September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

Dumb luck’s not just for lotteries. It can also work for movies. This film version of the 1978 Broadway hit starring Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander (in roles now filled by Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh) is a plodding attempt to wring a few laughs out of a woman’s being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In another time, it would have thumped its way to TV and then oblivion. But with President Reagan’s nomination of Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the highest court, the film has been rush-released to profit from the coincidence. If only that superb timing could have been transferred to the actors, writers and director. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s bargain-basement drama is threadbare and Ronald (Poseidon Adventure) Neame’s direction is congested. Each line is stated as if the actors had been electrically prodded. “A woman can ovulate and think at the same time,” declaims Clayburgh, whose smirky performance as an Orange County conservative carries little of Alexander’s stage conviction. On Broadway, the redoubtable Fonda was emotional yet not ludicrous in the role modeled after liberal William O. Douglas. Matthau all but slobbers. Though the plot throws in an obscenity case and a corporate cover-up, the politics stay at sitcom level. “She makes the bench smell better,” observes one Justice of the comely Jill. Verdict? Guilty on all counts—of triteness and trivialization. (R)

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