Denise Calls Up

“Denise Calls Up” is a great idea. I was going to say it was a “great idea for a movie,” but apparently it's not, since the movie, short as it is, grows tiresome before it's over. Maybe it's more of a great idea for a stand-up routine, or a magazine article, or conversation.

The idea is this: In an age of telephones, pagers, answering machines, beepers, e-mail, appointment schedulers, online conferencing and cybersex, people are too busy to meet with one another. All communications are at arm's length, and the arm in question usually ends in a hand holding a telephone receiver, a computer mouse or a remote control for the answering machine. The movie is about a group of seven friends who, we gradually realize, have never met. They keep in touch mostly by phone. As the story opens, one of the characters surveys a groaning buffet table in her apartment, but no one comes to her party. They're all “tied up.” It's not that they dislike her or want to hurt her; it's that in-person events rank low on their list of priorities.

This notion, true as it is, doesn't stretch well enough to make a feature film. But Hal Salwen, the writer and director, makes a real try, and there are moments of comic inspiration, as when the friends learn that one of them has died in a car crash: “She was on the car phone at the time, and the crash forced the receiver up her ear and into her brain.” Another funny sequence begins when Martin gets a call from Denise, who is pregnant with his child. Ah, so they at least met? Not at all: Martin made a donation to a sperm bank, and Denise made a withdrawal. This situation leads toa moment that film fans, weary of obligatory live childbirth scenes, may enjoy: The first movie childbirth by telephone.

Other moments: a mother calls on her son, who doesn't answer the door.

She can call if she wants to talk to him. A friend sets up two of her friends on a blind date. None of them have ever seen each other. Two would-be lovers have phone sex--and fake their orgasms. It's hard to make appointments even over the phone (“I have my schedule with me--but not my primary schedule”). And a couple talks about how they broke up: “We didn't really split up, we just sort of drifted apart.” “How long has it been since the last time we saw each other?” “Five years.” The basic problem with the film, I think, is that after the comic inspiration wears off, it requires a plot. And although Salwen provides as much of a plot as he can, it's hard to care about a movie story in which the characters never meet one another or really care about one another. So there you have it: The movie falls under the weight of its own premise.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Film Credits

Denise Calls Up movie poster

Denise Calls Up (1996)

Rated PG-13 For Mild Sexual References and Nudity

80 minutes

Cast

Tim Daly as Frank

Alanna Ubach as Denise

Caroleen Feeney as Barbara

Dan Gunther as Martin

Written and Directed by

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