Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Having Your Cake And Eating It Too

Since I recently watched “10” yet again, I thought it might be an ideal time to revisit the other Blake Edwards-Dudley Moore collaboration, MICKI + MAUDE. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it and when the films of Blake Edwards are discussed it seems to have fallen through the cracks for everyone else as well, never getting much mention on either the usual lists of the best or worst films by the director, even though it was received very well upon release in Christmas 1984, including a rave from Vincent Canby in the New York Times, a place on Gene Siskel’s ten best list (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA got the top spot) as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture Comedy/Musical. Dudley Moore won the Globe in his category as well. The surprise in revisiting it, especially considering how much I’ll defend Edwards’ films, is that MICKI + MAUDE is, well, kind of boring. Yes, it’s fairly well done and played but, surprising for the director, there seems to be a decidedly low energy level running through most of it. It’s a ‘nice’ movie, it really is, but it’s a valid question just how much good a purely ‘nice’ Blake Edwards movie does for anyone.

Dudley Moore is Rob Salinger, TV reporter for the show “America Hey!” who is desperate to have a baby with his career-minded wife Micki (Ann Reinking). When she puts off trying for a child yet again, Rob happens to meet beautiful cellist Maude (Amy Irving) and begins an affair with her. When she informs him that she is pregnant he reluctantly decides to divorce Micki but before he can tell her she informs him that not only is she is pregnant, but realizing how much she loves Rob she's decided to put her career on hold and have the baby. Feeling that he has no other option, Rob chooses not to tell Micki yet marries Maude as well. Now that he is married to both women, each going through a pregnancy, he is continually forced to go to great lengths to ensure that neither one will catch on to the double life he is leading.

When Ben Stiller starred in the bad remake of THE HEARTBREAK KID last year there was much talk of how unlikable his character was. In the case of MICKI + MAUDE, what Dudley Moore’s character does is of course pretty unconscionable as well, but I suppose the idea is that he’s likable enough to get away with it. As a matter of fact, the film seems to bend over backwards in multiple exposition scenes to both make him more sympathetic and to explain away any logic questions anyone might have (Rob can’t tell Micki because her pregnancy is so delicate he doesn’t want her to lose the baby, that sort of thing). Maybe it’s that going to comic extremes while lusting after Bo Derek can be very funny but going to such extremes while wanting a baby, while dramatically valid, really isn’t. After all, is bigamy inherently funny? Too often the movie feels like it’s trying to squeeze in comic bits, like Moore’s reaction to a drink in an early party scene, as opposed to it emerging organically from the material which is usually something that Edwards excels in. I also found myself thinking too much about the realities of the matter. Wouldn’t Maude ask questions about the divorce he supposedly got? Shouldn’t Richard Mulligan, as his friend, tell him to suck it up and do the right thing from the start?

It’s to the movie’s credit that, in addition to never stacking the deck in favor of one woman against the other, they both are presented as well-rounded individuals, with Edwards never letting either one become a stereotypical shrew or bitch like could be imagined in other films. Even when both characters separately express worries about their pregnancy, even in a slightly comic way, it never feels done in an exaggerated fashion. The drawback to this approach, again, is that it feels so ‘nice’ that it feels like any edge the material may have had is being shaved off. Reinking and Irving both seem very nice, but comic actors they’re not. For a long stretch of screen time, the only scenes that have any zip to them are the ones Moore plays with best friend/boss Richard Mulligan. The bulk of the exposition has to come out here, but it’s still fun to watch the two actors bounce off each other, with some of the best dialogue in the film. Incidentally, MICKI + MAUDE is the rare Edwards film with another writer, Jonathan Reynolds, credited with the screenplay (presumably this is why it’s “A Blake Edwards Film” and not “Blake Edwards’ MICKI + MAUDE”), but it doesn’t seem like too much of a reach to imagine that Edwards worked on it. Some of the dialogue in the Mulligan scenes feels most like this, such as a bit where he and Moore argue over the meaning of the phrase “Eat your cake and have it too” when they should of course be focusing on other things.

After a long, fairly dreary middle section detailing Rob’s home life with both women, neither of whom seem to have any friends in their lives who might get suspicious at the odd hours Rob keeps, the movie fortunately picks up speed as Rob finds himself at a doctor’s office with both wives at once, followed by the farcical show-stopper of both of them going into labor in the same hospital at the same time in adjoining rooms. Now that’s the sort of Marx Brothers stateroom scene that we want out of this and it’s expertly staged by Edwards. The problem is that after all this madness the film has to deal with the reality of the matter, not something the Marx Brothers ever had to deal with and the nature of the deception is much more serious than what Dustin Hoffman had to deal with at the end of TOOTSIE. As a result, it feels like the movie writes itself into a corner and is unable to find a way out, at least not in a way that feels satisfying. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that a number of Edwards movies seem to sputter to a halt at the end, the equivalent of shrugging its shoulders and saying “Well, I guess that’s about it,” which hurts some films more than others. With “10” and S.O.B. it works fine but I honestly feel that if it wasn’t for a lousy ending VICTOR/VICTORIA might justly be thought of as a classic. (THE BIG LEBOWSKI is one of the only films I can think of that ever pulled off this sort of finish). The way MICKI + MAUDE is plotted it needs a concrete, satisfying ending and it unfortunately doesn’t get it. One imagines Blake Edwards waking up in the middle of the night years later exclaiming, “THAT’S how I should have ended it!” What that might be, however, I really don’t know.

