A Fine Mess

December 13, 2019

finemessBlake Edwards must be plenty tired of A Fine Mess by now. First the screenplay bounced around for a few years, searching for the right casting, at one point slated as a Burt Reynolds-Richard Pryor teaming.

Then, after the movie was actually made (with Ted Danson and Howie Mandel), the opening date was delayed twice – originally scheduled as a Christmas ’85 release, then for spring ’86.

Now that it’s really here, we can guess why Edwards stuck by the project so long. He’s the modern master of the kind of comedy, the delicate combination of sophistication and slapstick, that goes back to such great directors as Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.

As elegant as some of Edwards’ films are (10, Victor/Victoria), he still loves flat-out slapstick (as evidenced by the Pink Panther series). A Fine Mess tips its floppy hat with its title. This is less Lubitsch than Laurel and Hardy. In fact, buried within A Fine Mess is the kernel of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous short, The Music Box, in which the intrepid but hapless duo moved a piano up a steep stairway to a house.            

But that situation is not recreated, it just happens to be part of the plot. To describe how Danson and Mandel get to that point is to risk total incomprehensibility, but I’ll try.

Danson (who basically plays his Cheers role, which is perfectly okay), a two-bit actor, overhears a horse-racing scam while filming on location at the racetrack. A horse running the next day is to be doped up with a powerful new stimulant – a sure thing.

Danson talks pal Mandel, a roller-skating waiter at a burger drive-in, into putting his savings on the horse. And the horse wins, but the two are spotted and chased by the perpetrators of the fix, a couple of second-rate comic hoods played by Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin. They work for an opera-singing underworld Mr. Big (Paul Sorvino).

Somehow, in the process of being chased, Danson and Mandel end up in an auction house, where they inadvertently spend their winnings on a player piano. Mandel romances the auction house curator (Jennifer Edwards), who leads him to a prospective buyer for the piano, a wealthy woman (Maria Conchita Alonso) who is actually …

Well, it gets complicated at that point. Blake Edwards obviously loves the madcap twists and coincidences of the farce, and he turns them nicely. The only problem is, the movie is not all that funny. It’s consistently amusing, in a mild sort of way, but the big payoffs are rare.

Somehow, at the same time that Edwards is expressing his clear love of slapstick, his heart doesn’t seem to be completely in it. A Fine Mess has the air of having been tossed off with Edwards’ left hand while he was writing his next project. In fact, it suggests nothing so much as the possibility that, even during the filming, Edwards was already plenty tired of the whole thing.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1986

Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor – it sounds worth a shot, anyway. I remember almost nothing about this film, except that the TV casting suggested a surrender on Edwards’ part.