THE TITLE OF the movie Can She Bake a Cherry Pie comes from an old children's song--"Where have you been Billy Boy, Billy Boy....", a pleasant enough ditty despite its slightly pathetic overtones. And like the song, the movie has problems balancing a charming and entertaining story about an affair between two old New Yorkers with depressing, almost pathetic characterizations and themes.
The Cafe Central on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan provides the setting for most of the film, an appropriate meeting ground for the movie's two central characters, Eli (Michael Emil) and Zee (Karen Black). The way the two meet epitomizes the cuteness that fails to turn into a driving, enjoyable plot. Zee, a neurotic singer, walks down Columbus Avenue just after her husband has decided to move out. Switching from Zee's short dress and high heels, the camera shifts to Eli's office, where the balding, crotchety, middle-aged girl chaser is advising his friend Martin to "Just be natural about women." Meanwhile Zee, who is still walking, bursts out crying, "I hate walking" in the middle of the street."
Now the real fun begins. Predictably, Zee takes a break from walking, sitting down at Cafe Central next to Eli and Martin. When the waitress asks her if she's ready to order, Zee says yes, stares at the menu, and starts to cry. "I'll have a hamburger, no, spaghetti and bacon and sausage (all the things she feels she should have cooked for her husband), no, scratch that, I'll have chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and a chocolate donut." By this point Zee is overwhelmed with tears, prompting Eli to inquire "Did you ever decide what you wanted to eat?" After she responds, he says, "Wouldn't you want something a little more nutritious?"
Karen Black is hysterically funny as the mixed-up Zee who loves to eat and smoke but who, underneath it all, would like to think she has it all together. She delivers comic lines in the most serious manner to enhance their humorous effect, and is always quick with a witty response. At one point Zee tells Eli, "You've got lots of energy but it all gets struck in your forehead--you think too much." And when he chastises her for her smoking, she quips, "I love to smoke...in fact, I love to want to smoke...I like craving things."
No matter where she is, Zee comes out with bizarre, yet honest comments. During one coversation, she pops out "You know my hormones are driving me crazy," and then proceeds to explain her theory on female sexuality. At one point every month, when a woman loses the opportunity to have a baby, she feels really empty inside, and consequently, must put something in her mouth--be it cigarettes or chocolate.
Such unusual dialogue is interesting, and adds a unique and attractive aura to the entire film. However, too often the strangeness turns to triteness Eli reads The Sexually Active Man After 40 and attaches a pulse meter to his ear while he and Zee are having sex because he is doing a comparative study of his pulse rate with different women.
Eli dismisses Zee's repeated insistence that someone is following her as total paranoia. However, at the Cafe is one of the myriad errant street performers filing New York City an the summer-time: a man with a domesticated pigeon. As the movie develops, Larry the pigeon-man also becomes an acquaintance of Zee and Eli, haunting the film with his creepy looks and weird movements. In between his acts he sits at the Cafe with a girl who reads with the pigeon perched on her head. In one scene Larry looks at a girl's t-shirt that reads "A Century of Women on Top--Smith College" and says "I agree, I always like it that way." A fight promptly ensues with the girl's burly boy-friend, but no matter: Larry has effectively made his point.
Such interludes abound throughout the film. And though many are not as funny as intended, they at least serve to transmit the feeling of New York City's colorful West side in the summertime. Zee and Eli frequent the New York Philharmonic's free concerts in Central Park, visit the Museum of Natural History, and Zee practices her singing (the career she dropped when she got married) at the "Improv."
KAREN BLACK PROVES adept at characterizing Zee, evolving with her as she adapts to life without a husband. Whereas in the beginning she says, "Life's just not what they told us it was going to be," later she tells Eli "You know life's just the most mysterious thing...every moment you look around and it's a new life...it's like waking up in the middle of a dream...I think I just woke up." Black wakes us up with Zee. Her idiosyncracies and eccentricity make her an endearing character. And while the material Black works with may not always succeed, we always feel that she has completely delved into Zee's foibles and problems.
But the uncomfortable and unpleasant elements of the movie ultimately drown out these comical and enlightening parts. Eli persists with his pulse meter after Zee has threatened to stop all relations with him, Zee's singing takes on ever-more morbid connotations, and Eli's annoying analysis of everything become cumbersome. If you can overlook these pitfalls, however, there are enough plain, good and funny displays of the essence of human relationships that make the film enjoyable. And if nothing else, the views of New York are unbeatable.