Further proof that Gene Wilder is not a director, The Woman in Red is one of those movies that should probably just be swept back under the rug of the eighties, and quietly forgotten as you back slowly away.

As a comedy, it’s a scattershot barrage of hit-or-miss gags. Mostly miss. Wilder is too busy trying to force cartoonish antics out of mind-numbing, lifeless situations that he forgets to make an entertaining movie. It’s certainly not his finest hour, but that goes without saying.

Essentially a movie about an affair that never takes place, The Woman in Red is based on a French film, Un Éléphant Ça trompe Énormément, translated into English as An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive. As an American remake, it feels dumbed-down and uninspired. Wilder fails to make the most of his scenes, and manages their transition to the screen poorly. I get the impression he had his hands full with both directing and acting duties. The result is a juggling act of disproportionate, eclectic odds and ends, all threatening to clatter to the floor at any moment.

Wilder plays Teddy Pierce, a low-risk, low-reward kind of guy with an average job, an average group of friends, and an average wife. Bored with this average set of circumstances but basically content, Teddy one day spies a woman in red (a slightly embarrassed Kelly Le Brock, who knows she’s only in this to look good) walk over a grate in a parking garage as a gust of wind causes her dress to fly up. Needless to say, he gets quite a show. At that point everything changes, and Teddy becomes obsessed with tracking her down. The woman, Charlotte, a successful model with her face plastered on every billboard in San Francisco, is involved in a campaign with Teddy’s ad agency, but in their chance encounters, barely acknowledges his existence. He tries unsuccessfully to capture her attention, initiating a series of gags including mistakenly setting up a date with a repulsive coworker (Gilda Radner, who, it might be worth noting, Wilder married shortly after the film’s production), clumsily passing himself off as an experienced horseback rider, and getting an extreme makeover, all while convincing his doting wife Didi (Judith Ivey) that an affair is the last thing on his mind. By accident, he eventually does win the affection of Charlotte, and spends the second half of the movie trying to get into bed with her, while keeping up the charade with his wife.

I would say it runs out of steam at that point — but for a movie to run out of steam, it has to at least have some in the first place. The way the narrative is set up only distanced me from the comedy. Characters are hard to read and events that are critical to the central plotline are sometimes totally ambiguous. The relationship between Teddy and Charlotte doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, and when they finally do start actually interacting it happens between the scenes, revealed to us in narration!

There is just too much unresolved weirdness; tangents are introduced that go nowhere and have no significance. At one point, we have a random, uncalled-for subplot about one of Teddy’s friends who turns out to be gay. The outing is made over lunch, and the character in question just kind of smiles while his friends look around awkwardly; the subject is never addressed between them for the rest of the movie, and the dynamic of the group never changes.

In the first act, we’re shown a glimpse into the fractured relationship between one of Teddy’s friends, a real scumbag (Joseph Bologna) and his wife, who leaves him once she finds out about his flagrant adultery. In a subsequent scene, Didi innocently reveals that she owns a gun, repeatedly and inadvertently resting the barrel right in Teddy’s lap while he’s in the middle of a fake phone conversation to lay out the façade of being “called into work on a Wednesday night.” In these scenes, Wilder sets up a simple expectation of the consequences of his character’s intended actions — but by the end, it’s unclear what sort of message, if any, he’s trying to leave us with, when the sleazy, cheating friend’s marriage falls right back into place, and a revelation of Teddy’s duplicity never occurs.

By the end I finally figured out that The Woman in Red wasn’t one movie, it was two. The first, from the beginning to roughly the forty-minute marker (halfway into the already scant running time), is the story of a man vying for the attention of a hard-to-get woman. Once she finally notices him, the second movie begins, in which a man tries and fails miserably at the task of having an affair, barely making it to the bedroom.

I might have been willing to forgive some of the meandering, mismanaged narrative if we had a decent protagonist to serve as an anchor — but Teddy is too much of an oafish loser to be endearing and runs dangerously low on redeeming qualities; incidents of karmic injustice and his resultant bumbling slapstick are largely wasted. Wilder, starting to show his age, plays Teddy with a meek concupiscence, but in scenes where he throws himself onto the hood of Charlotte’s car in the rain, and watches her undress, he comes off as more of a creepy lech. At least the way in which he handles his secret fantasy in front of his wife is halfway intelligent, but the reverse psychology tactics don’t exactly match the doddering simplicity of his character.

While Kelly Le Brock is quite possibly the most sensual creature on the planet, Wilder doesn’t bother to instill her with any personable nuances or characteristics that pique our interest beyond the visual level. There was never a moment where I was ever firmly aware of who she was; in fact, until the end, due to her relative absence from the actual proceedings, I was convinced she was some ethereal, abstract idealization of a woman invented by Teddy’s fleeting subconscious — a delusional fantasy just barely derived, surface details only. Unfortunately the film is not that deep, so to speak.

Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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