There are some movies that exist better on paper, or in somebody’s imagination, than they do on celluloid. For instance, how could a caper comedy with a script by Jeffrey Fiskin, who wrote one of the best screenplays of recent years (for Cutter‘s Way, aka Cutter and Bone, 1981) and directed by Louis Malle, the French director hot from back-to-back successes in 1981, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre, possibly fail to be of interest?
I don’t know. Maybe Malle and Fiskin know. But none of the reasons they might give could change the fact that their new movie, Crackers, is a dud.
It’s a remake of Mario Monicelli’s 1956 Italian comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street. The story, as transplanted to San Francisco’s flavorful Mission District, follows the efforts of a bunch of stumblebums to rob the safe of the pawnbroker whose shop they use as a hang-out.
The caper form – the classic of which is, perhaps, John Huston’s 1950 The Asphalt Jungle – very naturally lends itself to the cinema. The process of watching intricate plans made and then seeing how they all come together (and, usually, fall apart) during the heist itself, is an irresisitible structure.
In fact, you have to try hard to make the genre uninteresting. Crackers works up some suspense during its big heist sequence, but there is a flatness to the enterprise that keeps things oddly subdued.
There are some nice comic touches, mostly due to behavioral idiosyncrasies captured by the actors. Wallace Shawn, who would have been an eloquent silent screen comedian, is the best thing about the movie. He plays a strange little guy named Turtle, whose main function in life is to devour anything put in front of him.
Sean Penn is also fine. He’s an actor who seems to completely alter his physical appearance for each role he plays (his most noticeable previous turns were in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bad Boys). Here, he plays a well-meaning, not particularly bright Southern boy who yearns for rockabilly stardom. He also yearns for the kid sister of his best friend, a small-time hustler (Trinidad Silva), who happens to be very protective of his sister.
Penn has the look and sound of his character down perfectly and, true to form, his gangly, squinting musician is a total turnaround from the bulldog-tough hoodlum he played in Bad Boys. Unfortunately, the movie barely exists to support him. It’s such a limp, uninspired affair that you’re hard pressed to figure out what Malle and Fiskin might have had in mind, or what attracted them to the project in the first place. Let’s hope they put this one behind them and get cracking on their next movies.
First published in The Herald, February 1984
The cast is led by Donald Sutherland and Jack Warden, so I’m not sure why I didn’t mention them here, unless something got cut out of the review. The cast is unusual, with Christine Baranski, Charlayne Woodard, Irwin Corey (yes, the professor himself), and Larry Riley, who went on to become a regular on Knots Landing and died of AIDS in 1992. And yet, the movie is as flat as a pancake. I remember Penn being very interesting to watch – lanky and goofy, with his mouth hanging open. Based on the way he held himself, you’d swear he was as tall as Sutherland. Monicelli’s original film was also remade as Welcome to Collinwood, by future Marvel boys Anthony and Joe Russo. It is also a dud.