Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MOON OVER PARADOR (1988)*** 1/4

Produced and directed by Paul Mazursky.Written by Leon Capetanos and  Mazursky, from a story by Charles G. Booth. Photography, Donald  McAlpine. Editing, Stuart Pappe. Production design, Pato Guzman. Music, Maurice Jarre. Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Jonathan Winters, Fernando Rey, Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Greene, Polly Holliday, Charo, Marianne Sagebrecht, Carlotta Gerson (Paul Mazursky), Lorin Dreyfuss.  A Universal release. 105 minutes. PG-13.

Perhaps the first movie I remember in which a double takes the place of a bad leader and does good things for his people was The Prisoner of Zenda. Since then there have been many such substitutions on the screen. That's what Moon Over Parador does too. It's not the most original of ideas, but then the film makes no bones about the fact that it keeps dippily dipping into the past, putting old wines into not-so-new bottles. Sometimes it even shouts this, sometimes it's a passing mention, sometimes it leaves the recognition entirely up to the public .

MOP is remarkably low-key, even quiet, given its context. Although it's  a farce, it does not suffer from the frantic tempo or actors' hysterics and raucousness than can spoil many a comedy, not to mention farces.

The plot is blessedly straightforward and unpretentious. An American movie crew has just wrapped up shooting in Parador City, the capital of a Latin American banana dictatorship (Parador means "inn" in Spanish). One of the cast is Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss). His first allegiance is to the New York stage. He is very much the New York thespian.

Bizarre American retiree Jonathan Winters talks him into staying around for the Carnival. Jack looks a great deal like Simms, the country's military dictator. He  also does a good imitation of him. Boozer-wencher Simms, has a heart attack in his limousine, where he dies in the arms of Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), head of the secret police and the regime's grey eminence. Strausmann, who is in cahoots with  the " 14  families" that oppress the people, fears that too sudden an announcement of the Leader's demise could result in chaos and revolution. He makes Jack one of those offers one  cannot refuse: to impersonate  Simms.

Jack is nimble, Jack is quick, and before you can say Jack Robinson, the impostor has made himself up like Simms and is fooling everybody. Well, almost everyone.The members of Simms' household are not taken in, but they too have a stake in  keeping up the masquerade.

Not only playing, but being Simms becomes the part of Jack's life. He thrives in it, even embellishes it. When Sonia Braga, as Madonna (sic), the late dictator's Numero Uno mistress, transfers her affections to the impersonator, no work and all play make Jack a bright boy. He stays on and on, makes gradual changes in the land, replaces the national anthem's melody (O Tannenbaum) with that of Besa Me Mucho ; leads "his" people in TV weight-loss exercises; takes other drastic measures to help the poor before staging cannily his return to New York. (Although the movie is set in Parador, New York is very much present, as a framing device and with its theatre as Jack's standard by which everything is evaluated. All this is cleverly done, with good insights).

To expect substance, deep intentions or  ideas in this movie is to be looking for something quite different from what Mazursky and Capetanos had in mind.The filmmakers are interested only in gentle farce, not in three-dimensionality. Moon is far closer to the Marx Brothers' anarchic nonsense (and Woody Allen's Bananas) than to Frank Capra 's constructive comedies. The focal point is not the story, but the one-man show by Dreyfuss, and its comical trimmings.

Dreyfuss is as amazingly good as he has been in the last many years. On the face of it, Jack is the picture's most outlandish type, yet in  some ways he is the most credible, since he doesn't let you forget that first and last he is an actor submerged in his craft, insecure, avid for pats on the back and reassuring applause. He joins the roster of other movie impersonators, especially people like Jack Benny and Mel Brooks who, in the two versions of To Be Or Not To Be  ham it up because their models are already hams.  Director Mazursky himself is in the movie, as   Simms' mother, a la Charley's Aunt.

But there's a difference: as soon as Dreyfuss assumes the role of Simms, he becomes entirely confident, simultaneously laid-back, self-mocking and eager. It's much harder to do than it sounds, or for that matter, than it looks. Ask any non-envious professional.

MOP creates no characters and does not intend to. Most of its people remain in the background, save for Raul Julia who delivers an amusingly mock-sinister performance--but even he is there primarily to propel Dreyfuss along. Sonia Braga is no more than cake-frosting. Jonathan Winters does some excellent small shticks which deride the U.S. presence in Latin America, something that is also implied by the Anglo-Saxon name of Dictator Simms. But, again, forget about the political satire: what we have is caricature used for the needs of the story, carrying no weight of its own.

It is rich in comic inventions and fresh bits of business. It is also a compendium of in-jokes and in-references to current events and older movies. Like the French New Wave filmmakers who influenced him enormously, Mazursky throws in with abandon a cornucopia of allusions . The very title of the film parodies the 1941 Betty Grable vehicle Moon Over Miami, a semi-musical with switched identities. There's ironic-nostalgic use of the flashback structure of so many 1940s movies, as MOO opens with Jack back in New York recounting his Parador adventure. The name of Paraguay's then-dictator General Stroessner becomes Straussmann (Raul Julia), which additionally stresses the Germans or Nazis in Latin America. "Round up the usual suspects,"the famous line from Casablanca is used. There's a starry-eyed comparison of that movie's finale with Moon's. The sets imitate indirectly the Technicolor exotic-resort movies of Mazursky's youth. And much more.

This comedy is so determinedly a fantasy that I doubt it could offend Hispanic sensibilities. Oddly, the peak of its planned illogicality is not immediately apparent. You may get distracted by the broad shenanigans  and forget that Dreyfuss-Simms speaks Spanish-accented English  throughout, when, even by the elastic norms of farce, he should be speaking Spanish. You can't get more unrealistic than this.

There's a  very funny  morsel where Jack, about to board a helicopter, gestures to the reporters in the patented smiling, helpless "I can't hear over this din" way of Ronald Reagan.The public got this one when the movie came out, but how many new generations will catch on later? It will be as in many of the other gags, which, back in 1988, were there for older memories. How many people knew then or know now "Besame Mucho," the songs from "The Man of La Mancha," the fact that "Tannenbaum" is a Teutonic song ? Paul Mazursky, who was 58 when the film was released, may have overestimated the  potential complicity of his public.Then again, he might have relying on the younger audience's satisfaction with the general outline of the movie, and on the older people's enhanced comprehension. It's a risky strategy which bespeaks more of Mazursky as a nostalgic film-buff than as a calculating businessman.

At 105 minutes, MOP could just be a tad too long for those who don't get immersed in the spirit of its details, which, in their eyes, can make the film falter and some jokes strain a bit in its latter parts. For myyself and other spectators the diffusion is an asset. (My own small objection is the  gratuitous intrusion of Sammy Davis, Jr. whose singing is not exactly a joy). Yet even unpruned, this is still a splendidly entertaining movie-movie. It is a bright Moon.

It was shot entirely in Brazil. Production values are high. Maurice Jarre's score is agreeable, though some moments sounded to me like a paraphrase of the Delerue music in Jules And Jim. Parador looks lovely. Between its tourist beauties at poolside and the promiscuous locals it would be a great place for social diseases.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel