Sam has a habit of barking at Molly. And when she barks back in reply, he feels attacked. The fish listens to him. Even better, the fish doesn't talk back. Best of all, the fish can't walk out - as Molly does one emotionally stormy night.
In part because Stiller and Meara are real-life longtime marrieds (44 years and counting) and in part because director Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey) elicits such naturalistic performances from them, this doesn't feel like a movie but rather a domestic drama unfolding in your family treehouse. Sam, you see, is recently retired, and now that he has no one in the shop to boss around, he has started in on his wife. And his frustration has a ripple effect.
Those most immediately affected are the couple's grown children. Their son, Joel (Mark Ruffalo), is married with child and resists his wife's desires to give their daughter, Melissa, a sibling. When Grandma Molly comes to stay, she is a playmate to Melissa, but escalates the tension and traffic levels in a household already crowded with both. And then there's the fact that one of Joel's real estate clients is coming on to him.
When Joel asks his unmarried sister Ruth (the wonderful Jane Adams, a most melodic neurotic) to take over Mom duty, she protests that putting Molly up would interfere with her private life. Instead, Ruth demands that her father apologize to her mother for his verbal abuse, a request that has the effect of estranging the couple even further.
For her part, Molly gets increasingly sociable. She starts dating Lou (Bob Dishy), a fellow she met in her driver's ed class, a windbag who should be equipped with his own airbag. For his part, Sam grows increasingly isolated, to the extent that he even alienates his widowed next-door neighbor, Sylvia (Phyllis Newman), who had reached out to him.
One of the chief pleasures of A Fish in the Bathtub is that Silver's pitch-perfect casting choices amount to a full-employment act for every unsung character actor in New York's tristate area. Apart from the principals, there are the marvelous Louis Zorich and Paul Benedict, who round out an ensemble cast that show how a marital breakup threatens to disrupt the fragile ecology of a family and community.
It is an index of what the writers think of as a comic situation that the film's funniest scene is a family therapy session conducted by Ruthie's psychoanalyst ex-beau. Sam is a less likely candidate for psychotherapy than Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker.
Not every viewer will find A Fish in the Bathtub humorous. Like Seinfeld, its narrative blurs the boundary between anxiety and comedy. But unlike that sitcom, this marvelously acted film has true rather than contrived dramatic conflict from which it draws a most satisfying conclusion. Thousands of movie romances end in marriage. How many end in redefining marriage?
A FISH IN THE BATHTUB * * * Produced by Raphael Silver and Charles Darby, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, written by John Silverstein, David Chudnovsky and Raphael Silver, photography by Daniel Shulman, music by John Hill, distributed by Northern Arts Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Sam Kaplan..........Jerry Stiller
Molly Kaplan........Anne Meara
Joel Kaplan.........Mark Ruffalo
Ruthie Kaplan.......Jane Adams
Milo Sleight........Paul Benedict
Parent's guide: PG-13 (mature themes)
Showing at: Ritz Five and Ritz Twelve/NJ