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Some kinds of sentiment are as lethal as carbon monoxide. When, near the beginning of “They Might Be Giants,” George C. Scott, as a once-brilliant, now lunatic New York judge, who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes, meets Joanne Woodward, a spinsterish psychiatrist whose name is Dr. Watson, my toes tingled, then imperceptibly curled. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant.

A little later, the couple encounter a small colony of eccentrics who have escaped the real world by taking refuge in the balcony of a movie theater that shows only Westerns. Holmes tells Watson she should try to smile. She does. The patient cures the doctor—and my balance became uncertain. My ears buzzed.

Still later, Holmes, accompanied by Watson, who is now in love with him, comes upon a nutty old pair who have found love and peace sculpturing shrubbery, holed up in a Front Street loft since 1939. The initial sense of odd intoxication had turned into acute discomfort. I almost blacked out—like a canary in a badly ventilated coal mine.

“They Might Be Giants,” which opened yesterday in the air-conditioned Beekman Theater, is an almost drunkenly sentimental comedy about the lazy capitulation of the sanes to the old-fashioned crazies, a romantic concept that not only needs the skills of a director like Frank Capra and a writer like Robert Riskin, but also an audience whose sensibilities are about 35 years more naive than can be easily faked today.

There is, indeed, something not so innocently simple-minded in this fable, which enobles retreat in the name of the sort of mysticism with which the Duchess of Windsor, once explained the downfall of an emperor. “The heart,” she wrote at some length, without saying very much, “has its reasons.”

“They Might Be Giants,” directed by Anthony Harvey and written by James Goldman, who earlier collaborated on “A Lion in Winter,” is a mushy movie with occasional, isolated moments of legitimate comedy, all provided by Mr. Scott with an assist by Mr. Goldman, whose sense of humor seems to surface in peripheral incidents only.

There is something pixilated—and I use the word advisedly—in the sight of Mr. Scott, dressed in his cape and his deerstalker, trying to teach Miss Woodward, who is supposed to sign his commitment papers, how to “creep” properly along a crowded New York sidewalk.

There is another moment of decent madness when Holmes invades the offices of the New York Telephone Company, and leaves at least one operator in tears. But this scene, like the entire movie, eventually goes soft, which seems to be the fate of comedies—things like “The Madwoman of Chaillot” — that prattle on about the joys of individualism and demonstrate mostly witless arrogance.

A common denominator of all of Mr. Scott’s performances is the sense of mad possession of the actor by his role, and this gives the movie a certain strength denied by the lines Mr. Goldman has written for him—”The earth is shining under the soot!” cries Holmes in an apocalyptic moment toward the end. Miss Woodward acts as straight-woman to her costar, and most of the other actors are distressingly cute.

-Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1971

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THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971)
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