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.

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