Sunday, August 8, 2010

Trying To Look Hip

I’m beginning to think that I just don’t have it in me to write a screenplay that contains any sort of examination of a long-term relationship. I’ve tried. I’ve tried recently. It just doesn’t work. I can’t even get a girl to have dinner with me these days, so I’m nowhere close to being able to explore something like that creatively. Maybe just give me a call when the remake of THE LONELY GUY needs some script polishing. So don’t expect an ANNIE HALL or TWO FOR THE ROAD for our times to come from me and I guess I also wouldn’t be the guy to write something as goofy as SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER, a would-be satirical look at the fears of marriage which stands as the one attempt Mike Myers has ever made to play a relatively normal person in a movie. That is, to say, the character actually looks like Mike Myers, even if it isn't the only character he plays in the film. A box office flop when it was released at the end of July 1993 it’s the sort of film that should play as a relaxing summer romantic comedy but even though there are some laughs found in there it never really comes together. Even now there are too many things that bug me while watching it and the movie winds up not being very much of anything.

Charle MacKenzie (Mike Myers) is a coffee house beat poet in San Francisco with a best friend named Tony (Anthony LaPaglia) who works as an undercover cop, a father (also Myers) who angrily spends most of his time watching soccer on TV and an eccentric mother (Brenda Fricker) who refers to the Weekly World News as ‘the paper’. Charlie also has a habit of seemingly looking for reasons to dump women he’s dating (“She smelled like soup”) seemingly ending every relationship he gets into before they can even start. When he meets a beautiful butcher named Harriet (Nancy Travis) the two of them fall for each other almost immediately but Charlie soon begins to fixate on the possibility that she may be the infamous “Mrs. X” his mother learned about from the Weekly World News, a serial killer who murders each of her husbands on their honeymoon. After he breaks it off with Harriet based on this fear Charlie soon realizes how crazy the whole idea is but after they get back together and he finally proposes the evidence that Harriet really might be Mrs. X genuinely begins to mount.

The screenplay is credited to Robbie Fox but from the moment a STARSKY & HUTCH joke is heard near the very beginning much of the humor is very obviously the work of Myers himself (working with one-time partner Neil Mullarkey apparently—the two were denied screen credit in arbitration) and revisiting it seventeen years after its release this coffee house milieu couldn’t come off as more early 90s if we were watching a romantic comedy made today that was set in the early 90s and tried to play up the time frame in a WEDDING SINGER sort of way. If comedy comes from truth then the thematic notion that marriage equals some sort of death is a good place to start for a dark comedy but with very little reality to begin with the movie continually undercuts its own premise. It’s a film with a lead character who doesn’t seen to do much to make a living beyond recite poetry and tool around San Francisco in a snazzy convertible, nothing to worry about, nothing to ever do, no real character beyond a gimmicky ‘fear of commitment’. Shouldn’t he move to Chicago and try to get into Second City or something? With the coffee house scenes giving me a few flashbacks that I actually don’t mind all that much, Myers’ poems bemoaning his broken romances get the right mood going but it’s never a very good idea to focus so much on a movie character who’s actually funny to people in the movie and the actor never seems to realize this. He seems to spend way too much time trying to prove how cute and charming he is to everyone—many other comedians of his ilk (Dana Carvey, Dan Akroyd) have tried to play ‘straight’ leads in their own films but it never really seems to take because personalities like that usually work better in character roles or Austin Powers-type leads. In Myers’ case as this regular guy there are shots when he just seems frozen, trying to make his toothy grin as big as possible and hope that will compensate for how he doesn’t have much of an idea of how to play this normal guy.

The movie skirts the issues of love and commitment on occasion but instead of exploring them in any incisive or satirical way it mostly either gives us another wacky montage to show us how ‘funny’ Myers/Charlie is or just ignores it, lurching from one plot point to the next. Emphasis is continually placed on the wrong thing whether it’s the unnecessary comedy cameos (Charles Grodin and Steven Wright work well in their appearances when they happen but Phil Hartman and Michael Richards just come off as distractions) or its portrayal of San Francisco which is pretty and gives a cheerful feel to things but spends way too much time having its characters walk through tourist attractions as opposed to places people who live there might actually go. Director Thomas Schlamme starts things off with a big shot in the coffee house following the process of how a giant cup of cappuccino is made but since there’s no real point to it touches like that don’t really amount to much and the overall feel is that the director was able to make the film feel more nice than funny (one element that helps is Bruce Broughton’s music which gives a nice beatnik vibe to the coffeehouse milieu, making it that rare comedy score that actually compliments the film). Schlamme, who later joined forces with Aaron Sorkin to direct multiple episodes of THE WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT among numerous other TV shows, apparently didn’t get along with Myers (I remember reading some of this in an article on the star in GQ a number of years ago) and there’s a vagueness to the overall approach that gives the impression the whole thing just never had the guiding hand it needed, somebody to focus on what the film should be about. Instead, it all just comes off as kind of random. Funny bits do float in there like Anthony LaPaglia’s cop best friend who wants to actually do things that he imagines cops do but never enough of them and once the marriage happens it feels like the entire approach to the third-act is just wrong, even when it finally begins incorporating nods to the whole marriage=death theme. It’s also hard not to notice how the rushed ending feels hesitant to show the two leads truly together and lend a sense of completeness to all this, content to do nothing but show Mike Myers smiling a little too big once again. Maybe most importantly of all, too much of the time the film just isn’t as funny as it should be or seems to think that it is. It’s just kind of empty, maybe best exemplified in how a few years ago it was reissued on DVD as a ‘Special Edition’ which contained absolutely zero special features.

