Sunday, December 11, 2011
Getting Into Semantics
Writing about comedy can sometimes be a challenge because you naturally want to be able to say something more than simply “It was funny” or “It wasn’t funny.” There are films I love where even I haven’t come up with more to say than that so if there’s something extra going on between the laughs it can certainly help but, of course, sometimes a joke is just a joke and not much else—not that there’s anything wrong with that, at least not all of the time—but sometimes even jokes can dig a little deeper. Even better is when it becomes evident that there’s a consistent comedic point of view at work, turning those jokes into more than they seemed at first. When done right the result can be extremely rewarding, taking whatever the film or TV show is beyond just a mindless joke machine and ultimately becoming into a true expression of sensibilities. Is all this just a colossal example of overthinking on my part? Maybe, but that’s just what I do.
With a career that has spanned for decades there’s probably quite a story to be found in the career of Andrew Bergman—director, screenwriter, playwright, novelist, film historian and once dubbed “The Unknown King of Comedy” by New York Magazine. His director credits aren’t that extensive but there are several titles among them which people, including myself, have an ongoing fondness for particularly THE FRESHMAN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. He also wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay of BLAZING SADDLES when he was 27 (oh dear lord, are you serious? What have I done with my life?), was one of the writers on the fondly remembered SOAPDISH as well as being responsible for the screenplay of FLETCH. And of course he wrote the all-holy THE IN-LAWS which I could easily write an entire post on just quoting lines from it (“There are flames on my car!!”) but as some might know I also have a particular fondness for the 1986 comedy BIG TROUBLE, a Falk-Arkin reteaming he also wrote and was the original director on before being replaced by John Cassavetes, ultimately using the W.C. Fields-inspired pseudonym “Warren Bogle” in place of his screenplay credit. I know it’s kind of a mess, but my attachment to that film remains and I choose to believe he’s a big reason for that. But regardless of the film there’s an undeniable combination of satire and spirit found in his work which always manages to turn everything about the end result into something truly unique. More than most other screenwriters who seem known for comedy, Bergman seems to love the sheer use of language, forever getting caught up in the nitpicking of what the flow of certain words can mean a discussion of who “they” is referring to in THE FRESHMAN comes to mind) and through this shining a light on the peculiarities of his characters each of which, even the bit parts, are always allowed their own quirks. This sort of wordplay may be a little out of fashion by now—the Coen Brothers are among the few who ever attempt it, particularly when they’re in BURN AFTER READING territory—but such a display of twisted humor makes Bergman about as close as we’ve gotten in modern times to a Preston Sturges and it’s a combination of dialogue and character in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore. Maybe it’s just not allowed to happen. One of the apparently now hidden titles in Bergman’s career would have to be SO FINE, his directorial debut released in September 1981, which feels slightly forgotten now and only ever got a DVD release through the Warner Archive. Never approaching the hysterical plot complications of THE IN-LAWS, the film is ultimately kind of slight but has enough genuine laughs throughout that the more I watch it the more I feel like overlooking some of its shortcomings. I mean, there is something to be said about a film that makes you laugh. And SO FINE does at the very least have that.
New York dressmaker Jack Fine (Jack Warden) is in big trouble with very large, very intimidating loan shark Mr. Eddie (Richard Kiel), so mean and powerful that he has his own parking space on the street reading “Tow Away Zone Except for Mr. Eddie.” Taking over the business and insisting that capital be raised fast Mr. Eddie forces Jack’s bookish son Bobby (Ryan O’Neal), a literature professor at Chippenango State College (“Learn so ye may know”), to come work for the company even though he has absolutely no experience in the clothing industry whatsoever. But when Bobby meets Mr. Eddie’s Italian wife Lira (Mariangela Melato), a strikingly exotic beauty who tells him “I fuck around” about a minute after they meet the mutual interest is undeniable. Soon enough Lira is throwing herself at Bobby in her town house and when he frantically attempts to flee in her clothes early one morning without getting caught by Mr. Eddie he accidentally invents a new kind of special jeans with something very special in the rear. The success of what they dub “So Fine” sends the Fine business into the stratosphere and puts their money troubles to an end. But there’s still the issue of what will happen if Mr. Eddie finds out about Bobby and Lira which could prove far worse than what he ever threatened to do to his father.
Some films set in New York during the first years of the 80s can be odd to see now since the tone of the decade at that pre-Madonna stage hadn’t fully taken hold yet and it always feels a little like the world is still trying to shake off some kind of Studio 54-induced hangover which definitely feels like the case here. Featuring a sequence set in a disco and storyline designed to skewer whatever was going on in the fashion world at the time, maybe these elements are ultimately kind of incidental to SO FINE, a pretty silly yet spirited movie set among the messiness of what appears to be a cold New York winter with characters who don’t give a moments thought to knocking over perfume bottles while barging through a department store. Bergman’s films present a screwy look at the world often with a lead character just a little more in the dark than everyone else is to what’s going on and who suddenly finds himself in the thick of all the insanity of the world that everyone has already been caught up in. In the case of SO FINE that figure is Ryan O’Neal’s Bobby Fine, wearing glasses as if the actor is still meant to be a Peter Bogdanovich surrogate but not really given much in the way of a character to play to make him into the sort of weakling who needs to overcome fears and insecurities. All he really does is quote literature and even though some of that stands out as if it’s what he’s going to use to save his father’s company but really he just lucks into his good fortune in a way that seems to make about as much sense as the rest of all the madness.
Maybe one thing about 1981 is that it was a brief period where somebody in Hollywood that it was a commercial idea to make an R-rated sex comedy. Well, Blake Edwards’ “10” had happened, so maybe that has something to do with it. SO FINE has a certain European feel, undoubtedly aided by a score by Ennio Morricone of all people and though I only have a vague awareness of sex farces made in France or Italy during the 70s nevertheless it feels a little like that’s what the film, written and directed by Bergman, seems to be going for—just because of the tone if the end credits revealed it to be a flat-out remake of something from Europe I wouldn’t be that surprise. To go along with this feel, gorgeous female lead Mariangela Melato is so enjoyably over the top in how she throws herself at O’Neal that it plays a little as if she’s the sex-crazed secondary role before the ‘normal’ girl shows up for the romance. But normalcy never really enters this film and that very concept seems wrong for Bergman anyway—it strikes me that a regular female love interest never really turned up in one of his films until possibly Sarah Jessica Parker in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. SO FINE is set in a world of madness from the get go, with even the dull academics at Bobby’s college playing as slightly screwy in their own way. Unlike the unexpected twists which pop up in several of his other screenplays the impression SO FINE gives is that Bergman didn’t want to overcomplicate the plot of what was going to be his directorial debut so things never start twisting around like a pretzel in the way you’d almost expect. Running just over 90 minutes, the movie is so light and airy it almost floats away and any social satire that could be mined out of the success of the jeans during the “You’ve got the Jordache Look” pop culture of the time is almost incidental—even if they do inspire pratfalls by hapless men walking past beautiful women on the street they’re just jeans after all, even if they are designed to look like it’s revealing a girl’s ass, and it only seems to take up about fifteen minutes of the middle of the movie anyway. It does feel like the film could have done a little bit more with certain things, whether the collegial or garment industry settings or and some of the humor is of the time, like a few blatantly homophobic jokes tossed in there. I probably shouldn’t admit how much I laughed out loud at one particular line Jack Warden has when they enter Mr. Eddie’s club but it is something that Jack Warden says, after all. He really did know all about delivery.
