Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

OSCAR (1991) ** 3/4

Directed by John Landis. Written by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, from a play by Claude Magnier. Photography, Marc Ahlberg. Music, Elmer Bernstein. Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Peter Riegert, Chazz Palminteri, Joey Travolta, Vincent Spano, Ornella Muti, Don Ameche, Yvonne DeCarlo, Martin Ferrero, Harry Shearer, Elizabeth Barondes, Jim Mulholland, Tim Curry, Kirk Douglas, William Atherton, Marisa Tomei, Ken Howard , Richard Romanus, et al. A Touchstone release. 100 min. Rated PG.
Would you believe Sylvester Stallone in a non-violent comedy? Would you believe Yvonne DeCarlo back in circulation? Or a stutterer played by Eddie Bracken who had retired in 1953? Would you believe such an Italian-American, Italian (the enchanting Ornella Muti) or Italianate gathering of movie eagles-well, mostly eaglets, canaris and sparrows-with some Anglos thrown in for balance?

As befits a farce of this type, the parts, from medium to tiny, are shared. No one has a real lion's share, not even Stallone. Everyone seems to be having a good time. But for a long stretch, that good time is too good for the good of the movie.

"Oscar" has nothing to do with the statuette. Superficially it could be called a screwball comedy, but it is really something different, a transplanted, Americanized adaptation of a French "vaudeville" that ran endlessly, years ago, on the Paris stage.

The "vaudeville" is a special type of French farce and has nothing to do with British or American vaudeville. Georges Feydeau (1862-1921) was the undisputed master of the genre. The original French "Oscar" was written by Claude Magnier-not an undisputed master but still quite a skillful plot-maker. Its American adapters did nicely too, except for some unfunny excesses, e.g. baptizing Stallone "Angelo (Snaps) Provolone." Essentially though, they caught the spirit of the play and mostly kept to its "classical" format. Wisely, they did not try to air it out and make it much more than filmed theater with unity of place (the Provolone town house) and time (under one day).

Provolone is an underworld boss in the early Thirties Golden Age of gangsterism. Having promised his dying Papa Kirk Douglas to go straight, he tries hard. On the day Snaps is about to turn into a legit banker everything happens. Cops stalk his house. Bankers plan to defraud him. His accountant Anthony asks for the hand of Lisa, Snaps's daughter, while telling his employer that he's been robbing him all along.

Lisa lies to Snaps that she's pregnant by the chauffeur Oscar, now gone, because she wants to marry-anybody will do so long as she can get out of the Provolone place. Can you blame her? Yes you can, because Lisa has as little class as anyone around her.

The girl that Anthony loves turns out to be Theresa, who pretended she was Miss Provolone. Then come more mistaken identities in a madhouse of entrances, exits, announcements, revelations, engagements, separations, rival gangsters, visitors, and, of course, the props of farce. Here those are three identical black bags that play musical chairs as they get endlessly switched . Respectively they contain jewelry, greenbacks and the underwear of the former maid-who will marry the former fiance of Snaps's daughter.

The situation is madly promising. The execution is maddeningly wrong, at least for a long time, with troubles ranging from the direction to the pacing, from the acting to some of the lines. Snaps, trying to be a gentleman and to eliminate both firearms and gangster parlance from his mob -sorry, from his household staff-keeps rebuking them: "Don't call me Boss." "Sorry Boss" is the knee-jerk reaction. Not once but again and again and again.

A 19th century thespian said on his deathbed: "Don't feel sorry for me. Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Farce is even harder. The secret is to play it cool, to underplay, to have the text carry the actors and not vice versa.

"Oscar" however makes wrong moves from the start, but mercifully not to the finish. It goes from loud and raucous notes to dead spots. The actors mug with huge gesticulations, as if parodying a bad silent movie. They shout in unison, which is a deadly practice.

So what ought to have combined Damon Runyon and Georges Feydeau falls flat. It's basically a simple case of overkill, of exploding nuclear devices when one bullet would do.

The jokes are of vaudeville (in the Anglo sense) caliber. "Come here!" -" I can't, I'm smoking a salmon"--" So, put it out." Or " Of course I knew. I just had no idea." (Sam Goldwyn said it better: "It's not only unfeasible, it cannot be done.")

Then, at some point, something good happens. I can't say exactly where or how. Perhaps we've been desensitized by then, but assuming the film was shot in sequence, the performers seem to find the right level of timing and delivery.

It helps that we also introduced to two amusing Italian tailors, Ferrero and Shearer, and to the very funny and timid Tim Curry who plays Snaps's elocution teacher and ends up marrying Lisa. Their appearances shift the mode from raucousness to humor and even seem to bring a modicum of wit to the other characters, the imbroglios and the confusion. The film becomes genuinely comical .

Except for those newcomers, acting honors go to the befuddled Chazz Palminteri, Stallone's dumdum bodyguard and, would you believe it, yes, to Sylvester himself. He maintains a nice, gentlemanly cool throughout, is even endearing and looks as if Rocky and Rambo would horrify him were they to show up at the Provolone mansion.

Stallone is also the shortest man around. No effort was made to put him in elevator shoes or have him stand on platforms hidden from view. Could it be that someone decided that if it was good enough for Edward G. Robinson as gangster boss from "Little Caesar" to "Key Largo" to allow his underlings to tower over him, it was good enough for Sly Stallone.

(Snaps Provolone, to better himself, learns a new word each day. By an amusing coincidence, in the title role of "Bugsy," another 1991 movie, gangster Warren Beatty too practices quotidian enrichment of his vocabulary).

Long ago in Hollywood, pretty-boy crooner Dick Powell had a solid second career as the tough hero of thrillers. Taking the reverse route, Stallone could well become a pretty good funnyman.

1995 Edwin Jahiel

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel