Thursday, October 12, 2017

Where Ignorance Is Bliss

There’s something to be said about the fantasy of being a stranger in a strange land, of thrusting yourself out of normal life into somewhere far off. This sounds particularly nice these days. A few Paul Mazursky films touch on such a theme even if only in minor ways but the overall idea becomes, You have to go as far away as possible to find out who you are, what you can do, who you can love and what you were meant to be in your own world. It’s a small idea to discover, but it can matter. Paul Mazursky’s MOON OVER PARADOR was released in early September 1988 and even though it opened in the number one slot at the box office the film didn’t stick around for long. Only a week later the top spot was taken over by A FISH CALLED WANDA, which had already been playing since July. The following week the number one film was David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS. What I’m saying here, kids, is that it was a strange and different time. This was Mazursky’s first film after DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, one of the biggest hits of his career but as much as that one seemed to totally click, MOON OVER PARADOR feels like a screwball concept aiming for high comedy that becomes more pleasant than anything and in the end sort of fizzles. Even the ideas similar to other Mazursky films, which are there if you dig far enough, feel shoehorned in so it’s mostly a nice diversion where the pleasures are maybe a little too minor.

While filming a movie in the South American dictatorship of Parador, actor Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss) decides to stick around a few extra days for Carnival when he is suddenly kidnapped and brought to Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), the dictator’s head of secret police with the news that Parador’s president Alphonse Simms has suddenly died of a heart attack. Having seen Noah’s uncanny impression of the dictator, Strausmann gives him the chance of a lifetime to impersonate Simms and help the country avoid revolution. Noah accepts, even though he has very little choice, but soon encounters Sims’ mistress Madonna Mendez (Sonia Braga) who quickly learns the truth about what has happened. She offers to help Jack out with his new role but even as he gets further into the part and achieves more success as Simms he gets increasingly fearful of the insane Strausmann while continuing to look for a way to escape playing this role forever.

The opening shot showing Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York that leads into the framing device makes it clear that MOON OVER PARADOR is mostly a theatrical piece, not as concerned with the agonies of the real world as some of Mazursky’s other films are. It also feels like one of the only Paul Mazursky films that doesn’t seem designed to be set in the specific moment it was made, as if the life of an actor resides outside of such earthly matters. Maybe Mazursky just liked the idea of making a broad comedy without too much personal introspection but it’s sort of an outlier in his filmography which consists of stories that seemed almost designed to date instantly, set during the exact cultural moment in which they were conceived. Aside from the fact that this is obviously an 80s movie set during the 80s there’s next to nothing about it that comments on the period except for maybe a random Reagan joke and a few other small details. The idea apparently came from the plot of the 1939 film THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD but MOON OVER PARADOR (screenplay by Leon Capetanos & Mazursky, based on a story by Charles G. Booth) is also somewhat similar to Ivan Reitman’s DAVE which came only five years later, written by Gary Ross and slightly more of a comment on actual politics of the time, arriving in theaters at the end of three terms of Reagan-Bush. PARADOR is set in more of a fanciful movie world taking place in a fictional country and the film itself is one that cares more about the art of performance than anything. Even if what could happen to Parador becomes a plot device meant to be taken more or less seriously it still never seems part of the real world and it never feels like Jack Noah is in any real danger. The country is all kind of a dream in his head and so is the film.

Filmed in Brazil with bright, cheerful cinematography by Donald McAlpine, MOON OVER PARADOR always looks good in a movie-movie way and certainly has a wide, expansive feel, clearly the biggest of all Mazursky productions complete with what appears to be thousands of extras in some shots. Maybe the peak moment of the entire running time comes early on during the Carnival sequence as none other than Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, glides into frame singing “Begin the Beguine” with Sonia Braga dancing in a tight gold dress next to him, the image so decadent that it almost seems beamed in from another planet. Nothing else lives up to how truly out there the moment feels but what also sticks out is how Mazursky doesn’t seem very interested in all the activity around them. He goes right for the people he cares about in the middle of all this and other filmmakers may have gone for a few extra angles of everything going on but Paul Mazursky was never a director that you went to for epic scope. By a certain point in the film the lack of attention paid to how many extras there are almost becomes part of the joke, the main character growing more unimpressed and along with that scale it’s perhaps the most benign film that Mazursky ever made. It’s also one of the slightest, mildly engaging but never delivering on the big laughs as if he was so content to be amused by what the actors were doing that he never went beyond that. The scripting is loose, not surprising since Mazursky is at his best when he digs inside his characters and their foibles, but the people in this film aren’t deep enough to explore since it’s mostly just a lark. His films were never about clockwork plot structure either but it’s such a light story that there’s not much to gleam from Jack Noah’s predicament and as things play out not enough laughs to support that either.

It may be fair in this day and age to ask if the basic premise counts as a form of brownface and it’s certainly not something the film is ever concerned about. The real dictator is quickly forgotten by the people who knew him and no one seems surprised that he’s dead, being all too familiar with his extravagant lifestyle. Jack Noah’s concerns as an actor mostly has to do with how needy he is, how antsy he is to move on to the next job. Instead of worrying about how his life is in jeopardy all it takes is a few old reviews waved in front of his face to convince him how perfect he is for this part. If you’re looking for a character arc, not exactly something this film is that concerned with, you could say that what he learns is that the praise needs to come not from cheering crowds but from those closest to you and, in the end, yourself. That’s how you find peace. The film wants Parador to slightly come off as a fantasy kingdom like Freedonia in DUCK SOUP (forget about any language issues; I think the convoluted history of the country we’re given is meant to account for that) but still have us worry about the citizens caught between the fascists in charge and the rebels threatening revolution. When the phony dictator finally takes action to really do something the plot mostly peters out. There’s probably a biting satire to be made on Latin American politics but this isn’t the film and it’s not really what they were going for anyway.

Naturally the people close to Simms figure out that something is up right away and simply decide not to say anything out of fear of losing their jobs with the declaration, “The dictator is the dictator” which is a good joke but it also means that they don’t do much aside from that. Up against the maniacal raving of Raul Julia there’s something automatically funny about having almost all of the great Fernando Rey's performance as Simms’ valet be one giant poker face but the film still doesn’t do very much with the idea. Even Charo is there as just a sight gag announcing her presence and not much else. It’s a film filled with people who give it a slight tinge of madness but too many of them have little to do so Mazursky’s skewering is just a little too genial as if he likes people too much to get too nasty with them. Instead he focuses on the broad bits of business like Julia teaching Dreyfuss about the art of flipping his hand as he salutes although it has to be said that skewering the vanity of a Latin American dictator feels a little subdued compared to the real world these days. Running jokes about the presumably escaped Nazis living in Parador flitter in and out, the rebels have their own actor on their side (cameo by Ed Asner) and even the real dictator was likely just a puppet as well. Everyone is an imposter and no one cares.

The overall message approaches being cynical but the tone is still so benign that it isn’t one of the more interesting Mazursky films although as a flat out comedy it’s probably not supposed to be anyway. It’s breezy and moves so fast that I’m almost surprised the film is as long as it is (103 minutes) with the boisterous Maurice Jarre score bringing just the right larger than life quality. Even when the material is half baked it feels like Mazursky is always doing something with the frame, always giving an actor in it something to do so nothing about it is ever dull or dumbed-down, it’s just a little too mild. The film has spirit but it needs more of a manic streak, more doors being slammed, more panic coming from Richard Dreyfuss being Richard Dreyfuss. Working lyrics from MAN OF LA MANCHA into a speech is cute as is the new Parador National Anthem patterned after “Bésame Mucho” but not much more than that and when Mazursky himself turns up in drag playing the dictator’s mother the whole thing takes on a slight in-joke feel, nothing really at stake. In Sam Wasson’s book “Paul on Mazursky” the director, who mostly recalls the film with genial fondness, talks about how there were issues with Universal during the cutting very late in the game. Some of what the studio wanted done sounds like executive doublespeak to make adjustments to the story or bolster the main character’s arc, not really what he cared about. It’s fair to argue that there were problems with the film but they probably should have been addressed while it was being written, not during the eleventh hour when at best all you could do was apply a few random Band-Aids.

It’s a film that feels like what it was meant to be but it’s still a little too mellow in the end and as a result not very memorable. It’s nice and that’s really it. More than being a farce it’s almost like a spiritual journey by the main character, the sort undertaken in Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL and TEMPEST which helps Jack Noah convince himself of what he’s able to pull off both as an actor and as a person. Acting, the very concept of being an artist, is real and tangible the film seems to say, something the maniac Strausmann can never comprehend. He hates actors but loves celebrities, an obsession that is his Achilles heel, and it’s all surface for him, all about empty power, never about the art of truly being. The framing device is still a glimpse at the Paul Mazursky film we’d rather see, an actor living in New York with the Sunday Times always nearby in that familiar world instead of this prolonged vacation. The movie we get in essence is the Mazursky world view of loving life but that quality removes any bite the story could have. Because of the flashback device it’s a little open how much of what Dreyfuss tells really happened but it doesn’t matter because reality often feels somewhat fluid in Mazursky films anyway. To him, the journey is about enriching yourself and if you do something useful for others along the way that’s good too. Sometimes these glories have to be created in our own heads and, as the end of the film reminds us, that’s the way we need to live our lives in order to survive.

What the film does have is its three lead performances and the chemistry that’s always there when they play off each other. When he’s simply Jack Noah, Richard Dreyfuss is about as loose as he’s ever been in a film, almost with no inhibitions in between identities and even amused by his own insecurities. When he’s the dictator the broadness makes it more of a caricature that the true character never really comes through, a reminder that Noah himself feels he’s giving a “result-oriented performance.” But in either guise some of Dreyfuss’ best moments on a pure acting level are him up against Raul Julia, truly maniacal as Strausmann displaying a sense of comic danger that combines joie de vivre with the ever-present threat that he really could go mad at any second. When the rest of the movie cruises along, he forces it into overdrive with the sheer Nazi ferociousness of his laughter. And when Sonia Braga is onscreen the pure physicality of her presence (her hair deserves its own screen credit) combined with sharp coming timing is in its own way a dream for Dreyfuss to work with so their banter becomes an actual relationship combining chemistry with friendly bickering in the middle of this fantasy romance. Jonathan Winters gets a few moments as the retiree with his own secret identity—some of his muttering to Dreyfuss early on sounds like ad-libbing and I wish there was more of it. Polly Holliday is Winters’ wife, Marianne Sägebrecht of BAGDAD CAFÉ is the dictator’s masseuse, Dana Delany is Jack Noah’s co-star in the film shooting in Parador, Michael Greene of LOST IN AMERICA is the special effects guy, Dick Cavett is Dick Cavett, Mazursky’s wife Betsy, who recently died on Oct. 3 2017, appears briefly as does Richard Dreyfuss’ brother Lorin, playing the real dictator when the two are in the same shot.

Right now we seem to find ourselves as strangers in a strange land as far as the real world goes, it just feels like more of a dark allegory than a fantasy. MOON OVER PARADOR is a nice enough movie and even a hopeful one it’s just a little toothless even if it is a reminder that we’re all experts on fake presidents/would-be dictators these days. The film is ultimately a lark, complete with a couple of Parador cops who turn up throughout as a sort of Greek chorus throughout as we follow their journey from cynicism to a sincere nod of the head as if to say, maybe this could work. In some small way it counts as progress. The punchline to the whole theme of everyone acting as an imposter comes at the end with a suggestion that we’re seeing someone as they really are for the first time and the moment doesn’t quite land but it is a nice thought. “Sonia Braga is Hillary Clinton, but I didn’t know that then,” Mazursky offers in “Paul on Mazursky” (published in 2011) and if he had maybe there would have been sharper focus towards where the film was going. But it also makes me think of what Mazursky has missed out on since he died in 2014. MOON OVER PARADOR is still likable and not at all a travesty, not then or now, it just never clicks as maybe it could have. But it does make me think that all the world isn’t just a stage, it’s a theater. And it’s up to you if you want to watch or come up with your own character. In life the clock is always ticking towards what we’re meant to be with the hope that maybe someday we’ll figure it out.

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