September 28, 1988
New York Times
Marriage According to Martin Mull
By John J. O'Connor
LEAD: Martin Mull has found modest fame and some fortune dipping into the tribal patterns of white America. Beginning in 1985, his periodic ''History of White People in America'' comedy specials have been so popular on Cinemax that the pay-cable service is giving Mr. Mull an opportunity to flex his satire further in a feature-length film, ''Portrait of a White Marriage,'' which can be seen on Cinemax today at 10:30 A.M.
As the executive producers and writers, Mr. Mull and Allen Rucker clearly owe lots of their inspiration to Norman Lear's classic ''Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.'' We are once again back in middle America where wives are constantly dropping brand names, husbands spend most of their time being boys with the boys, and children have about as much sparkle as your average gelatin mold topped with M & M's.
The couple in question here, residents of Hawkins Falls, Ohio, are Hal and Joyce Harrison (Fred Willard and Mary Kay Place). Having reached their 40's, they are anxiously sending their two children off to college (''Drive carefully! Fasten your seat belts! Watch out for the other fellow!''). Blissfully content, Dad puts his arm around Mom and says, ''I feel like some meat loaf tonight.''
While Hal is busy as chairman of a committee making preparations for the town's Founder's Day parade, Joyce suddenly decides to go to Pittsburgh to attend a taping of Mr. Mull's ''Ask Martin'' talk show. It seems Mr. Mull had interviewed the Harrisons three years earlier. The show is sagging badly, now reaching for subjects like ''Lesbian Fidelity.'' Why not, suggests Joyce, go to Hawkins Falls for a week? Agreeing to serve as consultant, she even comes up with such potential
program topics as ''Household Accidents'' and ''Parallel Parking.''
Arriving in Hawkins Falls, Mr. Mull is given a room at the Shangri-Lodge Motel, where, he is assured, Little Richard stayed years ago. The first ''Ask Martin'' show turns into a fiasco when, on the subject of household accidents, a woman who lost her tongue while licking frosting off a knife turns out to be incomprehensible. The show's director, Al (Harry Shearer, who also directed this film) puts in a rush call to Los Angeles, wondering ''if the Tom Snyder situation is still alive.''
Meanwhile, Joyce's solicitous concern for Mr. Mull (''I can make my 12-minute meat loaf practically with my eyes closed,'' she assures him) is misinterpreted and there are rumors that they are having an affair. Hal is so upset that he goes to a marriage counselor, the minister's wife (Julie Payne), who is all too ready to slip into something comfortable and teach him the ''language of touch.'' The enforced serenity of Hawkins Falls teeters on the brink of scandal and chaos. But this being white America, there is no reason to doubt that our good folk will muddle through, battered perhaps but still capable of keeping up appearances.
Like Hal, the basic premise of this kind of exercise has gone thick around the middle. In a longer form, the stretch marks are more noticeable. The jokes get less frequent and more predictable. Mr. Mull's saving grace is an ability to tread a delicate line between gentle parody and cruel ridicule. By the film's end, Hal and Joyce are as fundamentally decent as they are silly. On balance, that adds up to being likable.