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and Douglas McGrath

In Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Bruno Barreto’s wildly successful 1977 comedy, the title character is torn between two spouses: her dull, respectable second mate and her wild, randy first husband, whose ghost returns in corporeal form to heat up her bed. Darlene, the protagonist of Andrucha Waddington’s Me You Them, goes Dona Flor at least one better by simultaneously cohabiting with three living men.

But here the similarity between these two Brazilian films ends. Barreto’s movie is sheer escapism, a one-joke romp shot in colorful locations, stuffed with soft-core sex scenes, and showcasing the voluptuous Sonia Braga in the title role. Me You Them is a somber piece, set in the arid, impoverished Bahia region of northeast Brazil, sufficiently discreet in its depiction of erotic activity to warrant a PG-13 rating, and featuring the decidedly unglamorous stage and television actress Regina Casé as Darlene.

Elena Soárez’s screenplay opens with a pregnant Darlene, clad in a white dress, abandoned at the altar on her wedding day. Three years after the birth of her child, she accepts the marriage proposal of Osias (Lima Duarte), an indolent geezer who lolls in a hammock all day listening to his portable radio while Darlene labors in the fields and maintains his household. Middle-aged Zezinho (Stênio Garcia), Osias’ relative, comes to live in the couple’s bleak, unelectrified wood-and-mud home. Sympathetic to Darlene’s situation, he becomes involved with her, and the pair have a child, whose arrival Osias grudgingly accepts. Then young, rugged Ciro (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) joins the ménage, fathering Darlene’s third baby. The quartet learns to adapt to each turn of events, forming an unconventional, polygamous family that engages Darlene’s various gifts as caregiver, mother, friend, and lover.

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Based on a true story, Me You Them is a well-crafted effort that never quite catches fire. Shot on location in a realistic, semidocumentary style, it demonstrates that the hardscrabble existence of people in northeast Brazil differs little from the conditions of poverty experienced elsewhere in the world. Darlene’s routine of laboring in the hot fields and then returning home to care for her offspring, prepare meals, and wash clothes in a muddy stream is virtually indistinguishable from the plights of strong women in other poor regions. As a result, Waddington’s heroine seems more generic than specific, an overly familiar, emblematic figure. She is Woman; hear her roar—albeit mutely—as she employs her female powers to nurture and control her extended family.

The male characters are also stereotypes: the self-centered, penny-pinching geriatric; the earnest, mature companion; and the passionate, caring young buck. Although more than adequately acted (especially by toothy, intense Casé), artfully photographed in sepia tones by Breno Silveira, and sensitively scored by singer-composer Gilberto Gil (whose vocals embellish the opening and closing credits), Me You Them never transcends inspirational high-mindedness to become a fully realized work of art. Ethnologists and feminists might find it satisfying, but I left unfulfilled, having gained no deeper understanding of the struggle of Brazil’s rural underclass or any fresh insights into the relationships of men and women.

As with all movies, one’s response to Me You Them is a matter of individual taste. But anybody who claims to be amused by Company Man, a dead-on-arrival ’60s political satire written and directed by Peter Askin and Douglas McGrath, should be whisked off to a clinic for psychiatric evaluation. This mirthless botch, shelved by Paramount Classics since 1999, sent me on a fruitless search through the thesaurus to find an adequately evocative noun. “Fiasco,” “dud,” “washout,” “disaster,” “flop,” and “bungle” all fail to express its agonizing awfulness.

McGrath, a squeezed Jack Lemmon clone, plays Allen Quimp, a grammar-obsessed suburban Connecticut high school teacher patronized by his astronaut and Nobel Prize-winner siblings and his materialistic, socially ambitious wife, Daisy (Sigourney Weaver). Content to live out his days teaching driver’s ed and correcting the pronoun-usage errors of his students and colleagues, Quimp quells Daisy’s nagging by claiming to be a CIA agent. During a school cultural exchange, he unintentionally assists defecting Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Petrov (Ryan Phillippe struggling with a Slavic accent). This accidental triumph forces egg-faced CIA officials to hire Quimp and then, blithely unaware that Castro’s revolution is about to explode, banish him to Cuba. In Havana, he encounters a mix of fellow yank oddballs—a burned-out operative (Woody Allen), a cynical political adviser (Denis Leary), and a gung-ho militarist (John Turturro)—all determined to restore power to deposed dictator Gen. Batista (played by Alan Cumming as a queeny antique collector). To complicate matters, Daisy unexpectedly turns up to gather material that she hopes will help her become a best-selling author.

Barely one minute into Company Man, viewers will know they’re in deep trouble. Askin and McGrath’s introduction of their framing story—Quimp recounting his Cuban experiences to CIA officials—offers textbook examples of inept writing, acting, camerawork, and editing. Astonishingly, the movie gets worse as it unreels. Not a single visual or verbal joke works; the stellar cast is left to its own unfortunate devices. It’s difficult to choose the most embarrassing performance, but I’d narrow the field to two: Allen, in an off-putting turn that rivals the cock-ups he’s made off-screen, and Turturro, whose grotesque overacting makes the Three Stooges seem like a trio of Cary Grants.

Outtakes punctuating Company Man’s closing credits offer glimpses of scenes mercifully deleted from the 81-minute release print. The possibility of a longer director’s-cut DVD boggles the mind and chills the heart. CP