Moore is very good in the role but, again, it’s more enriching to see him playing somebody slightly cracked, whether in the earlier film with Edwards, FOUL PLAY or ARTHUR. Here, by nature, he’s meant to be more of a mature adult—the actor was probably trying to stretch—and that’s perfectly believable, but it doesn’t make it much fun. Reinking and Irving, again, both manage to create believable, likable characters with the main drawback being neither one is very good at comedy. This turned out to be Reinking’s last film role and one of the things she’s best remembered for now is a legendarily bad performance of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” at the Oscars that year. Outside of Mulligan, the only actors who get a chance to make an impression are the always welcome Wallace Shawn as Micki’s doctor and Lu Leonard as a suspicious nurse and the punchline to their little subplot is one of the most enjoyable things in the two hours. H.B Haggerty plays Maude’s intimidating pro wrestler father who provides another reason why Rob doesn’t come clean right away and various real life wrestlers, including Andre the Giant, appear in cameos.

Adding to the slightly off feel of the movie is the fact that it’s one of the few Blake Edwards films not scored by Henry Mancini, but beats me why this is the case. Was he held hostage by Tobe Hooper on LIFEFORCE at the time? The score we do get by Lee Holdridge is serviceable (the sappy song “Something New In My Life” is written by Michel Legrand with lyrics by by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) but it’s hard not to think about the added levity that a Mancini score could possibly have provided the film.

I’m open to the possibility that the nature of MICKI + MAUDE isn’t necessarily what I want from Blake Edwards movies but I’d like to think that if I thought it worked better that wouldn’t be too much of a concern. As it is, the way the overly cuddly approach mingles uneasily with its subject matter and this contrast in tones never seems to let the film glide along like some of the director’s best films do. The adult approach is a definite plus and prevents any of the characters from becoming stupid, refreshing these days, but I'm not sure that any farce was ever made funnier by making it more mature. MICKI + MAUDE is neither the best nor the worst film that Blake Edwards ever made. Which, come to think of it, is how I started this whole thing in the first place.

1 comment:

Barnaby Marriott said...

I really enjoyed reading about your thoughts on Micki + Maude, which is one of my all time favourite films. I agree with a lot of your opinions - watching the film for the 100th time again recently, it's true that it needs an adrenalin shot in the middle to speed things up a notch! The ending is a problem - and as you say, it's a film that really needs the bizarre situation resolved by the end of it, rather than the ongoing deception of Rob seeing both Micki and Maude secretly, and somehow having even more children with them - how on earth could Micki, who has already had a miscarriage and a very complicated birth where she had to stay in bed for seven-and-a-half months, leading to a caesarian delivery, continue to keep having more kids?! In hindsight, the perfect ending would have been Micki and Maude, who bizarrely became good friends rather than bitter rivals wanting to scratch one another's eyes out, realising that the perfect solution was that Rob loved them both and loved the babies, and they suggest to Rob that they live in a polygamy situation, all of them together in the same household - no more running around, double lifes, secrecy, and Rob indeed takes care of the kids and "knits and cleans and scrubs" and becomes the "househusband" that he always wanted, and lives with both women and their kids in one home. That is exactly how the film should have ended, but that's just my opinion. If the film had gone down a different route, where he ended up with one woman, I used to always think it would be impossible for him to make the decision - but more and more times recently, I think he should be with Micki. I love Ann Reinking so much in this part - she is definitely the more interesting of the two women, kind of frustrating that she is such a workaholic control freak (even when she's told by her doctor that she needs to stay in bed for seven and a half months because of her high risk pregnancy, she ends up "being more active than when she had a job" as Rob puts it at one point!), but she has a real sparkle about her, while Amy Irving (who I also love) as Maude is very much a sit on the sofa and do nothing kind of girl. I think also that Rob and Micki have their ten year history together, and Maude really makes a play for Rob - the seduction scenes when they're both drunk at the party and back at her apartment, it is Maude definitely in the driving seat! But both Reinking and Irving are great in their parts, and it was written in a way that the viewer HAD to sympathise with Rob's dilemma, not being able to make that choice between them! I love this movie so much, and wish it was better known today than it is. I recently saw the video footage of Dudley Moore winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and his acceptance speech is hilarious! He was terrific in the part, and the film meant a lot to him by all accounts. Both Reinking and Irving said that Moore made both of them feel like they were the most special women alive while they were making this film and laughing so much for three months. Wonderful to know that it was happy on the set! Thank you again for a great article on a film I truly love.