During the credits sequence of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, you feel the tingle of something clicking: A bedraggled bum pushes a grocery cart full of junk down a Los Angeles street in the early morning light, as the soundtrack plays one of the most striking songs of recent years, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
The images are sharp and pointed, the music pulls it together, and there’s a crackling sense of direction. Unfortunately, once the music stops and the film proper starts, this tingly feeling dissolves all too rapidly.
What we have here is vintage Paul Mazursky social satire, Beverly Hills variety, as we are introduced to an archetypal ’80s family. Husband (Richard Dreyfuss) is a fatcat in the wire-hanger biz, whose non-existent sexual relationship with his wife is replaced by midnight liaisons with the maid. Wife (Bette Midler) is a shrieky kook who tries every form of meditation, fire-walking, and wacko religion available in California—and that’s saying a lot.
Their son faces every family event with a video camera attached to his head, as he worries about his sexual orientation; the daughter escapes the madness by jetting off to her Ivy League school. They have a Rolls-Royce, a swimming pool, and a psychologist for their dog; they’re wildly unhappy, needless to say.
Mazursky hits his targets—he’s been drawing this sort of satire since Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice—but with surprising obviousness. A satirist, above all else, must be a part of his times, and Mazursky seems to be making the same jokes that were new and effective in the late ’60s.
He takes this ripe family and throws in a loose cog: that bum (Nick Nolte) from the credits, a dropout from society who represents everything they’re not. Nolte, having lost his dog, decides to end it all by throwing himself into Dreyfuss’s pool. Saved, he moves into the household, thereby changing the lives of all present.
After he gets cleaned up, Nolte takes Dreyfuss down to Venice Beach, where they drink cheap wine, eat garbage, and sleep under the stars. Naturally, Dreyfuss sees this as an utterly energizing experience.
Then Nolte teaches the heretofore horrified Midler about the secrets of Balinese massage, which works as a prelude to a cosmic sexual encounter.
Some of this is predictable, some is not. But even when Mazursky’s touch is heavy, the players are very good. No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well, and Midler is born to the part (although Mazursky might have encouraged her to be even a bit more outrageous).
Dreyfuss, who hasn’t scored a hit in a long time, is very good in a less showy role. The longer the film goes on the more you realize his character is really at the center of the story.
There’s also nice work by Tracy Nelson (Rick Nelson’s daughter) as the daughter, and Little Richard is amusing as a flamboyant (what else?) neighbor, whose Rolls-Royce is an exact duplicate of Dreyfuss’s car.
The film is a loose remake of a 1932 French film by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning. In that film, the bum, played by Michel Simon, was even more of an uncontrollable force of nature than here—indeed, the earlier film was much more uncompromising in its satire. All of which proves that, to the industry’s discredit, movies are often less daring now than they were 50 years ago.
First published in the Herald, January 31, 1986
“No one but Nolte could play the hulking bum this well,” but of course Michel Simon did it, too. Nobody but the two of them. I remember a look Nolte has at the end of this movie that achieved the same flash of existential shock that “Once in a Lifetime” provides, and thinking how good he was, and is.