Comedies are rarely, if ever, in short supply. But a movie with a genuine comic vision of the world — one that reshapes our vision of the world — comes along once every couple of years, if we’re lucky. Tune In Tomorrow…, an adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1982 novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, is a sublimely funny and romantic movie, perhaps the most enchanting comic fantasy since Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983). Like Forsyth’s films, this one works by luring you away from conventional reality (and from conventional movie reality, too). It’s not a farce, exactly. It’s an intricate act of cinematic gamesmanship, and you need a few scenes to get your bearings, and to get on the film’s capricious wavelength. But when you do, it casts a spell.
Set in New Orleans in 1951, Tune In Tomorrow… is, on its simplest level, about the May-December romance between Martin (Keanu Reeves), a 21-year-old aspiring writer who works at local radio station WXBU, and Julia (Barbara Hershey), his twice-divorced, 36-year-old aunt by marriage, who has returned to town after an absence of 18 years. These two are the main characters. Yet everything that happens swirls around the larger-than-life figure of Pedro Carmichael (Peter Falk), a disheveled, foul-mouthed, and mischievously eccentric creator of radio soap operas, who is hired by WXBU to boost its sagging ratings.
The serial Pedro cooks up for WXBU — it’s about a brother and sister who are passionately in love — is a delirious mishmash of the tawdry and the farfetched. It’s even riddled with a ridiculously gratuitous series of racial slurs (Pedro, it seems, can’t stand Albanians). We watch this masterpiece of tackiness acted out by such familiar faces as John Larroquette, Elizabeth McGovern, and Peter Gallagher, who perform with a deadpan hilarity that occasionally recalls the Airplane! movies. Yet Pedro, who rhapsodizes about his soap opera as though it were Shakespeare, considers himself a true artist — and the glory of the movie is that it agrees with him.
Before long, Pedro starts to incorporate bits and pieces of Martin’s and Julia’s affair into the serial. He doesn’t stop there, either. He’s so religiously devoted to the power of fiction that he begins to manipulate the course of their relationship so that what happens between them will provide better fodder for the soap. Pedro pushes Martin and Julia apart and then pulls them back together. And as Tune In Tomorrow… cuts back and forth between the soap opera and their stormy affair, the movie becomes a comic celebration of the way pop culture shapes our notions of love.
Falk does a triumphant turn. His impish, amoral Pedro is the artist as charlatan, magician, and — finally — deity, and he helps give the movie’s chimerical sweetness a down-home edge. At one point, Martin discovers what has been going on and starts raging at Pedro for stealing his words. But then Pedro asks: Where did you steal your words, your attitudes towards love? And Pedro provides the answer: from artists. He doesn’t mean highbrow artists, either. He’s talking about impassioned vulgarians like himself, the mass- culture maestros who feed romantic dreams.
The film, with its reality-meets-illusion storyline and wonderful, candy- colored period look, has obvious similarities to Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. That movie said that life is drab and pop-culture fantasy makes it bearable. Tune In Tomorrow…, though, is about something happier (and subtler): the way that pop fantasies enable us to see our lives as drama. Everything about Martin’s and Julia’s relationship is made teasingly banal. It’s a boy-meets-girl tearjerker, complete with angry breakups and an overwrought climax in which Martin threatens to kill himself. In other words, it’s a more subdued version of the schlock Pedro writes.
Yet the affair isn’t merely a joke. What gives this improbable union its impassioned, old-movie kick is the extraordinary chemistry between Hershey and Reeves. With his short hair slicked back, Reeves has the outrageous glamour of a ’30s matinee idol, and he gives his most winning performance yet. He makes Martin completely ingenuous without undercutting the character’s ardor. And Hershey shows us what draws the cynical Julia to this love-struck lad. It’s not that their relationship is believable on a realistic level; it’s that they have matching sunshiny temperaments — they’re both tough yet playful. The two actors barely have a love scene together, yet when they’re on screen Tune In Tomorrow crackles with romantic heat. It’s the one movie this year that makes love itself seem sexy. A