Happy New Year

December 30, 2011

There’s something almost French about the tone and rhythm of Happy New Year, a new movie about a jewelry heist: in the way the narrative pokes along, with more attention to detail than concentration on the big picture. And that’s no accident; this is an adaptation of a French movie of the same title from a few years back, directed by Claude Lelouch.

Hollywood regularly exposes its paucity of imagination by stealing (or buying) foreign vehicles, and French comedies are high on the shopping list. Look for a star-heavy American version of the French hit Three Men and a Cradle later this year.

This translation of Happy New Year doesn’t try to jazz things up. It’s very low-key, almost apologetic, as it plods on in its shapeless way.

Peter Falk takes the lead role, as a congenially crumpled little guy who masterminds the robberies. He recruits an old pal (Charles Durning) to assist in one final job, a trés chic jewelry store in West Palm Beach. They’re an old-fashioned pair—”dated” might be a better world—who talk about “chasing skirts” and old prison memories.

Since the store is physically impenetrable, Falk plots to worm his way in by gaining the trust of the manager (Tom Courtenay) and saleswoman (Wendy Hughes). This he does by applying heavy makeup and pretending to be a doddering old millionaire (and, on alternate visits, the doddering old millionaire’s sister). Eventually, Falk will use the guise to get him in the store after closing time.

Falk also contacts Hughes as himself, and soon finds he’s won over by her charm. So will the audience be: Hughes, a gorgeous, very intelligent actress, who has appeared in many Australian films including Lonely Hearts and Careful, He Might Hear You, brings palpable grace to this movie.

In fact, there are a few bits and pieces of this film that can be enjoyed along the way. John G. Avildsen, who made the first Rocky, clearly is trying to achieve some honestly touching moments, most of which involve Hughes and Falk and the recurrence on the soundtrack of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” These moments don’t add up, unfortunately, because unlike the necklaces and bracelets in the jewelry store, these ornaments lack a complex setting.

First published in the Herald, August 9, 1987

The title of this movie provides a handy send-off for 2011, which was a lively affair. Coincidentally, a send-off to Peter Falk, an actor I liked a lot for Columbo, many other things, but, well, especially Columbo.


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