Thursday, June 28, 2007


You must pay before you get them back again

By Edward Copeland
What happened to Steve Martin? He used to take such chances and even when they didn't work, such as is the case with 1981's Pennies From Heaven, his willingness to try something new was impressive. Now, he seems content to just coast through lame remake after lame remake and sequel after sequel to the same lame remakes. Will the great Martin ever return?

I recently caught up with Herbert Ross' film of Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven. While this curiosity has much to admire, it really doesn't quite work, especially when you think of Potter's great British miniseries The Singing Detective starring Michael Gambon, which had similar ideas but executed them so much more successfully. Martin plays failing sheet music salesman Arthur Parker, whose own depression almost rivals the Great Depression the country is suffering through at the time. Arthur is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a frigid spouse (Jessica Harper) and he often fantasizes of huge musical numbers as he tries to shake up his life for the better while he's hampered by his own innate selfishness. I should correct one thing: EVERYONE in the film fantasizes musical numbers, which I think is part of the problem. If it were only Arthur who had these dream-like diversions, it would make more sense, but nearly every character does the same thing, making the conceit seem even more like a gimmick than it is.

While The Singing Detective found the perfect balance between the dark and the light, Pennies From Heaven doesn't seem to pull off the balancing act as well. (There also was a miniseries of Pennies From Heaven prior to the film, but I haven't seen it.) It's a shame that something as imaginative as this movie doesn't work out better. Still, there is much to like, from Martin's melancholy performance that doesn't downplay the fact that his character is a heel to the production numbers themselves. There's also a great one scene appearance by Christopher Walken, dancing up a storm as a man who meets a fallen schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters) in a bar and hastens her decline even further. Unfortunately, the visual flights of fancy don't come close to making what should be cruelrealism feel ever crueler. Instead, it just makes you impatient to get back to the dance sequences, since they are the touches that work. Fortunately, I see that the miniseries version starring Bob Hoskins is available on DVD, so I look forward to watching this soon and see if that explains better where this film version went wrong.

Labels: , , , , ,

The first time I ever Christopher Walken dance was when I saw this film in the early 90s. I think I might have said "WTF?" a little too loudly since my film prof actually turned around in his seat and shrugged hugely as if to say, I know, I know. It's the Walken.
Edward, I can't agree with you more. I've also become disenchanted by Martin's sudden unsophisticated approach to his film career. For me, the beginning of the end were those awful "Father of the Bride" films. Something happened to Martin when he discovered fatherhood on film and started sparring with children. He's probably the most unconvincing father I've seen on screen, and yet audiences seem to love him in those inane roles. (He's certainly no Cary Grant when it comes to acting with kids.) One could argue and say that his turning point was "Parenthood" but at least that film was half-way watchable, but the aforementioned "Bride" flicks and the even worse "Cheaper by the Dozen" movies eradicate such interesting-if-flawed Martin films as "Pennies from Heaven," "L.A, Story," the underrated "The Lonely Guy," "Housesitter," "Roxanne," "Grand Canyon," "My Blue Heaven," "Leap of Faith," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "The Man with Two Brians," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "Little Shop of Horrors." Now he makes things like "The Pink Panther," and even "Shopgirl," which should have marked his comeback to fascinating stuff," just laid there. Sad.
Ed and Joe,
You're being way harsh, I think. Seems to me that for every odious Cheaper By the Dozen film, Martin makes sure there's a Shopgirl or Spanish Prisoner. While I don't defend the sequel, I'm rather fond of the Father of the Bride remake. Nancy Meyers always makes me laugh, and I think Martin and Diane Keaton play off each other quite nicely. The more I watch A Simple Twist of Fate and Leap of Faith, the more fascinating his performances are.
Second Carrie's vote for The Spanish Prisoner; also quite liked Bowfinger...
I agree about Spanish Prisoner -- but that was nine years ago. Bowfinger was OK, but that was eight years ago. As for Nancy Meyers -- eww. She's just awful. Look at most of what he's made since the Father of the Bride remake: Father of the Bride II; Sgt. Bilko, a big screen version of a TV show; The Out-of-Towners remake; the Cheaper by the Dozen remake and its sequel; the ill-advised Pink Panther remake, which did nothing but yet a sequel is already in preproduction. I fear that his well-known addiction to high-priced art is making his film choices instead of the creativity he used to have.
I agree that Pennies is problematic, but I still think it has some good things going for it. The musical numbers are cleverly staged - "Love is Good for Anything that Ails You", in which a classroom of school children magically convert their desks into rows of tiny pianos, is a particular favorite - and I think the design aspects are beautifully realized. I also really like Jessica Harper's performance as the frigid spouse whose quiet passive aggression curdles into hard-hearted vindictiveness in the final act - in a year with so few interesting supporting performances by women, I'm not sure why she (or Helen Mirren, as Excalibur's demonic seductress Morgan Le Fay, for that matter) didn't receive more attention during awards season.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader