Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Cadillac Without Doors

Blake Edwards’ A FINE MESS is a curious film, one which has the director returning to a type of tribute to old-style Hollywood comedy that he had done many times before. The most obvious example of this would have to be THE GREAT RACE, which began with the dedication “For Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy”. A FINE MESS, a title presumably taken from Oliver Hardy’s “another nice mess” exclamations, began with a similar intent as a feature-length remake of the Laurel and Hardy classic THE MUSIC BOX. A player piano does, in fact, figure in the plot as a sort-of MacGuffin, but in the middle of the film’s protracted post-production process, the entire sequence intended to serve as the MUSIC BOX remake was cut from the film. The film still makes sense without it, but the question of what exactly A FINE MESS is doesn’t really get answered.

To take a stab at the incident-heavy plotline: Spence Holden (Ted Danson) is a extra working on a film shoot at the racetrack when he overhears two low-level mobsters (Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin) talking about their plan to drug a horse named Sorry Sue, enabling them to fix a race the next day. When he is spotted, they chase after Spence who steals a car from the film set to get away. He then ropes his best friend Dennis Powell (Howie Mandel) into helping him make his way to the racetrack the next day without the mobsters finding him. This leads to several other chases in addition to numerous developments that include an auctionhouse, two women who come into their lives, the police, a mob boss, the aforementioned player piano and multiple car crashes.

A FINE MESS begins and ends with sequences that appear to be ‘real’ but are then revealed as films being shot. There’s an entire layer of reality/unreality issues that move through the entire film but none of it ever seems to mesh into anything cohesive. Dennis Powell is introduced as working as a carhop at a drive-in which seems like something out of the fifties with roller-skating waitresses all moving in synchronization. Even all of the customers seem like teenyboppers out of the fifties. Within all of this we get Spence Holden pulling into a spot in the stolen car looking like something out of the thirties. There’s obviously something going on here which is intended to be a commentary about what we’re seeing but what exactly is it? A director doesn’t need to flat out state what he’s doing thematically in a particular film since if his intent is clear then we can sort that out for ourselves. When these elements turn up in A FINE MESS it simply seems curious. When compared to, say, BLIND DATE, Edwards’ farce which was released the following year, it’s clear that the latter film is meant to be set more in the ‘real’ world, or at least Blake Edwards’ idea of the real world(not that it necessarily makes BLIND DATE a better film, but it’s a useful comparison). In the case of A FINE MESS, as well-paced as it is, the issue of its own reality never quite gets clarified. A Cadillac driven by the bad guys gets involved in multiple accidents, resulting in both of its doors missing. It’s a funny sight, but in some ways A FINE MESS resembles that Cadillac without doors, only in the case of the film as a whole we never feel like we’re told exactly why those doors are missing.

The project apparently originated with the intent to be mostly improvised, much like THE PARTY, but it went into production with a full script. It was originally scheduled to be released in Christmas 1985, got pushed back to May 1986 before it finally came out in August of that year. With the number of chases it contains and extreme amount of stuff going on throughout it never becomes dull and I sometimes find myself enjoying the rigidly structured frenzy of the slapstick. It’s filled with farcical coincidences that strain credibility, but no more than certain episodes of SEINFELD do. Still, there’s an empty feeling to the whole thing which indicates that whatever the original intent was, something that goes beyond that MUSIC BOX sequence being excised, got lost somewhere along the way. The fact that the MUSIC BOX section got cut isn’t even that surprising, since it comes at a point in the plot when the various elements are getting ready to crash together in the climax and to go off-point for an extended length of time may not have worked. As it is, the only indication of it left in the film is Howie Mandel visibly wondering how they’re going to get it up the staircase before them. When we return to the two leads after cutting away to another scene, the job has already been completed. Putting this aside, the film at least feels tonally consistent and the only thing that feels genuinely off while watching it is the presence of the continuous rock songs on the soundtrack. Henry Mancini is, no surprise, credited with the music but none of those songs are his and it is very obvious how out of place they are. The eighties-ness of the tracks are much of what hurts it—maybe they’d work fine in THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS, but not in a film which seems specifically designed to exist somewhere out of time. As it is, Mancini’s contributions in the final film are minimal. Most notable is the recurring song heard coming out of the player piano, which sounds like it could come from the piano museum in the Mancini-scored MANS’S FAVORITE SPORT? or maybe even Marlene Dietrich’s bordello in TOUCH OF EVIL.

Ted Danson and Howie Mandel are at least likable and energetic in the leads. It’s Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin as the mobsters Turnip and Binky who seem like the real Laurel & Hardy surrogates—Mulligan is the childlike idiot and Margolin barely seems able to walk two feet without banging into something. Maria Conchita Alonso and Jennifer Edwards, both game, are the girls, Paul Sorvino is the opera-singing mob boss and Keye Luke gets pretty high billing for doing little more than saying “Come in”. James Cromwell plays one of a pair of Mutt and Jeff cops (the other guy does most of the talking), Dennis Franz plays Danson’s brother-in-law, still acting like one of his De Palma sleazes and Dr. Herb Tanney, billed as Shep Tanney, plays a veterinarian. Julianne Phillips, who would work with Edwards again in SKIN DEEP, appears unbilled as one of Danson’s many sexual conquests.

At one point in A FINE MESS a character is informed by his butler of a woman who has called for him on the phone and the man does an immediate spit take as his wife sits there, silently fuming. There’s a full narrative revealed in these few seconds and it’s a moment like that which displays the comic mastery that Blake Edwards is capable of. The entire film is somewhat more problematic, but at least some of that mastery comes through on occasion. It can’t exactly be called an artistic success, but there are far worse punishments I can imagine than sitting through A FINE MESS again.

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