Attention women moviegoers. Have you been feeling put-upon? Besieged? Victimized? Then surely you’ll identify with Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin), the neurotic damsel at the center of Man Trouble.
In the opening scene, Joan, a soprano soloist with a classical choir, endures the insults of a sadistic conductor, played by that master of anal-retentive malice, David Clennon (Miles Drentell on thirtysomething). Later, as she prepares for bed, a disheveled creep gets out of his truck, leers through the window, and grabs his privates (yeccch!). What’s more, some sicko has been leaving messages on her answering machine, reciting the I’m-gonna-git-ya lyrics to ”Every Breath You Take.” Who’s the heavy breather? Is it Clennon, who happens to be her ex-husband (so that explains the dishrag treatment), or is it the West Side Slasher, a serial killer currently mangling his way through greater Los Angeles? What’s a poor girl to do?
Joan decides to purchase an attack dog, a growling German shepherd who responds only to commands issued in the sternest Deutsch. She gets a human attack dog in the bargain — Harry Bliss (Jack Nicholson), a middle-aged hustler who sells her the canine. Harry is warming up to divorce his Japanese wife, a sourpuss he refers to as ”Iwo Jima.” Joan, all soft and willowy and frightened, seems the perfect rebound mate.
Man Trouble, as you may have gathered, is not exactly Thelma & Louise. The movie, which reunites the director (Bob Rafelson), screenwriter (Carole Eastman), and star (Nicholson) of that overrated American art film Five Easy Pieces (okay, so Jack’s chicken-salad-sandwich tantrum was great), is already breathing its last gasps at the box office and for obvious reasons: It’s an unmitigated dud. Nicholson, as the wise-guy dog trainer, makes a dim attempt to revive his slow-burn sarcasm from the ’70s, but he doesn’t really get any lines; he’s reduced to letting those samurai eyebrows sink wearily into his forehead. Barkin, who can be a powerfully sexual presence, does her best here to come on as Little Miss Codependency — she’s all sheepish, flighty shtick. The movie is a limp comedy of disempowerment, set in a cartoon world where testosterone rules.
As awful as it is, though, Man Trouble shares one telling feature with several recent comedies: The picture pretends to be sympathetic to women, but it in fact delights in portraying them as cutesy-poo geeks and whiners. It takes to terminal extremes the retro-ditz mystique at the heart of movies like Leaving Normal, Housesitter, and even A League of Their Own (surely the first inspirational tribute to women’s sports in which the one vaguely fleshed-out character is a slobby male coach). What’s missing from all these films is a heroine of true temperament. Then again, that requires something more than ritual displays of overgrown girlishness. It requires imagination.