Monday, March 24, 2014

Mixed Nuts


My bags are packed. I'm ready to go. I just have time to tap out this little missive to all my faithful fans before the limo comes to take me to the airport so I can wing off to Salina, Utah. I'm looking forward to this, the next stop on my Sink For Your Supper tour. Madame Rose, my publicist, has assured me that the entire town will be at the airport to serenade my arrival, present me with bouquets, and escort me to the Brigham Young Civic Auditorium for a triumphant appearance. I have been told that my motorized iceberg has arrived, been installed, and wired for an explosive finale, as I am not allowed to lose my skirt under the Polygamy Polyphonic's family friendly policies. As there appears to be only one family involved, I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Joseph, my manager, has told me that the fireworks display that will surround me during my tessitura finale of My Heart Will Go On will more than equal my usual suspension and disrobing.

Mr. Carducci called earlier today about his progress with the VickiWear factory. The Indonesian seamstresses have been installed and begun work, but there are some communication difficulties as none of them appears to understand English, even when it's spoken slowly and in a loud tone of voice. Apparently the group working on the sparkle nun's habits for The Sound of Music line got their instructions wrong and there are now four hundred pieces with white robes and black wimples instead of vice versa. I suggested to Mr. Carducci that we simply consign that shipment to Alabama rather than reject them. The seamstresses are having better luck with the satin dirndls and lederhosen. Mr. Carducci wants to get a few of the outfits together and offer them to the seat fillers for the upcoming Theme Park Awards show this weekend. I think that would be a marvelous idea. Please tune in to the ceremony for a sneak peek at the fall VickiWear line.

Having been so busy with packing and business, I barely had time to slip into the home theater for some relaxation before departing. As I was in a cheerful frame of mind, I decided a Christmas film might be just the thing and so I selected Nora Ephron's Mixed Nuts for viewing. I have always been something of a Steve Martin fan and try to catch most of his films as, if nothing else, there will usually be one performance of fierce, comic conviction.

Mixed Nuts is an adaptation of the French play La Pere Noel est un Ordure which translates literally as 'Santa's a turd', a theme thoroughly explored by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the South Park TV series. I have never seen, nor read, the original play (and after this adaptation, I shall not waste my time searching it out), but I understand that it is a bleak and subversive black comedy about individuals manning a suicide hotline on Christmas Eve and the horrible things that happen when the stress of the holidays is added to the usual stress of living. The Gallic sense of humor tends to be more savage in the realm of black comedy than the American one, so I suspect the original walks a very fine line between farce and tragedy.

Nora Ephron, who adapted the play with her sister Delia, and then directed, does not walk this tightrope. She falls off it repeatedly and misses the safety net every time. In her urge to make these characters likable and to stick to the heart-warming conventions of American Christmas entertainment, she emasculates the material and wastes a lot of good comic actors who valiantly try to overcome her turgid script and her dim direction. She, or the studio, also placed a couple of major duds in the cast, bringing things to a screeching halt when we get to their scenes (more on this later).

Steve Martin stars as Philip, the operator of a crisis hotline named ‘Lifesavers’ that, despite constant financial trouble, manages to occupy primo beachfront real estate in the Venice area of LA. It's Christmas Eve; 'Lifesavers' is to be evicted by their obnoxious landlord (Garry Shandling) so the building can go condo. Nora Ephron wants us to consider the climate of LA in winter and how it contrasts with traditional imagery. She accomplishes this by having people in ridiculous snowman and candy cane costumes wander by on roller blades. (I’m not making this up, you know.)

Philip wants to hide the eviction from his employees, the mousy Catherine (Rita Wilson) and the harpy widow Mrs. Munchnick (Madeline Kahn). In between crisis calls, the three get involved with other tenants including a middle aged dog walker (Robert Klein), a young man who does little besides strum a ukulele and sing in irritating falsetto (Adam Sandler); a pregnant thrift shop owner from down the boardwalk (Juliette Lewis) and her artist boyfriend (Anthony LaPaglia); an unhappy transvestite (Liev Schreiber in his first major film role); and a veterinarian with a rotten love life (Rob Reiner). Doors bang, there are mistaken identities, people undergo romantic complications, people are knocked out, there's an accidental death and a need to dispose of a corpse, someone gets stuck in an elevator - all elements of stage farce that just don't translate well to the screen. Farce depends on physical shtick, split second timing, and the ability to view an entire stage panorama where multiple things happen simultaneously. It's notoriously difficult to make these conventions work in the ultra-real world of film and Ephron just isn't up to the task.

Madeline Kahn is a born farceuse and most of the best moments in the film belong to her. Her character is a cliché but her ability to defuse an obscene phone caller or seduce on a dime are classic. Steve Martin, for reasons known only to Max Factor, wears more make-up in this film than anyone else, including the drag queen (his mascara and rouge are just lovely). His character is supposed to be the nucleus of sanity around which all the wildness revolves; he's the wrong actor for the part. Steve Martin is not a straight man, even if you do dye his hair brown. He tries but the director reins him in too tight. If Ephron had let him loose, he might have made something of the part and the film.

Adam Sandler gives one of the most annoying performances of the decade. Not only does he prance around singing falsetto, he also dresses as a gondolier for no particular reason. You cringe every time he walks into a scene. Juliette Lewis wears a vintage maternity dress with lots of fringe and a shawl. I think she's supposed to look like a free spirit but she just looks like Juliette Lewis with a pillow around her middle trying to imitate Isadora Duncan in a community theater pageant. While Sandler is annoying, she's just bad. Robert Klein and Rob Reiner, who can handle this kind of material are given nothing much to do. They should have dumped Sandler for more of them.

Anthony LaPaglia deserves credit for being willing to spend the whole movie dressed in a moth eaten Santa suit. I guess Ephron thinks we'd forget it was Christmas if he wasn't. With every novelty Christmas recording ever made blaring away on the soundtrack, I don't think so. LaPaglia is a charming actor and tries his best to make his scenes work. He doesn't succeed. Liev Schreiber makes a good impression as the ugliest drag queen this side of Patrick Swayze. Dressed in an outfit borrowed from Lulu in Berlin , he saunters away with every scene he's given. His mambo with Steve Martin is, perhaps, the best moment in a film singularly devoid of them.

Fortunately, the film is just over 90 minutes in length, although it feels well over two hours. This one is for those with a completists interest in one of the performers, not for anyone else. Fans of black comedy should look elsewhere for hope and inspiration.

Christmas tree destruction. Fruitcake abuse. Toy trumpet. Suicidal Steven Wright. Gratuitous Jon Stewart. Unconvincing ugly duckling/swan transformation. Public urination. Dog tranquilizers. Pillow soliloquy. Sex on the beach. Gratuitous manger moment.

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