Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Sleep Of The Innocent

As time passes I find myself becoming less and less interested in returning to films I remember from when I was a kid. There just doesn’t seem to be much point. I don’t exactly have idyllic memories of Scarsdale and I would just like the past to remain the past. Why would somebody want to be a kid, anyway? But even I sometimes find myself in the middle of one of those lonely nights where the prospect of watching some early 80s comedy that I remember seeing in the theater at a young age feels as welcome as slipping on a favorite robe. The experience might not exactly be worthwhile or rewarding but maybe it helps just a little to get just a flash of a memory from what seems like now to be a more innocent time. And as I retrieved my DVD of the 1984 version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS out from the bottom of a steep pile on a dull Friday evening I thought of how it actually has multiple elements that are of interest to me. For one thing it’s a remake of a Preston Sturges classic and, arguably, might be the only one of his films that you could even imagine adapting to modern times (by ‘modern’ I guess I’m referring to both 1984 and 2012). There’s also the lure of early 80s New York where all the cabs, at least the ones in movies, were still checkered and there’s a particular kind of overcast feel in the air which you really only get from films of this era set in Manhattan before the cleanup happened. Oh, and like 1982’s TOOTSIE, this film features a Stephen Bishop song that plays under the credits but ultimately you may want to decide if this is actually a good thing. There’s also a very enjoyable cast which offers a welcome reminder of the several years where Dudley Moore starred in films, an early low-key Albert Brooks performance and, of course, the luminescent Nastassja Kinski who as usual makes a person remember how wonderful it is to be alive just by walking onscreen. Such actors help to make it all at least pleasant to sit through and I almost wondered if things could have been improved if the story structure wasn’t required to adhere more or less to the required plotline. Regardless, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS isn’t all that memorable but it is funny on occasion and actually sort of enjoyable to revisit for the first time in several decades. In a comfortable robe sort of way, of course.

Esteemed conductor Claude Eastman (Dudley Moore) is still practically in the honeymoon stage with his gorgeous, much younger actress wife Daniella (Nastassja Kinski) when he returns from a concert overseas only to learn that a misunderstanding has led best friend Norman Robbins (Albert Brooks) to hire a private detective to follow her while Claude was away. Claude actually has no suspicions whatsoever but that changes when the private eye Jess Keller (Richard B. Shull) uncovers evidence of an assignation leading Claude to believe that she has been having an affair brilliant violinist and ladies’ man Maxmillian Stein (Armand Assante) which sends Claude even further into a rage when Daniella seems to confirm his suspicions by saying it was ‘no big deal’. She’s referring to something else entirely, of course, but this doesn’t stop Claude from hatching a plan to kill Daniella for her indiscretions and frame Max for the crime. But his brilliant idea isn’t quite as easy to pull off as simply thinking of it is.

I should probably be more upset about the existence of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS than I am, what with the sacrilege of it being a remake of Sturges but maybe because the original film comes a little later in the masterful writer-director’s career and not part of the golden Paramount period it doesn’t strike me as quite the heresy (it’s been several years since I’ve seen the original and I purposely didn’t look at it in relation to this). You want to get me mad, try and update THE LADY EVE. Then you’ll see rage. A project that began life with Peter Sellers, after his death it came together with Dudley Moore after his stardom hit during that period in the 80s when he seemed to be doing a few movies a year. “10” and ARTHUR sent him into the stratosphere for a little while but he never really hit those heights again, much as he may have tried—for the most part the films he made during this period are barely remembered now (if anything, people seems to still know BEST DEFENSE because of how bad it is) and the broadly comic UNFAITHFULLY YOURS plays fairly well now in comparison, never reaching a peak of total hysteria but still cruising along at a pleasant pace. At the least it has the right sort of spirit to the farcical misunderstands and offers more than a few genuine laughs. The screenplay credited to Valerie Curtin & Barry Levinson and Robert Klane (based on the Sturges original) is tight and well-paced but since one could imagine a much darker approach to the basic material I wonder if a good amount of the spirit that is evident throughout is thanks to what director Howard Zieff brought to the table. Several years ago I wrote an unabashed rave of Zieff’s 1973 directorial debut SLITHER which I had just seen for the first time but some of his filmography seems to consist more of 80s star vehicles, a little like Michael Ritchie during that period only not as prolific. PRIVATE BENJAMIN with Goldie Hawn was the huge blockbuster of his career and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, coming four years later, benefits from his relaxed style, breezing through from scene to scene.

Way down in this material is the potential for a more biting examination of the fears of middle age and the inherent distrust always there between couples but that’s not what UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is or probably what it was ever really trying to be. Instead it has Moore and Kinski, ideally cast in this sophisticated world of classical music and foreign films, of the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall, of men and women still desperately looking to flirt even if they’re married, a Manhattan where L’AVVENTURA is playing at the Beekman (where I was taken to see ARTHUR, incidentally) and where it seems like everyone has a car waiting to take them where they need to go (plus some brief side nudity from Kinski—boy, PG films were different back then). Everybody seems so relaxed with each other in shots that I’m almost not sure if I totally believe some of the farcical complications stuffed with double entendres which will be of no surprise to anyone who’s seen a few THREE’S COMPANY episodes--since they all seem like such reasonable people then why wouldn’t anyone sit down to quietly talk over some of these misunderstandings? But there I go, putting too much thought into this stuff and maybe such scenes as the violin duel in the Hungarian restaurant between Moore and Assante are enough to make me feel like such questions aren’t necessary. The movie’s centerpiece—a prolonged fantasy in which Claude works out his plan in his mind as he conducts the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto—isn’t as elaborate or layered a sequence as in the original which actually offered several possibilities of his actions and omitting the alternate scenarios does remove some of the bite. But it’s the laying out of the preciseness of the scenario, with the music backing up his thoughts, and how it all goes wrong which is really what this version is building to anyway and while it doesn’t exactly build up a full head of farcical steam it does put a smile on my face and maybe sometimes a little more--a rainstorm at one point seems to come and go faster than one ever has in the history of the world but it still gets a good laugh out of me.

