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Bad Behavior 

Town & Country (R)
New Line Cinema

Is there anything more embarrassing than watching an over-the-hill Casa- nova try to put some pep in his step by ceaselessly bird-dogging young, attractive women?

That is the experience of watching Town & Country, the ill-fated comedy from British director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song, Funny Bones), starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling.

The audience feels like an unwilling voyeur about 30 minutes into this would-be romantic comedy, cringing at the possibility of another unsavory tryst involving one of the main characters. Only Keaton manages to keep her pants on, but her bad judgment and blind loyalty as the cheated-upon wife eventually becomes so unbelievable and maddening that we wish she could at least get some action -- poetic justice, surely, for being shackled to her clueless husband, played by Beatty.

More than enough has been written about the production woes of Town & Country -- over budget, over schedule, re-shot, re-cut and re-edited -- but in the end, it's little more than a 90-minute long humiliation for stars and audience alike.

Beatty is Porter Stoddard, a fabulously successful, wealthy New York architect, married to Ellie (Keaton), a fabulously successful, wealthy New York fabric designer. Their best friends are Mona and Griffin (Hawn and Shandling), he an antique dealer and she a gadabout fashion plate with no apparent occupation other than gadding about.

Wealth and the style that accompanies tasteful wealth so overwhelm both the plot and character development that I frequently found myself fixated on the furniture in the Stoddard's Central Park apartment, unable to pay attention to the inane pattering of discontented spouses. Indeed, a domestic comedy that begins with a quick trip for four on the Concord to Paris to celebrate 25 years of marriage (the Stoddard's) tends, off the bat, to defy any concerns about the real messes of infidelity.

Porter cheats with Alex, a lovely cellist played by Nastassja Kinski, with Mona, then flirts with Auburn, a sunny Idaho store clerk (Jenna Elfman), then almost gets it on with spoiled Southern princess Eugenie (Andie MacDowell) -- all the while becoming more confused and miserable. Beatty is kind of charming with his furrowed brow and his loose khakis, walking forlornly and stylishly across Manhattan in a deep funk. But his character is botched by bad editing and, ultimately, we couldn't care less whether he's able to make things up with his wife or not.

Hawn gives her usual perky, dippy performance, the camera focused more often on her tight little rear end than her face, and Keaton is respectable as the unsuspecting wife of a champion philanderer. Shandling, who is perpetually berated by critics for his lack of presence as a film actor, is the best of the four, befuddled, tongue-tied and puppy-dog eager to start a new life, post-divorce, away from his sex kitten wife.

What hurts Town & Country most is its insistence on wandering into the realm of seriousness from time to time. Had it stuck with farcical sex and humor, it may have turned out more palatable. But to be asked to take any of these characters seriously for even a moment is too much of a stretch. Did the screenwriters, actors or director really think that an audience could glean any wisdom about marriage from this bizarre fantasy? Let's hope not.

And equally as jarring are the film's few ventures into bawdy, vulgar language, completely out of place in this particular cinematic social milieu. Town & Country should have settled for being a lukewarm romantic comedy about the sexual betrayals in marriage. Instead, it tries to one up the Farrelly Brothers while getting all teary and tedious about what makes a marriage work.

Warren Beatty, of all people, should know better.

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