A bad movie that would have been so much better had its big scenes taken flight, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York is admirable for being a glossy studio movie about the problems faced by women in a time of changing gender roles. Furthermore, the movie represented a terrific opportunity for comedic actress Jeannie Berlin co capitalize on her breakthrough performance in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), which was directed by Berlin’s mother, Elaine May. Alas, the dexterity and vulnerability that Berlin displayed in The Heartbreak Kid fails to impress in this context. Playing a sad-sack Pennsylvanian who experiences romantic woes while traveling with a fast crowd in New York City, Berlin comes across as pathetic instead of poignant. Worse, watching her character vacillate in unbelievable ways—one minute she’s a doormat, the next she’s a tough cookie—is painfully dull. The story couldn’t be simpler. Sheila (Berlin) moves to New York in order to get away from her (cliché alert!) oppressive Jewish mother. Sheila takes a room with flaky actress Katie (Rebecca Dinna Smith), who pushes Sheila to shed her inhibitions. The movie starts its slow spiral into nothingness during a scene of Sheila following Katie’s advice by “dancing” with a mop in order to emulate current dance moves; what should have been an explosion of physical-comedy joy is instead a sad and lonely vignette. While attending a party, Sheila meets a young doctor, Sam Stoneman (Roy Scheider), and she sleeps with him on their first date. Upon realizing that she had a one-night stand, Sheila becomes enraged—and then spends the rest of the movie trying to win a permanent place in Sam’s heart, even as he becomes romantically involved with Katie. Based on a novel by Gail Parent, who earned fame as a writer on The Carol Burnett Show in the late ’60s, Sheila Levine Is Dead doesn’t work as a character study, a comedy, or a contemplation of social issues. It’s a romantic melodrama disguised as a women’s picture, and it’s a slog to watch, even with the always-vibrant Scheider effectively sketching a character who realizes he’s an asshole but is reluctant to change his ways.
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York: LAME