Phone-y Film Has Its Hang-ups

Posted: May 17, 1996

``Denise Calls Up'' prompts two reactions.

You'll laugh, about five minutes into the movie, when you realize someone has figured out a way to make a movie composed entirely of telephone conversations.

Then you'll begin to sweat, about an hour into the movie, when it dawns on you that you're watching a movie composed entirely of telephone conversations.

It is then you understand why no one has attempted such a gimmick before. Ninety minutes of neurotic people in their New York apartments talking about their humdrum problems over the phone is not a movie.

It's not even ``Seinfeld.''

It's more like ``Love American Style,'' without Tony Roberts.

Yet given the obvious limitations, writer/director Hal Salwen has done a brave, often inventive job. He devises a workable interweaving plot - it involves a blind date, a bungled party and even a pregnancy - that serves the connections between his dozen or so characters (the cast includes Tim Daly and Sylvia Miles).

The technique is obviously self-serving to an extent. Working with a tiny budget, Salwen has pared down his production to the simplest of elements - one camera, one actor, one shot per scene. It's not necessary for his ensemble cast to be in the same city, let alone the same soundstage.

This is wonderful in terms of economy. On the other hand, the long procession of talking heads becomes tiresome, even though Salwen tries to enliven the visuals with a few modest outdoor locations (hooray for cellular phones) like Central Park and the Staten Island ferry.

You have to give Salwen credit for trying and using his gimmick in the service of a relevant theme. His point is that improved telephone gadgets and home computers (with Internet links) have become not merely machines of convenience, but instruments that shape our lives. The characters in ``Denise Calls Up'' prefer the anonymity of the telephone and the computer to human interaction. (One subplot, not coincidentally, involves a sperm donor.)

The separation offered by technology becomes literally prophylactic when two characters consummate a blind date with an act of phone sex.

Who knew, in the '90s, when we decided to reach out and touch someone, that someone would be ourselves?

DENISE CALLS UP * * Produced by J. Todd Harris, written and directed by Hal Salwen, music by Lynn Geller, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running Time: 80 minutes

Denise - Alanna Ubach

Frank - Tim Daly

Barbara - Caroleen Feeney

Martin - Dan Gunther

Gale - Dana Wheeler-Nicholson

Jerry - Liev Schreiber

Linda - Aida Turturro

Parents Guide: PG-13

Showing at: The Ritz at the Bourse

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