Wise Guys

May 15, 2012

Early in his career, Brian De Palma made some low-budget scrungy counterculture comedies—often teaming with an unknown actor named Robert De Niro. The films weren’t commercially successful, and De Palma turned to the suspense genre (Carrie, Body Double) to make his name.

Now that De Palma has made himself into the bad boy of cinema, he’s gone back to a relatively innocuous comedy. Wise Guys is a standard Hollywood farce, a showcase for the talents of a pair of comedians who perform a traditional buddy routine.

Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo make up the team, a pair of ultra-low-echelon Newark gangsters (and best friends). This is their position on the Mafioso totem pole: Piscopo gets to wear a new bullet-proof sportcoat during a live-ammunition test, and DeVito lands the job of starting his boss’s car, which, given the customs of gangsters, is pretty inflammatory work.

Clearly, they need a leg up. One day while they’re placing a bet for their boss at the racetrack, DeVito decides to bet everything on a sure thing. They lose it all, naturally, and suddenly they’re $250,000 in hock to their godfather.

For fun, the boss separately tells each that the only way to save his own neck is to rub out the other. The boys are still scheming to get rich, however, and even though they’re liable to kill each other, they head to Atlantic City for one final fling.

The opening few sequences are flat-footed, and it looks as though De Palma has lost his touch for comedy. But after the racetrack debacle, the plot picks up steam, even if it is nonsense. George Gallo’s script gives the film some solid situations, like the deliberate destruction of the Cadillac the boys steal, and a hilarious scene that involves, believe it or not, a murder in a church. I know that doesn’t sound funny, but….

The church scene is engineered by Ray Sharkey, who invests his short cameo with some insane energy. Dan Hedaya (the husband in Blood Simple) plays the boss, but the scene-stealer is “Captain” Lou Albano. As a professional wrestler, Albano has plenty of acting experience, and it serves him well here, as he plays Hedaya’s mountainous, short-fused goon.

DeVito and Piscopo work reasonably well together. Physically they’re a good match, with Piscopo towering over DeVito.

Still, DeVito is at his most effective when he’s sleaziest, and this role doesn’t mine his most productive vein of comedy. And Piscopo, like his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Dan Aykroyd, seems more at home in the cartoonlike world of TV impersonation than movies, where sustaining a character for 90 minutes requires something more substantial than sketch humor. He’s funny enough, but not quite convincing as a real person.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1986

Not good, not good at all. For De Palma, the movie came between Body Double and The Untouchables, so try explaining that.


Throw Momma from the Train

March 28, 2012

The question everyone must be asking: Does Throw Momma from the Train live up to its title? If there’s been a more wackily inspired film title in recent years, I don’t know about it. (Surf Nazis Must Die doesn’t count, because it hasn’t played here yet.)

As it turns out, Throw Momma does tap into the healthy black humor suggested by its moniker. It’s a solid sick comedy, with nearly as many laughs as another movie celebrating modes of travel, Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

Throw Momma is a comic crisscross of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Larry (Billy Crystal) is an English teacher with a massive writer’s block. He can’t complete the sentence, “The night was…”—and that’s just the first line of his novel. The source of his block is his loathing for his ex-wife (Kate Mulgrew); she’s stolen a manuscript from him and turned it into a bestseller under her name.

Owen (Danny DeVito) is a long-suffering dimwit who’s taking Larry’s continuing education creative-writing class. Owen lives with his Momma (Anne Ramsey), a scabrous, monstrous hag who treats him as a slave, and an incompetent one at that. Owen fantasizes about ways of knocking the old lady off.

Somehow Owen gets it into his head that, like the strangers in Strangers on a Train, he and Larry should switch murders and give each other an alibi. So he goes to Hawaii, where Larry’s wife lives, and gets her on a boat in the middle of the Pacific. When she leans over the side to retrieve an earring, well…splash.

When Owen comes home, he expects Larry to return the favor. Larry’s revolted, but Owen is sure that Momma’s natural charms will do the trick: “Just meet her. Maybe she’d be somebody you’d like to kill.”

The dark farce of Stu Silver’s script continues in this vein, and much of it is very funny. DeVito and Crystal work well together, under DeVito’s direction (his first time in feature work). Visually, DeVito gives the movie a flamboyant Hitchcockian look that fits the nutty tone of the material.

But there’s something else about DeVito’s direction that really makes the film go. He doesn’t just set up the guffaws; he also catches smaller bits of humor, such as the student at writing school who’s compiling an absurd list of the 100 women he’d like to make love to (Kathleen Turner, the girl in the taco commercials, etc.). “This isn’t literature,” the teacher says. “It’s a coffee-table book,” the students sniffs.

Throw Momma falters only near its end, when it becomes clear that nobody knows exactly what to do with Momma; the movie gets cold feet when it comes to the point of actually throwing her from the train. Funny as it is, this movie can’t quite fulfill its title after all.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

At the time I would’ve guessed that Throw Momma from the Train might have had a higher profile over time; not a classic, that is, but a fondly-remembered film along the lines of, come to think of it, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It doesn’t seem to have lasted that way. Beyond that, you know Surf Nazis Must Die is a terrible movie, as I later found out.


