April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

When a movie makes an impact and speaks eloquently, you expect it to move well and look good too. When it doesn’t, the movie is usually dismissed as too much like television. That’s the unfortunate fate of Just Between Friends. Writer-director Allan Burns, a founding force of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, has filmed his own script with an unimaginative, often inert camera. He clearly writes better than he directs. He has created a most intriguing, ingratiating quartet of grown-up characters. It’s as if he has placed a seismograph in suburbia, registering the tremors of sorrow that run down these clean streets. The script pivots upon some contrivances. Mary Tyler Moore plays a Pasadena housewife who makes a new best friend, TV reporter Christine Lahti, at an exercise class. Moore doesn’t know that Lahti is sleeping with her husband Ted (Cheers) Danson—to the dismay of Danson’s best friend, Sam (The Killing Fields) Waterston. With compassion and piercing dialogue, Burns transcends what could have been a routine sitcom setup. Although she has the most sympathetic role, Moore heightens the rigidity that makes her borderline unsympathetic. It’s a brave move, and it works. Similarly Danson rescues his cad from complete villainy. Waterston is funnier and slyer than he’s ever been. And Lahti, who stole Swing Shift from Goldie Hawn, proves a most adroit klepto here too. “I keep having to make these decisions between my career, which I’m good at, and my life, which I’m not,” laments Lahti. No other actress around better depicts the contradictions in contemporary career women. Even her tall, angular body seems at odds with itself—one minute graceful, the next gawky. She won an Oscar nomination for playing a 1940s variation on this character in Swing Shift, and she’s a major reason Just Between Friends, despite being a clunky piece of moviemaking, is undeniably affecting. (PG-13)

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