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Punchline

Just six years before she told him life was like a box of chocolates in Forrest Gump, Sally Field (aka Mama Gump) was kissing Tom Hanks in the back seat of a cab in Punchline. But all Oedipal issues aside, Field and Hanks both give memorable performances in David Seltzer's poignant dramedy about the world of stand-up comedy. Field plays Lilah Krytsick, a New Jersey housewife who dreams of becoming a comedienne, juggling her kids and her resistant husband (John Goodman) with gigs at a Manhattan comedy club called The Gas Station. It's there that she meets — and becomes the unlikely object of affection of — Steven Gold (Hanks), a talented comic (and washed-out med student) who's on the edge of emotional collapse. Broke and desperate, Steven clings to Lilah, mistaking her care and concern for love. Meanwhile, she needs him to encourage her and help her tap her true talent. Punchline is remembered as one of Hanks' first big "dramatic" roles — and he puts Steven's anger and fragility to good use in his on-screen rants — but it's really Field's movie. It's Lilah's struggle between domesticity and her dreams that's at the heart of the story, and it's the delighted moments she has in both worlds that make her decision matter to the audience. At first we, like Steven, can't understand why she doesn't bolt the stifling suburbs for a chance at stardom, but then a truly bad haircut leads to a sweet moment of togetherness, and her choices become clearer. Lilah will never be Roseanne, but she can be a wife, a mother, and a stand-up comedienne. Punchline does a good job of capturing the competitive, hopeful feel of the late-'80s stand-up scene (look for real-life stars like Damon Wayans playing Steven and Lilah's fellow comics), and it generally balances humor and drama well, but writer/director Seltzer occasionally veers too far into melodramatic territory (Steven's on-stage breakdown, for example) and misses one of the most interesting aspects of Lilah's story — how she got started in the first place. Until there's a Punchline prequel, though, you'll have to satisfy yourself with seeing this one on DVD; happily, it's a pleasant experience. Columbia TriStar presents both anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and full-frame transfers, and both have been digitally remastered and look good. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio track is also strong (other options include French 2.0 and an array of subtitles). Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech



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