Tag Archives: Bernadette Peters

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Escaping from the depression.

Arthur (Steve Martin) is a struggling sheet music salesmen during the depression, who’s looking to escape his dreary existence by becoming a songwriter, but finds that no one including his wife (Jessica Harper) cares about what his dreams, which leaves him feeling lost and alone. He then meets perky schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) and the two begin an affair despite her not knowing that he is already married. When she gets pregnant and loses her job because of it Arthur is nowhere to be found and instead he gets unjustly tabbed for committing rape on a blind woman (Eliska Krupka) that he did not do.

The film is based on a 6-part miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1978 and starred Bob Hoskins. Martin saw it and was so enamored with the story that he became compelled to have it remade here and the studio even hired the same writer, Dennis Potter, to pen the script although the studio forced him to do 13 rewrites before they finally accepted it. Despite the extravagant musical numbers, which are pretty good, and positive critical reception, the filmed failed to achieve any success at the box office where it took in a paltry 2 million that barely made a dent in its 22 million budget.

A lot of the blame can be placed on the casting of Martin. While I admire him for not allowing himself to be typecast, and for dying his hair brown here, he still comes off as misplaced. You keep waiting for him to say something goofy and absurd like his character in The Jerk would and when he doesn’t you start feeling bored and frustrated. For his part he lashed out at those that didn’t like it calling them ‘ignorant scum’ while anyone who did enjoy the film he labeled ‘wise and intelligent’.

Yet his character is also a problem as he comes off as arrogant and selfish the whole way through. He constantly antagonizes his shy wife pressuring her to submit to his kinky sexual fantasies and when she doesn’t he threatens to walk out. He then lies about his marital status to Peters and is cold and ambivalent when she gets pregnant making him seem like a true jerk and not the funny kind in his earlier film.

Jessica Harper I enjoyed much more. I think she gives her finest performance here and I was genuinely surprised she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Her interpretation of a shy, sheltered Midwestern wife from a more innocent era is completely on-target and I came to sympathize far more with her than Martin. The line that she utters when the police investigators come to her house, after Martin gets accused of rape, is the best moment in the movie. Peters is good too, but I felt her character got in the way and the film would’ve gelled better had it focused solely on the dysfunctional marriage.

The dance numbers are well choreographed with the best one being with Christopher Walken who does a bona fide striptease that took him over 2 months to rehearse. The bit in which Martin and Peters find themselves transported inside a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is quite cool too although Astaire himself tried blocking the footage from being used. He later commented that as a viewer ” I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life” and describing every scene in the film as being “cheap and vulgar.”

The story though starts out too slowly and for the first hour seems like there really isn’t any plot at all. It improves by the second half, but there needed to be more urgency at the beginning and many viewers may not be willing to stick with it.  Having the actors lip-sync the songs was a bad idea too. It gives the whole thing an amatuerish vibe making it seem like it was intended to be a campy comedy when it really wasn’t.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 11, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Jerk (1979)

the jerk

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: This is stupidly brilliant.

This is the type of film that looks like it was done by people that were stoned and meant for audiences that were equally stoned. The ‘story’ runs like it was conceived by someone who couldn’t come up with a real plot so they did this instead. The whole thing is as simple and mindless as the character it depicts with no real correlation to anything. Everything is thrown in haphazardly and at times looks like nothing but a very desperate and strained attempt for a laugh. This is coupled by a performance by Steve Martin that is very one-dimensional and even amateurish. He behaves like one of those annoying class clowns looking for attention and yet despite all this it still manages to be funny sometimes really, really funny.

This is a definite precursor to Dumb and Dumber and others like it and in many ways this is still the best as it completely stretches the stupidity axiom. It tests the audience’s perceptions on what is tolerable and logical. This doesn’t just have a couple of guys who are weird everybody and everything is weird. The humor works totally outside of the box. It gets you to laugh at things you didn’t think you would and also gets you to see things differently. It creates a warped world that for the first hour is consistent and fun, but by the second hour it begins to struggle and ultimately overreaches.

Martin’s ‘air head’ routine doesn’t seem too original since he had been using it previously in his stand-up acts and comedy guest stints. His character is too dumb and naive to be believable and there is never any explanation for it. He manages to give his performance a certain endearing quality, which is the only thing that saves it. The opening segment has him growing up a white boy amongst a poor black family, which borders dangerously close to being racist and stereotypical.

There is a good supporting cast, but they seem wasted and many of them only have a few lines. Bernadette Peters, as his love interest, really doesn’t add much however Jackie Mason is pretty good as Martin’s boss at a gas station. Maurice Evans is also fun as Martin’s butler and has an amusing way of responding to his wife’s sudden death. Rob Reiner, the director’s son, appears in a cameo as a truck driver who gives Martin a lift ‘up to the end of the fence.’

Overall this is pretty goofy stuff, but only for those who are in the right frame of mind for it. It’s a simple, scattershot formula that produces some genuine laughs.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 34Minutes

Rated R

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, HDDVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video