Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.14: Brian De Palma's Wise Guys

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 40 (C)

Although he isn’t often thought of in the same league as his friends Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma had a pretty great run from the late-60s to the early 90s. His successes range from personal thrillers like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double, crime movies like Scarface and Carlito’s Way, horror movies like Carrie, and comedies like Hi, Mom!. No one track record is perfect, however, even during a great a run: De Palma also made interesting misfires like Get to Know Your Rabbit and unsuccessful experiments like Home Movies. Like the two previous films, 1986’s Wise Guys is an attempt at comedy from a director who made a few outright comedies (Hi, Mom!, Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise) and thrillers with comedic elements (Body Double, Dressed to Kill). And like those two unsuccessful films, it isn’t anywhere near as funny as it’s trying to be.

Harry Valentini (Danny DeVito) is a low-level Italian-American gangster in New Jersey, with Jewish American gangster Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) being his closest friend. Harry and Moe work for Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya), a Newark, New Jersey mafia boss. They’re both good guys who want to leave the life and open an Italian-Judeo restaurant, but they get no respect from Castelo or from his men, particularly Frank “The Fixer” Acavano (pro-wrestler Captain Lou Albano). When Harry and Moe screw-up a bet and lose $250,000 of Castelo’s money, the boss decides to teach them a lesson- he hires them to whack each other. The best friends are distraught, but they come up with a scheme to save their necks by asking Harry’s mob legend uncle in Atlantic City to help them.

Wise Guys was the least De Palma-esque and most mainstream film the director had made yet, but it still shows his gifts as a visual storyteller. He uses tracking and crane shots to get a sense of the New Jersey setting. He uses split-diopter (sparingly) to show how DeVito’s son imitates his wise guy father, and how both of the main characters try to hide their guilt at being hired to kill each other. Best of all, De Palma leaves his stamp in some clever bait-and-switches that range from silly (Moe being shot to death…only to find out he’s testing a bullet-proof jacket, Harry walking away from a car safely, only to have it explode) to predictable but highly satisfying (the ending).

De Palma’s voyeuristic interests are restrained but still present in Wise Guys. There are a handful of knowing nods towards Hitchcock’s Rear Window in the film’s introduction of Harry, his family (including an underused Patti LuPone as his wife), and his best friend, there is a sense of seeing behind closed doors into private lives. The mob dealings have a similar voyeuristic feeling, particularly in two scenes: in the first, Hedaya’s mob boss plans the deaths of Moe and Harry…as the latter is being tortured in the background, unable to hear of his impending doom. In the second, a waiter accidentally overhears talk of the planned hits and tries to warn the two friends (very poorly, although it isn’t as funny as it should be). Best of all is the use of fake-outs by De Palma, all of which imply men watching each other’s actions and reactions, and acting accordingly. De Palma brings in some Hitchcockian suspense into the effectively tense set-pieces as well.

Mostly, however, Wise Guys is a knowing, overtly comic riff on the gangster films of De Palma’s friends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. The violence is ostensibly deadly, but always goofy (a character’s death in a church is fairly amusing). There’s exploration of hyper-masculine men as in The Godfather films, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and even De Palma’s more effective Scarface. DeVito imitates the “you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, only to have his son imitate him in a clever acknowledgment of movie artificiality. The film follows low-level mobsters as in Mean Streets and their gambling habits as in Raging Bull. The score quotes liberally from The Godfather, as does the film in scenes of arguments over loyalty, mixing of religious faith and violence (“Have respect, it’s a church!”), and a father who doesn’t want his son to follow into his business. There’s nods to the earlier gangster films in the casting, from Harvey Keitel as a practical mobster to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role from Frank Vincent of Raging Bull (and later Goodfellas). And even though it’s a comedy, De Palma throws in some good old fashioned Catholic guilt as a throwback to the mob films (The Godfather, Mean Streets, Raging Bull) and as a continuation of a theme in his own films (Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface).

Too bad that very little of this is particularly funny. Most of the comedy in Wise Guys ranges from weak (unfunny mob hits, a montage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac”) to agonizing (bathroom jokes, for Christ’s sake). For every strong performance, there’s a bad one to match it- DeVito’s performance as a good guy/compulsive gambler is amusing even when the material is dire, but co-lead Piscopo can’t bring his acting above his Saturday Night Live background- he’s mostly annoying, particularly in a spending-spree montage in which he puts on a fakey accent for no apparent reason. It’s too bad, considering how well-developed their friendship is (even though the script isn’t funny). The villains don’t fare much better- Hedaya is threatening as Castelo, but Albano is amazingly shrill, grotesque, and unfunny as Avacano, a gross fat guy joke combined with stale mafia spoof. Everything feels a bit stale- De Palma already tweaked his nose at the genre with Scarface, John Huston had just released the superior mob riff Prizzi’s Honor, and Jonathan Demme’s excellent Married to the Mob would be a more successful attempt at the goofy mob comedy Wise Guys is trying to be. The film isn’t as awful as its reputation often suggests, but really, there’s no real reason to see it.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

No comments:

Post a Comment