A lot of you probably hate all movie musicals. Not I! Without thought of those who would question my masculinity, I admit proudly that nothing makes my day like a great musical comedy.
Sadly, “Anything But Love” — billed as a salute to Technicolor classics of years passed — didn’t even make my ninety-nine minutes. Co-written by director Robert Cary and star Isabel Rose, it’s not really a full-on break-out-in-song type musical at all, but a schmaltz-laden romantic comedy peppered with a few uninteresting musical fantasy sequences.
It’s the story of Billie Golden (Rose), an attractive thirty-something singer of standards — classic tunes written mostly before 1955 or so. There aren’t a huge number of venues for this sort of thing, but the thirty-something Billie is determined to hit the cabaret circuit. Still, the closest she can get is a regular gig at an airport-adjacent dive owned by a family friend (Victor Argo), and a job waiting tables at a club headlined by legendary actress/singer Eartha Kitt, playing herself.
Fending off the meddling of her astrology and Chivas Regal addicted mom (Alix Corey), Billie winds up becoming seriously involved with an old high school crush named Greg Ellenbogen (Cameron Bancroft). Greg is perfect, except for just a few things: he doesn’t share Billie’s passion for the greatness of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, he’s a lawyer, and he’s kind of a pig.
When a series of plot contrivances causes Ellen to desperately need piano lessons, she winds up taking them from Elliot (Andrew McCarthy), a cynical fellow whose lack of interest ruined an earlier audition. No explanation is proffered on why the near-broke Billie doesn’t use her trusted piano player pal T.J. (Sean Arbuckle) – except that his character morphs from affable regular guy in the first reel to flamboyantly fey in the final section. Busy taking gay lessons, I guess.
Of course, Elliot turns out to be not such a bad guy when you get to know him. And, naturally, he shares Billie’s obsession with the Great American Songbook. Still, the path to true love never did run smooth. There will be complications.
“Anything But Love” is hobbled by any number of problems. The first is that the jokes are mostly terrible. The second and, for me, even more deadly flaw is that director and (uncredited) choreographer Robert Cary and his performers are simply not up to the task of recalling the great moments they are trying so hard to evoke.
The most painful of these scenes alludes to the “Dancing in the Dark” sequence from Vincente Minnelli’s masterpiece, “The Bandwagon.” Paying homage to a dance originally performed by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse would probably intimidate even the best hoofers around…And, judging from what’s onscreen, Isabel Rose and Cameron Bancroft should have set their sites lower — maybe Bruce Springsteen’s pas de deux with Courtney Cox from the rock video of the Boss’s (completely unrelated) “Dancing in the Dark.”
It’s really kind of a shame. Ms. Rose is a better than average singer and probably a competent actress, but the film she co-wrote does what it can to undermine her at almost every turn. Most painful is a terrific performance of the haunting “By Myself” ruined by a cheap gag about bad tuna fish falafel. (A sandwich I don’t think even exists.)
So, without humor or many decent musical moments, the story is all that’s left. Not much luck there either. For this kind of tale to work, the audience has to be almost as confused as the heroine; we need to like both of the suitors at least a little or there’s no conflict. As the bitter good-guy, Andrew McCarthy — never the acting powerhouse — is at least an experienced performer and finds ways to make his stock character mildly interesting. Cameron Bancroft, by contrast, plays his handsome lawyer as a vaguely evil lumbering hunk of nothing – a robotic misogynist in search of a Stepford wife.
However, there is at least one major talent on display here, and that’s the great Eartha Kitt. Known to fans of the “Batman” TV show as the post-Julie Newmar Catwoman and to lovers of evil Christmas music for the sexy ode to greed, “Santa Baby,” she remains a truly riveting musical performer well into her seventies. Sadly, her one number is interrupted (I want to say “desecrated”) by annoying shtick.
I should say here that the audience I saw the film with – apparently a mix of cast and crew and listeners to a Los Angeles AM radio station – laughed fairly often. And, yes, a lot of the music really is quite terrific to listen to and well performed.
It’s not quite a complete loss. And, if your 95-year-old Aunt Mildred, who hasn’t seen a movie since “Mary Poppins,” wants to check out a flick, “Anything But Love” might be a better choice than, say, Kill Bill or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But you’d better like Irving Berlin!
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