If the truest test of acting is playing someone categorically different from yourself, it's easy to understand why Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward who have one of the most famously vital marriages in Hollywood history would have been drawn to playing Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the terribly staid, fuddy-duddy couple who are the protagonists of Evan S. Connell's twin novels, Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. Set in Kansas City during the '30s and early '40s, the movie, which weaves the two books into a single, sprawling narrative, is a comic portrait of an old-fashioned WASP marriage that has reached a point of daily, formalized banality.
On some level, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge need and maybe even love each other. Yet as individuals they're so conservative, so fundamentally inexpressive, that there has never been room for their marriage to grow and strengthen with the years. The two are latter-day Victorians in a world that has begun to pass them by, a world that is growing freer and less predictable every day. Having always lived according to the rules that society has laid out for them, the Bridges now seem a bit like overgrown children.
Once again, director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (their many films include A Room With a View, The Bostonians, and Heat and Dust) have collaborated on a story of emotionally repressed characters whose armor is gradually threatened by fate, by the free-spirited souls around them, by their own spiritual churnings. If nothing else, the filmmakers succeed at creating a detailed portrait of upper- middle-class, country-club America between the world wars. At the same time, the movie shares the very neurosis it's depicting. Mr. & Mrs. Bridge is watchable but also stiff and remote. The film views its wayward protagonists almost entirely from the outside.
When Mr. Bridge, a successful lawyer, frowns at a dirty joke told by one of his colleagues, or when he bullies the young man who wants to marry his daughter, he's like a stuffed-shirt supporting character planted there to inspire audience snickers. If you're going to make an entire film about someone this starchy, why not ease us into his point of view?
Much of the problem can be chalked up to Newman's disappointingly thin performance. Holding his lips pursed and his body ramrod-straight, he makes Mr. Bridge a dry and dull man, a drill sergeant in search of a platoon. Maybe that's all Mr. Bridge is, but I couldn't help thinking that an actor like Spencer Tracy would have found a few more glimmers of humanity in the character. Newman seems almost smugly superior to the man he's playing. Woodward does better. She plays Mrs. Bridge as a daffy naif, a woman who so desperately wants everyone to be ''nice'' that when she walks through a jazzy party thrown by the local psychiatrist (played by master ham Simon Callow), she's blind to what's happening in the room.
The Bridges' relationships with their son and two daughters might have provided some dramatic weight. But that's where the film's didactic shallowness really rears its head: The kids, in pointed contrast to their parents, have been made so loose and ''liberated'' (sexually and otherwise) that they seem more like products of the '90s than the '40s. The best performance in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge comes from Blythe Danner, who brings a tremulous comic spin to the role of Mrs. Bridge's increasingly unstable friend. Even at her dizziest, she seems to have walked in from a far more stimulating movie. B-