The awkwardness Myers projects in the lead role gives the impression that he seems more into playing his character’s father under heavy old age makeup. It’s the first example of this Peter Sellers sort of approach in his films (interestingly, Myers also dotes on the word ‘evil’ at one point, as if preparing for the AUSTIN POWERS trilogy) but the father always seems slightly separated from the rest of the story, singing along to the Bay City Rollers or muttering conspiracy theories as if playing in an SNL sketch while everyone else is in an actual movie. With Myers seeming uncomfortable playing a normal guy, the film needed a female lead to really bring some juice to all this, to somehow add something to the script’s subtext. Nancy Travis is very attractive (I love her in that dress she wears on their honeymoon) and seems friendly enough but she has no edge to her at all, so the romance just all comes off as vanilla. She’s one of those actresses who always worked better on sitcoms, like ALMOST PERFECT in the mid-90s and the two leads combined just turn the center of the movie into a giant black hole.

Amanda Plummer as Harriet’s sister Rose actually does provide some edge in her first scene but she doesn’t get to do very much after that. Anthony LaPaglia does proves how consistently funny he can really be in the stock best friend role, Brenda Fricker feels slightly underused as Charlie’s mother, Debi Mazar has one cute moment as Tony’s girlfriend who got electrocuted once, Al Nalbandian (instantly recognizable from other Bay Area shoots like THE CONVERSATION and AMERICAN GRAFFITTI) is a customer in the butcher shop while Sheila Kelley of L.A. LAW and recently LOST can be seen in photos as Charlie’s ex-girlfriend—evidence of deleted scenes or was she just doing someone a favor? By a long shot, the best thing in the whole movie is the uncredited Alan Arkin, brilliant as Tony’s captain in three brief scenes (it feels like there should be another to make the running gag completely work, but never mind) who has no idea how to be the kind of cop who screams at people. When Tony moans how he wishes he could commandeer a vehicle and Arkin, smiling, says, “Now that sounds like a fun of fun,” in a spacey kind of way it gets me to laugh out loud like nothing else in the entire movie. A few brief minutes in this middling movie should be all anyone needs to realize what a treasure Alan Arkin really is.

Sharon Stone was apparently once a possibility for the female lead which may have been too much of a skewering of her BASIC INSTICT performance too soon but I can’t help but wonder if a version of this film with Stone, a stronger male lead, a more solid level of commitment within its humor and a firmer directing hand might have actually had potential as a good, dark comedy. Debi Mazar’s one scene toys with the notion of the perception of humor and how something darkly funny to an outside observer doesn’t need any extra embellishments to those going through the suffering. It’s a notion that a film willing to be a more biting look at romance could have done something with but SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER is more content with giving us another montage of Mike Myers trying to be cute in various ways. I’ve liked him during other points in his career (still, like most everyone else, I could probably go at least another ten years without dealing with the AUSTIN POWERS films again) but one thing this film reminds me of is that jokes about Huggy Bear and the large size of coffee cups just aren’t as innovative as they used to be. And whether I’m qualified to write about the nihilistic subject of relationships between men and women or not, a film exploring that needs to commit to itself. Otherwise, it’s just another goofy romantic comedy—not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, you just sometimes need to decide which way you’re going to go with these things and until you do the end result is never going to be ideal.


Unknown said...

I guess I like this film a lot more than you did but I think that's because I'm looking at it more through the lens of nostalgia as a fun, engaging time capsule of 1990s pop culture.

I still think that this is Mike Myers' best film to date because it is the one where he relies the least on makeup and outrageous characters. Compared to Fat Bastard in the AUSTIN POWERS films, his Scottish dad character in AXE MURDERER is positively restrained! I guess I feel that Myers was more successful at playing a "normal guy" than you did. I also think that it's really immaterial that we never see what exactly Charlie does for a living, much like it's immaterial that we never see how the folks in FRIENDS do in order to afford their lovely apartments in the heart of New York City! Really, AXE MURDERER is a sitcom transformed into a film and hits many of the same beats. It's no surprise that director Schlamme went on to a prolific career in television.

I dunno, for me this film works because so much of the dialogue is funny as hell and insanely quotable, some of which I still use every day. As for the cast, Myers was certainly smart to surround himself with lots of talented people. I agree with you about Arkin and I also think that Anthony LaPaglia is the underrated gem in this film showcasing a real capacity for comedy. He practically steals every scene he's in and his reaction shots to Myers all dudded up as his Scottish father are priceless.

I think you may be a bit harsh on Nancy Travis, though. While I do agree that she's not the strongest romantic lead in the world, she does her job as the film's red herring. Amanda Plummer is at her wacky best as Rose, the eccentric sister. Her scene with Myers during the morning after he consummates his relationships with Travis is quite funny because Plummer brings her customary unpredictable energy to the scene.

Anyways, I really love this film, warts and all and would watch it in a heartbeat over anything else Myers has done since.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I can appreciate some of what you're saying but I guess for me if there was one specific element that I responded to as much as I should then that would help a lot. But I guess I don't and too much of the time the jokes really don't work for me either. I don't even dislike Travis, she's just kind of bland for a film lead--always liked her in ALMOST PERFECT, though. And I genuinely liked the first AUSTIN POWERS which I saw for the first time on its opening night but, like I said, I'm not going to be seeing those movies again any time soon.

There are far, far worse films than this one. I guess for me it just feels like it could have been much more.

Joe Valdez said...

Peel sums up the ailments of this patient acutely. Mike Myers quickly proved that -- like Eddie Murphy -- he was only comfortable under makeup or accents.

The only bits of So I Married An Axe Murderer that work are those where Myers hides behind something, like a silly song maybe.

In his defense, playing an average Joe is one of the most intimidating things for an actor because there's nothing to hide behind, no disability, no speech impediment. Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks only come along once in a blue moon.