BootLeg Betty

BetteBack February 14, 1986: Comedy is down but not out in new film

Joplin Globe
Comedy is down but not out in new film
February 14, 1986

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Dave Whiteman made a fortune
manufacturing clothes hangers for
hotels and motels. Jerry Baskin
spent his time on the streets, scavenging
for food and surviving the
best he could.

Director Paul Mazursky took
those two characters and, throwing
in a few cheap but delightful shots at
the bourgeoisie, made a motion picture
that is as varied as the main
characters’ lifestyles.

Throughout most of the film,
Down and Out in Beverly Hills has
all the class and style of Whiteman’s
autos (a Mercedes and a Rolls
Royce), sleek and fast with a touch
of elegance.

But, alas, there are too many instances
where the film drags or
questions remain unanswered, much
like Baskin’s past. Those cases keep
this from being a truly exceptional
film. As it is, it must settle for good.

The film opens with audiences
meeting Baskin, played by Nick
Nolte. Streetwise and complacent
with his existence in Beverly Hills,
Baskin does just fine until his dog,
Kerouac, decides to run away with
someone who can offer more food.

Depressed, he stuffs his pockets
with rocks and jumps into the
Whitemans’ swimming pool. Richard
Dreyfuss, playing Whiteman,
saves the bum and, intrigued by his
lifestyle, invites him to stay a few
weeks.

It’s here that Mazursky does some
of his best work, and some of his
worst.

Dreyfuss’ character is weak and
shallow, someone doing the same
thing day in and day out. It is a
credit to Dreyfuss that he could
make someone look so incredibly
bland.

Nolte’s character, on the other
hand, appears to have all the intelligence,
sophistication and education
to belong on the upper social
levels. In each encounter between
bum and millionaire, the bum comes
out looking a winner — being better
adjusted not only for his lifestyle,
but for Whiteman’s as well.

But things are not always as they
seem, and Baskin keeps throwing in
questions about his background,
clouding the difference between the
truth and a lie.

While the encounters are humorous
at first, Mazursky doesn’t
seem to know when to quit. The
magic between Dreyfuss and Nolte
doesn’t exist when Baskin encounters
the other members of the Whiteman
family, each with their own peculiar
problems.

Indeed, looking beyond the two
male leads, the best performance
comes not from any of the co-stars,
but from a shaggy extra named
Mike. Mike plays the part of Matisse,
a neurotic pooch that takes up
with the Whiteman’s houseguest.

If nothing else in the film seems
amusing, watching Matisse roll his
eyes or chase down a cheating master
is sure to bring a few laughs.

For her part, Bette Midler is the
Divine Miss Average. Nothing in
her performance fails miserably, but
nothing stands out. That in itself is a
shame considering the role she takes
on as Mrs. Whiteman. Screenwriters
Mazursky and Leon Capetanos
have given her a variety of idiosyncrasies,
most based in upper-middle
class stereotypes.

Little Richard, who provides some
of the music for the soundtrack,
makes a few brief appearances for
his film debut. After his first, overworked
scene, he proves that he can
play well in a comedy.

Evan Richards, who plays Max,
the Whiteman’s androgynous son,
contributes a few good moments on
the screen as does Elizabeth Pena who plays Carmen, the Whiteman’s
housekeeper. Tracy Nelson, as their
daughter, spends most of the screen
time away at college. She should
have spent even more time there, as
she adds nothing when she is in the
storyline.

One thing the storyline did not
need was more characters dragging
it to a stop. Too much of the first
half of the film is spent away from
the Dreyfuss-Nolte confrontations,
lulling audiences to sleep.

And some of the sexual situations
appear to have been placed in the
film only to help secure an R rating,
and hence an adult audience, for
Touchstone, the Disney Studio’s
adult line. This is, after all, Disney’s
first ever R-rated film.

For those who can make it to the
end, the penultimate scene, the New
Year’s party, can almost make the
whole film worthwhile as Mazursky
finally lets the comedy flow non- .
stop through the scene.

It is enough, coming at the end of ;
the film, to shake the audience out of
its doldrums to leave the theater
laughing, with a good feeling about
the picture in general.

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