Last year, director Linda Yellen gave us Chantilly Lace, a Showtime TV movie about seven women whose dialogue was largely improvised by the performers. Suffused with sisterhood, Chantilly was well intentioned but terribly overwrought, in the manner of actors intent on creating intense emotional ''moments'' for themselves. Now Yellen brings us Parallel Lives, and she has added boys to the mix. Set during a fraternity-sorority reunion at a fictional Midwestern college, Parallel Lives is another of what Yellen calls her ''guided improvisations,'' and it's another therapy session via Method acting.
The vast cast includes Liza Minelli, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, James Brolin, Treat Williams, LeVar Burton, Dudley Moore, James Belushi, JoBeth Williams, Paul Sorvino, Helen Slater, Jack Klugman, Jill Eikenberry, and thirtysomething's Patricia Wettig. Lindsay Crouse appears as a Stevie Nicks-ish pop star (flowing scarves, hippy-dippy lyrics) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Eikenberry wins the Polishing Your Craft award for her portrayal of a ditzy ''colorologist'' (''Pink is the color of true love'') who likes to talk about her ''hot flashes.'' Brolin introduces himself to someone as ''Professor Doctor Spencer Jones,'' which was either intended as a send-up of pretentious academia or made up by Brolin as he went along. The college setting brings out the prankster in most of the characters, and there are panty raids, tugs of war, and a distressing amount of mooning (I had really hoped to go to my grave without ever seeing Paul Sorvino's bottom).
What can you say about a movie whose best performance is given by Robert Wagner, looking ready to bust out laughing as he plays the local sheriff sporting a long ponytail? Wagner strolls into Parallel Lives about two-thirds of the way through to investigate the death of one of the major characters. His low-key questioning brings Lives to a complete halt, possibly because the actors had to pull themselves together and answer him coherently, rather than go off on character-enhancing conversational riffs.
Seeing Gazzara and Rowlands, veterans of the truly audacious improvised films of the late John Cassavetes, you're reminded how self-indulgent Parallel Lives is. At least Treat Williams and Helen Slater have a nicely messy, atypically realistic sex-on-a-sofa scene. C-