A Fish in the Bathtub Review

by "David N. Butterworth" (dnb AT dca DOT net)
June 8th, 1999

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 1999 David N. Butterworth

*** (out of ****)

Without intending to, "A Fish in the Bathtub" serves as an effective counter-programmer to the upcoming Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman thriller, "Eyes Wide Shut," by proving that marrieds don't necessarily need star appeal or magazine-cover looks to attract an appreciative audience.
Don't go expecting anything as controversial as the late Stanley Kubrick's swan song, however. Joan Micklin Silver's comedy (she made "Crossing Delancey") is light. Very light. Unlike most things this summer it doesn't feature aliens or car crashes or steamy sex scenes, and there's nothing particularly new or significant or eye-popping in its storyline. But in a lot of ways that's what makes "A Fish in the Bathtub" so enjoyable.
Simply put, it's a nice change of pace.

About that storyline (in 25 words or less): after nearly 40 years of marriage, Sam and Molly have a worse fight than usual and Molly walks out, leaving Sam to contemplate his lot in life.

Sam and Molly are played by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara who, like Cruise and Kidman, are a real-life married couple. Not surprisingly, the two actors have an effortless, easy-going chemistry and charm that provides the film with its rich core. While some may argue that Stiller's character isn't much different from his Mr. Costanza on TV's "Seinfeld"--stubborn, loudmouthed, and insensitive--the veteran actor gives Sam a vulnerable, sympathetic depth despite his bristly exterior. Equally convincing, Meara plays Molly not as an innocent victim but as a co-contributor to the couple's problems, one who gives as good as she gets.

The fish in question is a large carp that Sam purchases from one of the Chinese-owned businesses that now occupy the previously Jewish neighborhood of Sam's old lingerie store. In a silly but nice touch, the fish becomes Sam's closest companion during the marital discord. It's easy to be amused when visualizing Jerry Stiller shouting out the film's cute (but unspoken) tagline: "the fish stays...the marriage goes!"

"A Fish in the Bathtub" is populated by a plethora of supporting actors who form the family and friends who are all affected by Sam and Molly's disharmony. While some of the performances are competent (especially Jane Adams as the bickering couple's unmarried daughter Ruthie), a surprisingly large number recall improv night at the local amateur dramatics society. It might be that Silver has used this minor film as a springboard to test out some new talent but unfortunately many of her choices--including Sam and Molly's married realtor son, the blonde client he's attracted to, and his best friend who knows it--don't pass the test.

Still, there's the very fine Stiller and Meara to focus on and enjoy.

David N. Butterworth
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