Little Shop of Horrors

November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, during a weekend in 1960, Roger Corman had a set, some actors, and nothing better to do. So in three days (so the legend goes), he and scriptwriter Charles Griffith filmed a wacky little horror comedy about a man-eating plant.

This no-budget throwaway has survived as one of the zaniest products of Corman’s freewheeling early days. For years it was a staple of the revival circuit and television. Then, a few years ago, someone had the improbable idea to turn the thing into a stage play. And a musical, yet.

The project, shall we say, blossomed. More improbably, it was a big hit. And most improbable of all, it’s been made into a movie again, this time with big-budget backing and songs to boot.

Deep down, I’ll always prefer Corman’s zonked-out quickie. I love its skid road production values and its Catskills-style ethnic humor.

But the new movie has a lot going for it, and deserves to end up as one of this season’s hits. It’s a bright, ditzy thing, full of artificial sets, arch acting, and goofy songs.

A trio of doo-wop girls serve as a chorus, as we are introduced to a rundown New York neighborhood, circa 1960. Mushnik’s florist shop is mired in an apparently terminal slump—until the shop boy, Seymour (Rick Moranis, from “SCTV”), finds “a strange and interesting plant” one day. Placed in the store window, the plant quickly attracts business, much to the delight of Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) and clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene, adorably vapid). That this homely little bulb would attract all this attention is just the first of the film’s intentional absurdities.

Seymour names the planet Audrey II. He harbors a love, or as much goony affection as he can muster, for the real Audrey, but she is stuck with a sadist boyfriend (a plum role for Steve Martin). Naturally, the sadist practices dentistry.

Audrey II brings Seymour money and glamour, but there is a photosynthetical downside. The plant can live only on blood. Human blood. Seymour must supply supper, or lose his plant—and, he supposes, lose Audrey.

Understand that not one whit of this nonsense is played straight. The approach that lyricist Howard Ashman (who also scripted) and composer Alan Mencken have taken is a thorough put-on: campy and tacky.

I don’t know how they came up with Frank Oz for director—he’s a longtime collaborator of the Muppets’ Jim Henson—except that one of the main characters is a large Muppet-like creature; the plant, given voice by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, steals a number of scenes, and behaves with much impertinence.

Oz directs with uninhibited glee, frequently stuffing visual gags into the big numbers. Martin’s dentist song, a tour de force that ought to be released as a video for MTV, is a string of hilarious jokes on the fear of oral surgery, building to the moment when Oz cuts to a shot looking at the insanely cackling Martin from the inside of a large fake mouth. Oz is exactly in tune with this show’s nuttiness.

There are cameos, mostly unnecessary, from John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray; the latter plays a dental patient who loves pain.

In the original film and the musical play, the plant eats everyone at the end. That ending was filmed, but was reshot after some test previews favored a happier ending. Actually, this new ending may be even better and funnier than the original. In a quiet way, Audrey II still has the last laugh.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1986

Hey, didja notice I never mentioned the title of the movie? I didn’t notice, when I wrote this review. I have a feeling I did this a few times over the years.

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The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).


Three Amigos

May 14, 2012

Three Amigos is the latest “Saturday Night Live” reunion masquerading as a movie, and like many such projects, it is all package, no inspiration. It’s so bad it produces two reactions: It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you sorry for the people on screen, who sometimes literally have nothing to do.

The amigos of the title are a trio of dense movie actors who have gained some slight popularity in a series of programs during the 1920s. Known as “The Three Amigos,” they dress in sequined suits and ersatz Mexican hats and ride in to save villages in the last reel.

One of their movies is spotted in a small Mexican village by peasants who just happen to need immediate help, because a marauding bandit is terrorizing the village, as marauding bandits are wont to do. So, the peasants send to the Three Amigos, thinking they are real lawmen.

Shades of The Magnificent Seven, except that this boils down to The Insipid Three. The Amigos takes the challenge—the invitation has been garbled in transmission, and they think they’re on their way to a lucrative gig.

The Amigos are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short (the latter a brilliant sketch actor, from “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” whose first film this is).

Their casting would indicate that the film is meant to be funny, but most scenes vaporize before they’re over. The script, by Martin, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, and musician Randy Newman, is so lean on funny ideas that the actors are going purely on their own invention. And there is precious little of that on view.

John Landis directed; he’s participated in such things before, all the way back to the Belushi days of Animal House through last year’s Spies Like Us. Landis appears to be utterly indifferent to the proceedings—almost contemptuous, actually—and he allows scene after scene to fall flat. The occasional songs (by Newman) go nowhere, and Short and Martin singing a fey tune called “My Little Buttercup” in a cantina full of roughnecks is the kind of routine that makes you start looking for the man with the hook.

There is only one scene that is original: the Amigos camped at eventide in the desert, feasting on some barbecued bats while huddled under an obviously painted sky, next to plastic cacti. They seize the moment to croon a Western song, and the animals of the desert join in. This scene is not so much funny as it is weird, but at least it doesn’t dissolve before your eyes.

The only redeeming aspect of the film is the presence of a lovely actress named Patrice Martinez, who plays the Mexican peasant girl with a sly and knowing air. When the bewitched Martin bids her adieu, he whispers, “I’ll come back some day,” and she looks at him evenly and says, “Why?” As a sendoff, I can’t improve on that.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

Over the years I have noticed that this movie has fans, maybe even lots of them. I don’t get it. Despite the presence of funny people (and Martin Short was coming off some glorious TV stuff at that moment), I found the movie absolutely stupefying. And it’s hard to enjoy even the dumb jokes when you’re irritated with a movie wasting some very good people.


All of Me

August 9, 2011

All of Me is a pleasant surprise—a thoroughly charming little comedy that possesses enough sweetness and genuine hilarity to resurrect the flagging film careers of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

The idea for the film is not too promising. Rich old lady (Tomlin), about to die, contracts a swami (Richard Libertini) to arrange the transmigration of her soul into a young, healthy body (Victoria Tennant).

Blundering in is an estate lawyer (Steve Martin) with problems of his own: his upcoming partnership depends on how he handles a divorce trial—with his boss (Dana Elcar) as defendant. Not only that, Martin is engaged to the boss’s daughter (Madolyn Smith) who wants Martin to quit his nightly noodling with a jazz band and settle down to serious things.

Slight hitch: When Tomlin dies, and her soul flits off in search of a resting place, the first available repository is Martin. And that’s where she takes up residence, controlling approximately half his movements and thoughts.

I admit, this could be sitcom material of the most tired variety. But once you go with the supernatural gimmick, the movie becomes very easy to like. There’s an old-fashioned quality at play here—in its sophisticated setting, it is almost a throwback to The Philadelphia Story brand of comedy, with a touch of Topper thrown in. But it also carries a crackling sarcasm that is strictly ’80s—and somehow, it makes the combination work.

At the beginning, Martin is an opportunist who’s compromised his beliefs; Tomlin is a starchy old maid who dislikes everything but money. The idea of the film is that they both learn the value of life only after they have to share time with each other at unusually close quarters.

This nice little message never gets in the way of the utterly agreeable goings-on. Much of the middle of the film is taken up with Martin’s reactions to having the unmistakably feminine Tomlin express herself with his body. Good comic set-piece: the divorce trial.

In the courtroom, Tomlin takes over, and has to improvise mannish actions. So we’re watching a man, Steve Martin, acting like a woman who’s trying to act like a man. The way Martin plays it, it’s funny.

In fact, this is Steve Martin’s best performance. The physical humor is nimbly executed, and his timing is on the button. It’s a particular pleasure to see him hit his stride after seeming to wander through his last few pictures.

In her first scenes, Tomlin plays the crusty old invalid by the book, but she starts doing subtle things later one. During the double occupancy of Martin’s body, we can see her reflected in mirrors and hear her voice-overs. Real poignancy seeps into her performance, and her dance with Martin at the end of the film is joyous.

It’s all the more joyous because the moment has been honestly earned. This isn’t one of those comedies that cheat at every corner. Due credit, then, to director Carl Reiner, whose earlier collaborations with Steve Martin, including The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, ranged from the choppy to the experimental.

Oddly enough, All of Me might very well have taken the title of their previous film together: The Man with Two Brains. Perhaps they can be accused of being preoccupied with schizophrenia; but I wouldn’t care if their next movie were a comic version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—as long as it was as likable as All of Me.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

And, once again, by “schizophrenic” I actually meant “multiple personality.” A good film and a decided improvement over the previous Martin-Reiners, however much I might treasure the individual gags from those movies. In a way, the pairing of Tomlin and Martin makes sense, as both performers are meticulous and ultra-prepared in their approach to comedy; the styles mesh. But nothing in Martin’s movie career has matched the highs of his stand-up, as delightful as some of his movies have been.