But if there’s a list of films that are still pretty funny despite their shortcomings SO FINE would have to be on it and by a certain point the amount of jokes that hit is surprisingly consistent. Maybe getting laughs out of how scary Richard Kiel can be made to seem is hitting the broad side of the barn but regardless—whether we see how he takes out his anger on a pinball machine or how he helps himself to a piece of chocolate cake it all gets me to burst out into laughter just sitting here all by myself. As is sometimes the most hidden and most rewarding parts of any Andrew Bergman film, a few of the best lines also seem to float in from out of nowhere like how as O’Neal’s Bobby wonders if the mobsters shooting at him are students the dotty old poet he’s driving offers, “Must be upperclassman, I would think” or the random beat of O’Neal nervously noting the presence of curtains hanging in the windows in a limo he’s just entered. The way the recurring appearance of a desperate salesman played by Mike Kellin in the Fine offices pays off is nicely done as well and the way Bergman pauses the spiraling plot to have him talk about the multiple wives he’s had that have died is just another example of how the nit-picky nature to his dialogue works so well. Anything having to do with the plot of the wild overnight success of the So Fine jeans, if that part of the movie can even be called a plot, pretty much stops at around the hour mark as Mr. Eddie goes on the hunt for Bobby leading to a prolonged opera climax with a few of the leads assuming roles onstage and a few out-of-period backdrops falling into view—a nod to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, I assume. Even with running commentary from some of the college professors of the ‘A kind of sudden burst of surrealism!’ sort it never quite builds up the steam it needs—maybe Verdi’s Otello is a little too funereal for the pace of a madcap comedy but it keeps a smile on my face all the way up to the end. When the final scene happens it always makes me wish the movie could go on a little bit longer. It’s not great. Truthfully, I wish it was better. It still makes me laugh. It’s totally cockeyed in all the right ways.
Ryan O’Neal doesn’t have much of a character arc (like, say, the comparable character Henry Winkler plays in NIGHT SHIFT) but he seems ideally cast for someone sleep-walking his way through life who gets woken up almost accidentally by being tossed head first into this situation. When Melato’s Lira seductively strips down in front of him and says, “I’m a very unhappy woman,” the way he nervously responds with “You are?” has to be proof of how good a comic actor he can be at the right moments. Jack Warden’s continually energetic performance may not be as legendary as his work in USED CARS from the previous year but not only does it seem impossible for him to reach the end of a scene without getting a laugh the film this is all once again proof that few other actors have ever been able to swear quite like he did. Richard Kiel, whose character presumably has no relation to the Mr. Eddy played by Robert Loggia in LOST HIGHWAY, seems totally game, always willing to do whatever he can to get a laugh as Mr. Eddy no matter how silly he looks in doing it. Mariangela Melato, known over here for starring in multiple films for Lina Wertmüller as well as, yes, FLASH GORDON, is ridiculously gorgeous and very funny as well. She seems totally fearless in her own way, using every bone that she’s aware of to throw herself at Ryan O’Neal with all the abandon possible. Come to think of it, I don’t mind hearing her swear either and when she does it certainly results in one of the biggest laughs in the film. In a smaller role, Fred Gwynne doesn’t have much to do as the stuffy college chairman, but he makes what would be a dullard in most hands somewhat endearing. The familiar-looking faces that turn up throughout (it probably only seemed like Irving Metzman, seen here as the Fine company accountant, was in every movie shot in NY during the 80s) include Tony Sirico of THE SOPRANOS as one of Mr. Eddie’s goons, John Stockwell of CHRISTINE and later a director as a college student and the instantly recognizable Anita Morris as one of the So Fine Dancers during the big montage.
SO FINE is pretty silly stuff. I don’t even really know what else to say about it beyond how silly it is and how, ultimately, I was even a little surprised at how much it still makes me laugh. Maybe some of it is kind of endearing since this sort of satirical look at the past is always going to seem kind of quaint. Besides, when’s the last time you heard the “Look for the union label” jingle in a movie? Hell, when’s the last time Ennio Morricone worked it into his score? Within the screwy nature of the approach and Melato gazing at O’Neal with those huge eyes and Jack Warden trying to give people he talks to a pen, there’s a spirit to it all which feels totally absent from comedies these days. Andrew Bergman seems to have been quiet since directing the 2000 Jacqueline Susann biopic ISN’T SHE GREAT (you don’t need to worry about that one) and that can’t be a good thing. It occurs to me that many comedies these days are either about maintaining the status quo in the end or learning to be a better person than the slacker you were at the start. Bergman’s world, as filtered through his films, feels more adventurous as if it knows enough to acknowledge that once the particular madness has infiltrated the lives of the people it’s thrown into chaos it can never fully leave. Considering how Bobby Fine is falling asleep in the middle of a faculty meeting when we first meet him and where he soon finds himself this can only be a good thing, even if he is desperately running for his life some of the time. “How long have the streets been fucked up like this?” inquires a certain someone when they find themselves in a famous setting during the final scene of SO FINE. It’s one of the biggest laughs of the entire film and it may as well be what Andrew Bergman is asking about the entire world as well. And you can tell that he loves it.