Down and Out in Beverly Hills

June 26, 2012

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.

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Nuts

May 24, 2012

The holiday season will bring many prestige movies; films that compete not merely for immediate box-office receipts but also for honors. These films are released now so that they might win a few year-end critics’ awards, and qualify for next year’s Oscars.

Nuts is such a film. It’s the sort of courtroom drama that allows for large, attention-getting acting, and it carries a potent, serious message. Aside from these credentials, Nuts also happens to be a shrewdly crafted entertainment. That said, it is not, I think, a very good movie.

The matter at hand is a competency hearing to decide whether a defendant (Barbra Streisand) is sane enough to stand trial on a manslaughter charge. She, a high-class prostitute, has killed an abusive client (Leslie Nielsen, in flashbacks). Her wealthy parents (Karl Malden and Maureen Stapleton) prefer that their incorrigible daughter be sent to a nice rest home and wither away there for the rest of her life. They hire a smoothie prosecutor (Robert Webber) to ensure this result.

The defendant is curiously impassive to her fate. Contemptuous and angry, she socks her own attorney and is assigned a new court-appointed lawyer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Dreyfuss doesn’t think she’s crazy. Smart, hurt, strange, but not crazy. But she won’t even help him help her; she’s uncooperative and disruptive during the hearing. At one point in court he shouts, not without some grudging affection, “This is a woman even a father could hate!”

Dreyfuss’s excellent performance caps his comeback year, and will likely get him an Oscar nomination. He remains the good-humored point of audience identification, since the Streisand character is intransigent throughout.

Streisand will probably bag another Oscar nomination; she also produced the movie and wrote the music. She carries forth with the stridency that marks so much of her work. In Nuts, this is actually useful, however, since the defendant is supposed to be insufferable. But the movie tries to have it both ways: She’s officially unpleasant, but she can lob in some adorable zingers when required. Webber’s prosecutor, for instance, is putty in her hands.

I suspect Streisand may see this script, written by Tom Topor, Daryl Ponicsan, and Alvin Sargent from Topor’s play, as analogous to her own experiences. For years after Funny Girl, she was the brassy, kooky actor who annoyed people because she wanted her own way, and made no bones about saying so; then she was the would-be filmmaker who spent years battling the Hollywood gender barrier while making Yentl. It’s probable that the Hollywood system belittled her as “nuts.”

Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) directs with the professionalism of a veteran. He doesn’t need to be told that the courtroom form is automatically compelling, and much of the movie is enjoyable on the gavel-banging level. Ritt’s supporting cast reads like a New York reunion of the Actor’s Studio: Malden, Stapleton, Eli Wallach (as a psychiatrist), and James Whitmore (the judge, crusty as they come).

Nuts hits a number of provocative issues, and every so often seems ready to delve into really interesting territory. To my mind, it stays on the surface of those issues, which is why, despite its attractions, it’s ultimately a failure.

First published in the Herald, November 19, 1987

No Oscar nominations after all for this overlooked movie—I’m not sure whether that means it’s better or worse than I thought. Babs was getting pretty picky about her roles at this time, which made the autobiographical reading more likely to me. But what an old-school cast, and what a bizarre role for Leslie Nielsen just before he slipped into the world of slapstick comedy.