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PUNCHLINE. Directed and written by David Seltzer; produced by Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil for Columbia. Starring Tom Hanks and Sally Field. Rated R.


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Have you heard the one about the guy (Hanks) who flunks out of medical school and can't tell his surgeon father? ... about the New Jersey housewife (Fields) with no magic in her marriage? ... about the owner of a comedy club (Mark Rydell) forgotten by the comics who use his stage as a springboard to stardom?

Sounds hilarious, doesn't it? Well, the funny thing is, Punchline is funny, at least in parts. In spite of its being more a discourse on the nature of comedy than a story about funny people. What makes a good joke may seem like a frivolous question, but once you start thinking about it, it's a darned complex one. Punchline will definitely make you think about it.

Fields is as good as she usually is in her off-stage scenes, and is surprisingly good in her stand-up comedy bits. Her characterization is sketchy when it comes to motivation, but her charm makes up for that.

Hanks has been terrific in almost every movie he's made (The Man with one Red Shoe is the only exception that comes to mind). He's even risen above some pretty lousy material (remember Bachelor Party?). But here, much as in Big (although his character in the two movies are quite different), he has a strong, well-written role that is perfectly suited to his talents.

Steven, the med school comedian, is naturally, effortlessly funny. But he has considerably more difficulty making his personal relationships work, and planning for his future. He's an unlikeable guy, as opposed to Hanks' characters in most of his other movies. He moves from arrogance, to insensitivity, to wretchedness, and back again. But he's always fascinating to watch.

Scrutinize Steven closely and you'll learn as much about the true nature of comedy as you would in a college course on the subject.

October 19, 1988

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