The plotting is hardly airtight—without giving anything away it seems a little odd that nobody bothered to watch that entire tape and the issue of somebody finding out about who is really having the affair is left hanging when the credits roll. And maybe because of this the wrap up feels more than a little perfunctory but then again the natural ending to a film about jealousy and betrayal really isn’t something that a goofy Dudley Moore vehicle could do. I mean, it’s not like this is going to build to a finale reminiscent of IN A LONELY PLACE or anything. But it’s an 80s comedy with bouncy running-around-the-city music by Bill Conti, Moore does a variation on the ARTHUR/”10” drunk act and Nastassja Kinski looks gorgeous so I doubt anyone cares anyway. The tone is bright enough that I doubt anybody watching it would ever imagine that he might go through with his plan even if everything fell into place but it doesn’t really matter. UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is quick, bright, cheerful, has lots of physical humor--one bit of business on a stairway between Moore and Brooks in particular is pretty great--and watching it now for a few hours it reminded me of what I once thought the adult world of Manhattan seemed like as presented via Hollywood. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve seen it and I probably don’t need to return to it again anytime soon but it did its job for 96 minutes which is more than you can say for any number of 80s movies with Dudley Moore.

Or maybe I’m just hypnotized by Nastassja Kinski, never really known for comedies, but she and Moore have terrific chemistry together. Moore seems pretty high-strung anyway since this is Dudley Moore after all so any sense of a distinguished man losing his mind over jealousy is kind of lost but he throws himself into the very physicality of it so much that it doesn’t matter. Just the sight of Moore stumbling through a movie theater annoying people is good for a few laughs, after all, and I kind of love how he lets his body language go while conducting the final moments of the concert as he formulates the plan in his head, certainly aided by his own music background. Kinski isn’t meant to play it as much for comedy and she wisely doesn’t try but she’s totally game to play things as vivacious as possible. If I really wanted to nitpick I’d offer that maybe she is a slight bit of miscasting in the part since her personality comes off as a little to sweet to believe that anyone would believe she’s been cheating and maybe something in me doesn’t entirely buy her as an Italian. But maybe I don’t fell like nitpicking. It’s Nastassja Kinski, after all. Armand Assante, likewise, is a very good straight man and seems to be playing the part as if carrying some kind of chip on his shoulder that the actor has quietly decided to give the character. Albert Brooks, also in PRIVATE BENJAMIN for Zieff, seems to be deliberately underplaying things which makes sense since it’s not his movie to steal but I suspect that a few lines that float in like a sly “This is like an airport in Budapest” might very well come from him. Richard Libertini is Claude’s Italian valet Giuseppe, the sort of role the actor seemed to be specializing in around this time but he’s so good and so funny (“I curse you…and I curse your shoes!”) that he’s ideally cast. Cassie Yates is Brooks’ wife and Penny Peyser of THE IN-LAWS (just like Libertini) plays a jewelry salesgirl, sharing the scene with Brooks who was in the remake of THE IN-LAWS. Film history is crazy. And maybe quietly stealing the film in an old-school character actor kind of way is Richard B. Shull, also given a memorable role in Zieff’s SLITHER, playing the classical music-loving private detective who uncovers the possible affair. As I remember Pauline Kael pointing out in her review at the time Shull even gets some Sturges in his dialogue and he’s so good that he deserves it.

Speaking of dialogue, Quentin Tarantino has named the original as a favorite and though I haven’t looked at it recently, weirdly, Claude’s protest here of how he wanted Norman to keep an eye on her sounds like Vincent Vega explaining what ‘take care of’ Mia Wallace is referring to in PULP FICTION. So there you go. This version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is probably going to remain the amusing comedy you flip by on cable it was always sort of designed to be anyway and, no kidding, if you’ve never seen any version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, make it the original. If you’ve seen the original and are looking for some sort of halfway decent Dudley Moore vehicle you haven’t gotten around to yet, I suppose this is the one. If anything, it’s a nice, amusing reminder of a more innocent time which I suppose even I need every now and then. I just rewatched the final moments looking for a way to summarize my feelings on the whole thing and didn’t come up with much beyond discovering, after all this time, that the love theme Claude is using to score Daniella’s movie early on is subtly reprised here as the love theme of the movie itself. It’s a reminder that, ultimately, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS really is a movie, an 80s star vehicle trying to entertain and not much else, and that it works as well as it does is almost enough. Plus I saw it a long time ago and much of whatever fondness I have for it is rooted in that. That’s the way our minds work sometimes.

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