Alan Alda was a film actor, who made it big on TV after having a number of flop films. On the show M*A*S*H, he excelled at making snarky comedy comments while skewing wartime mentalities. He also wrote and directed some of the episodes which gave him the confidence and cache to do the same with some new films and he had some great success. He wrote and starred in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan”, and he added the title of director to “The Four Seasons”, which was a surprise success and seemed set to establish him as a go to actor/director. This was his next film and it underperformed in contrast to Four Seasons. He only directed two films after that, the last one being in 1990. So his directing career has lain dormant for 30 plus years, is this film the reason why?
The premise of the film is a promising one. A respected college history professor, writes a book about the American Revolution, which becomes a bestseller and is being turned into a movie. That should be enough to get a film started and keep it focused. The problem is that Alda continuously gets side tracked by some personal drama involving the professor and his long time girlfriend, and the side plot of his aging mother and the difficulty he has trying to help her care for herself. Every time the story about the movie and it’s complications gets started, we take a break for one of these sincere but irrelevant plotlines and it turns the film into something of a slog. This should be a jaunty little comedy about the clash between the historical academic record and the fictional screenplay.
The film is full of actors who should be able to bring the story to life, and some of them do. Bob Hoskins, plays the screenwriter who venerates the book but has to sell himself short to stay in the movie business. His part end up being a bit of a cartoon, ironic since he had “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in his near future. It is also interesting that the same year he made this, he also had an Academy Award Nomination for his performance in “Mona Lisa”, a far darker film. Michelle Pfeiffer was just hitting her stride in films, with the previously discussed “Witches of Eastwick” her next film. She is right for the role in this movie, but the part is underwritten and should have been more related to the main plot. It’s easy to see the potential of her character in the story, as an actress who wants to get it right in the film, but struggles to succed in the male dominated film industry.
Michael Caine is always a joy to have in a film, but he can’t write his own parts, he just has to play them, and they often force him into less than stellar movies. Here he plays an actor who is a bit of a rogue, playing a horrible historical character, who has been rewritten to be a bit of a rogue. His charms are lavished on local women and other film personnel, but he is married and his wife shows up on the shoot. He has two big scenes where his charm is supposed to carry us past the flimsy role he has. The first is a helicopter gag that feels completely out of place in the movie. The second is a sequence in an amusement park where all of the parties are together and overcome the awkwardness of the moment by singing and skipping down the street. In a big surprise, that moment actually works.
By putting his character at the center of the story, Alda is required to be more serious than he should be. I think more time spent with Hoskins, figuring out what to do about the script would have given us more to laugh at. His disputes with the director played by Saul Rubinek, are tart and need a little more to make the humor work. It is only at the end of the film when Alda’s character openly defies the production plans that the conflict between he and the director gets the comic payoff it deserves. Alda may have been satirizing Hollywood’s tendency to infantilize movies, but he needs to take a bigger bite of that apple and commit to it. His story ends up being good natured instead of funny and brutal.
We saw this at the Alhambra Place, just up the street from us. Dee was pregnant that summer and sitting in an air conditioned theater for a trifle like this was a nice tonic to her condition. I watched this on Laserdisc, and I noticed it was in a 1:33 ratio. There was no panning and scanning because it was not framed for a widescreen look. The film is shot in a very basic style, probably reflecting the TV setups of the era and not the more elaborate camerawork that would follow in a few years.