Today’s lesson worth remembering: eating too many sticky-sweet candies and pastries will make a mess of your teeth, and watching too many sticky-sweet movies like “Playing Mona Lisa” will make a mess of your mind.
This San Francisco-based cutesy-wootsey comedy finds “brilliant” piano student Claire Goldstein (Alicia Witt) in a crisis. Her idiot boyfriend dumps her and her apartment building is wrecked in an earthquake, forcing her to move back home with her nutty Jewish-stereotype parents (Marlo Thomas dropping Yiddishims and Elliott Gould doing a shnook act). Unhinged over her romantic heartbreak and various dilemmas surrounding her, including idiotic hiccups in the wedding preparations for her silly sister and the whiny neuroticism of an intellectual pal (Johnny Galecki) in love with a brainy cheerleader, Claire sinks into a hedonistic life. However, Claire is bolstered musically by her supportive piano teacher (Harvey Fierstein) and soon finds new emotional heat with a hunky, unshaven mystery man (Ivan Sergei).
“Playing Mona Lisa” plays like a sitcom pilot on steroids. The cast shamelessly overplays their nitwit roles for laughs, which are rarely present, and the underlying idiocy of the various plotline twists becomes so irritating that one wishes mobsters from a Scorcese film could stop by to shoot off a few kneecaps. The screen is littered with waste, from the misused San Francisco locations (if one believes this film, the Bay Area locals spend all of their free time around Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge) to some fine actors who rarely get good roles any more (especially Harvey Fierstein, whose fairy godmother act here is truly egregious). To its credit, the film offers one genuinely hilarious sequence when Marlo Thomas and Elliott Gould accidentally ingest LSD and don’t quite know how to react to this extraordinary change in their worlds. This scene literally comes out of nowhere and virtually saves the film from total hopelessness. “Playing Mona Lisa” was actually based on a play by Marni Freedman called “Two Goldbergs on Acid,” which I assume had more going for it than the nonsense on screen, and it is a pity that this intriguing acid trip could not have made it into a film intact.