Sunday, April 12, 2009
A Simple Lack Of Foresight
In 1975, twelve years before the release of ISHTAR, Warren Beatty co-starred with that other superstar, Jack Nicholson, in a film that also focused on a pair of idiots with a woman caught in between. And just like ISHTAR, it was a rather idiosyncratic comedy which also became a pretty big flop following an extremely troubled production. That it was directed by Elaine May’s former partner Mike Nichols only adds to the interest. If THE FORTUNE, written by Carol Eastman under the pen name Adrien Joyce, never became the same sort of pop-culture punchline it’s probably because the film has pretty much been MIA for the past several decades. It’s not on DVD and I can’t even tell if it was ever released on video—at the very least, I’ve never seen it available. It’s pretty surprising that there’s a film in existence starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty that no one seems to have ever head of. The average interview with Mike Nichols doesn’t mention it, including an April 12 piece in the New York Times on an upcoming retrospective at MOMA which does, incidentally, include this film in its lineup. Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders Raging Bulls” seems to say that the film went into production more because everyone was free to do it at that point, not because the script was ready and in fact it seems like the script was never really completed to anyyone’s satisfaction. In 1986 Mike Nichols told the LA Times, “One of the lessons of THE FORTUNE, in my view, and God knows who else’s view, is that it’s not enough just to put together good people. You have to have an idea. You can’t just wait for the idea. I don’t believe in picking fruit before it’s ripe. But you have to either find an idea or forge one eventually.” Fitfully enjoyable almost because of the pleasure in watching the personalities involved, THE FORTUNE isn’t a total misfire but it doesn’t quite stick. It would probably be fun to see it with a big crowd willing to laugh but in spite of the fact that everyone seems to be trying very hard it just kind of drifts away.
In the 1920s, to get around the Mann Act which disallowed women to be transported across State lines for immoral reasons, the already married Nicky (Beatty), unable to get a divorce, has his partner in crime Oscar (Nicholson) marry wealthy heiress Fredericka Quintessa Bigard (Stockard Channing) in a scheme to get at her money and the three take off together on a train heading for California. Soon after they arrive, both men begin to battle for her affections. When they reach their boiling point, they learn certain things about her inheritance and begin to formulate a new plan.
Sort of a Laurel and Hardy short with two really good-looking guys expanded to feature length, THE FORTUNE may be a misfire but that doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant experience to sit through. Filmed in the same one-take austere style that Nichols employed up to that point, it feels a little dry, as if the director knew to bring his style and the expertise of everyone around him to the material, but didn’t have much of an investment in it. So much of the exposition is spat out in the early scenes but none of it compels and I found myself paying more attention to the production design and the length of shots than what the plot was. With so many extra details like the marveling over an early plane flight it sometimes feels tough to know what we’re supposed to be focusing on anyway. As a result I felt lost early on and it still felt like the story didn’t really start until past the halfway point, an odd thing to say about a movie that only runs 88 minutes. Sometimes the approach works and things momentarily come alive, such as a tango sequence in which Channing moves back and forth between the two men as well as a scenes on a bridge where a traffic jam seemingly appears out of nowhere which apes the Hal Roach style almost better than anything else in the whole movie. There’s some enjoyment in the final section but for what’s supposed to be a madcap farce things stay on a pretty low simmer. When the ending comes it is well done in a way that feels particularly like old school Mike Nichols, but nothing about it resonates in any particular way. The film is insubstantial as air, but it still never has the sort of light touch that would be needed for this to work. Somebody like Blake Edwards might have been a better choice for this type of comedy, although I can’t help but think about how his A FINE MESS has a sort of “Is that really the whole movie?” kind of feel to it as well and not in a good way. It almost feels like the script was in fact never quite completed but the footage was shot and assembled into something more or less resembling a full story. As a result, something is missing that would have allowed it to cohere into a full experience. Supposedly it’s a favorite of the Coen Brothers which doesn’t seem like a real surprise. There are some pieces here that could probably be connected to any number of their movies but it’s almost as if they’re more fans of the idea of THE FORTUNE and its possibilities than the final result.
Beatty and Nicholson obviously seem so familiar with each other but no real chemistry between the two of them as characters ever develops to pull off any type of real Laurel and Hardy interplay. As it is, Nicholson makes more of an impression if only because of his Stooges-level hair which always looks as if he just got out of bed. Channing has her moments but she never quite overcomes having to play a character who ultimately doesn’t register. She also never quite achieved the right amount of screen presence until she got older and reached SIX DEGRESS OF SEPARATION and her long run on THE WEST WING. Here, it’s as if her face doesn’t have enough features in it yet. Florence Stanley has a few moments as the landlady and Scatman Crothers appears briefly as a fisherman in a scene with Nicholson several years before THE SHINING.
There’s not much that I dislike about THE FORTUNE but there’s not much real, genuine pleasure that I got out of it either. There’s not even very much to say about. It does make me more interested to revisit that even more notorious nostalgic 1975 flop AT LONG LAST LOVE but I should probably stop thinking about such things. Anyone interested—and even if I’m mixed about it, the film warrants being interested—would probably want to check it out at MOMA to see how it would play with an audience. It feels more clinical than it should, but I have a feeling that it might improve on repeat viewings. I’d go see it at MOMA myself, but it’s a bit of a drive. If anyone checks it out, please let me know how it goes. It might even be worth it.