it wants to be and what it wants to say that it never really feels like a real movie at all. It feels like a collection of half-finished scenes from four or five different movies – all pretty terrible.
The playwright is Ivan Travalian (Al Pacino, The Godfather), who is struggling to get his new play off the ground after a series of flops. Despite the encouragement of his producer (Alan King, Casino), Ivan can't seem to find the right director or the right actors for his material. When the film begins, the esteemed Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre) makes a cameo as a director who doesn't like the hammy lead actor Ivan wants to cast. Ivan has the director fired, and Gregory's quick exit from the movie feels like the film symbolically kicking skepticism and cool-headed intelligence (that actor IS pretty wretched) out the door.
To make matters worse, things are getting rough at home: Ivan discovers that his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld, Once Upon a Time in America) has been cheating on him. Gloria moves out, leaving Ivan with custody of five children (four of which are products of Gloria's previous marriages). This would be a challenge with regular kids, but these are Precocious Movie Kids, which means the whole thing is a real headache for Ivan and the audience.
Plus, there's romance! The lead actress in Ivan's play is Alice Detroit (Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait), a movie star who is doing theatre for the first time. She immediately develops a fondness for Ivan, and it isn't long before the two dive right into a passionate affair. Unfortunately, Alice isn't really fond of Ivan's kids, and Ivan doesn't really love Alice... he loves Gloria, despite the fact that Gloria has treated him terribly. Eventually, Ivan is faced with a choice: go for the beautiful actress who dislikes kids, or for the complicated ex-wife with infidelity issues.
The conclusion Ivan and the film come to (spoiler alert?) is that women of all sorts generally suck, which would be a dopey bit of misogyny in any context but which feels particularly odd within the confines of a film that generally wants to be seen as a heartwarming family movie. The film's portrait of Gloria is particularly ugly, painting her as a serial adulterer and neglectful mom with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She feels less like a real woman than like the sort of impossibly evil, heartless monster a bitter husband describes during the darkest days of divorce court proceedings. “Get out of the water, Gloria... leave some room for the other sharks!” Ivan bellows.
That line is a pretty solid indicator of the dialogue's level of wit, by the way. Many of the conversations in Author! Author! feel like the very definition of “trying too hard” (“Look at you eating garbage like a veritable raccoon,” Ivan tells his junk food-loving son). To his credit, Pacino does his level best to sell all of this, delivering his lines with that signature blend of bewilderment and venom (in some ways, this character feels like an alternate universe version of Ricky Roma). Pacino is a reliably interesting performer, but there's a weary desperation in his work here that doesn't seem rooted in the character he's playing. This is a snapshot of an actor who just knows he's stuck in a dud of a movie.
Between all of the aimless relationship drama theatrics and an abundance of insufferably cutesy scenes between Pacino and the kids (“I inherited your nose!” his one biological son says as they both look at each other and laugh), the whole “struggling playwright” thing struggles to get the attention it needs. So, when the theatre plot takes over the movie for a large chunk of the third act, we're nowhere near as invested as we should be, because the movie has been directing our attention elsewhere. So, the film whips together a half-baked happy ending, tosses in a cornball freeze-frame closing shot and wraps things up with an insufferably syrupy pop song (“Coming home to you's like coming home to miiiiilk and cooo-oo-kiees...”). Pacino's next film was the vivid Scarface, and you can't help but wonder if his iconic fury as Tony Montana was partially inspired by the memory that he agreed to star in Author! Author!
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1982