The Jewel of the Nile

November 25, 2011

“How much romance can one woman take?” asks the romance novelist Joan Wilder, at the opening of The Jewel of the Nile. Joan (Kathleen Turner), you will remember, was the frumpy writer swept into the swashbuckling adventure of Romancing the Stone, a tale that might have sprung from the purply pages she regularly churns out.

As Jewel begins, she’s in the South of France, having spent six months cruising the world and finding romance with he-man adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). But with all this romancing going on, she can’t find the time to finish her latest book, and her fling with Jack has gone a trifle stale.

So, when she is approached by a bigshot Arab prince and asked to write his biography, she jumps at the chance, and abandons Jack for the prince’s palace. You win no prizes for guessing that the prince is not as he seems, and that something is rotten in the sheikdom—nor that Jack will soon be on his way to rescue Joan from this fine mess.

That’s the basic skeleton of the story; it’s fleshed out with some amusing incidents along the way, including an escape in an F-16 fighter jet (neither Jack nor Joan know how to fly it) and a tribal wrestling match between Jack and a refrigerator-sized tribesman who wants to marry Joan.

While some of these incidents are cute, the film as a whole lacks the fizz of Romancing the Stone. There’s a basic problem in structure: In Romancing, the transformation of Joan from dowdy novelist to stylish heroine was the real story, despite all the swashbuckling. In Jewel, there’s no such development, and the narrative seems oddly flat.

The dry North African setting gets dull after a while, as does the sheik and his plan to take over the area. Also, the character of Joan is not as much fun as before—she seems dimmer, and has lost pluck.

Some of this flatness, I suspect, is due to the absence of Diane Thomas among the screenwriters. She wrote Romancing as an original screenplay (her first), but others get the credit for this film. (The film is dedicated to Thomas, who was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago.)

Lewis Teague’s direction is evocative; he comes from B-movies (Alligator and The Lady in Red both showed promise), and this is his shot at the big time. He choreographs the action well, especially the obligatory fight-on-top-of-a-train, which ends with a nice comic payoff.

He’s also gotten a better performance from Michael Douglas, and a funnier performance from Danny DeVito, who repeats his role as a sawed-off scoundrel. DeVito has more one-liners than in Romancing, and he spits them out with unclean glee (surveying a wild Bedouin celebration dance, he nudges Jack and growls, “Looka this, Colton—no sheep is safe tonight”).

But, as occasionally pleasant as the film is, I was left cold after it was over. By the time of the big climax, I was already a bit bored. Not only are the characters cardboard and the locale dull, the jewel of the Nile turns out not to be a jewel at all. Whatever happened to truth in advertising?

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1985

Well, not a great review, although I suppose the point about the absence of actual character development goes to something about the movie’s failure to click. Not much to work with, anyway; the movie has the feel of a rushed, not-thought-out cash-in. My review of Romancing the Stone is here.


Twins

January 14, 2011

After weeks of coming attractions, magazine teasers, TV commercials, and honest-to-goodness billboards, the movie seems a bit redundant. Yes, Twins is here at last, the film that dares to suggest a fraternal kinship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

The joke of the movie is basically that these two preposterous actors could possibly be brothers. Twins, yet. There have been worse excuses for movies, to be sure, and Twins plays out its concept at a reasonable level of good-natured fun.

The explanation for this strange set of siblings? A genetic experiment, an attempt to create an ideal human specimen. The baby that grew up to be Schwarzenegger got all the good genes and chromosomes, all the brains, sweetness and build. And the baby that grew up to be DeVito got—well, in his words, “all the crap that was left over.”

That’s how baby Julius, Schwarzenegger, was taken to a remote island and raised in isolation by an egghead professor. Baby Vincent, DeVito, was dumped in an L.A. orphanage and left to fend for himself. When Julius learns he has a twin, he leaves the island and ventures out into the world for the first time.

So the first hour of the movie consists of some familiar fish-out-of-water situations, as Schwarzenegger learns the ropes; how to eat junk food and kiss the girls, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, he’s trying to convince Vincent, a low-life hustler in debt to some mobsters, that they are really brothers. And Vince is marveling at this “230-pound virgin.”

The middle section of the film works the best, when the brothers take a road trip to New Mexico with girlfriends (Kelly Preston and Chloe Webb), and actually learn to like each other.

The mob plot keeps intruding; it wears the movie down a bit, and also overextends it. Producer-director Ivan Reitman organizes things in his usual slipshod fashion, but he seems to have a knack for knowing what people want (he directed the megahits Stripes and Ghostbusters). Reitman gets DeVito to do his rolling sleazeball routine, which is generally on-target. Schwarzenegger tackles his first (intentional) comedic performance with good cheer, though he might have been funnier if no one had told him to play this as comedy.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1988

Arnold and Ivan Reitman would make two more comedies, Kindergarten Cop and Junior; the latter, I really don’t need to tell you, is the choice for aficionados of the collaboration. The success of this film must also be held accountable for Sylvester Stallone’s forays into comedy, which did not work out as profitably as Schwarzenegger’s. I sound somewhat bored in this review, and I can’t blame me.


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