Tag Archives: Elaine May

Enter Laughing (1967)

enter laughing

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Acting is his dream.

Loosely based on writer/director Carl Reiner’s experiences as a fledgling actor trying to work his way up into the business circa 1938. The story centers on David Kolowitz (Reni Santoni) who works as an apprentice at a machine repair shop, but dreams of one day making a living as a stage actor. He gets his break when he auditions for a part in a low budget stage production run by an aging, alcoholic actor named Harrison Marlowe (Jose Ferrer). Marlowe is not impressed with David’s acting ability, which is marginal at best, but at the insistence of his daughter Angela (Elaine May), who thinks David is ‘cute’, he decides to give him a try under the condition that David must pay them to perform in it and also must come up with his own costume.

Although this was a big success on Broadway as a film is has not aged well and is quite bland. The story is better suited as an episode for a sitcom and stretching out such a thin one-dimensional plot to an almost two-hour runtime becomes quite boring particularly with its plodding pace and direction. The only time it ever gets even mildly funny is during David’s audition scene, but even this ultimately falls flat particularly with the idea that David would be dumb enough to think that words in a script that are in parenthesis would be part of the dialogue and not a stage direction. You would think someone who has spent his entire life dreaming of being ‘the next Ronald Coleman’, who was a big movie star during the ‘30s, would know how a basic script is constructed and therefore this attempt at humor fails.

Santoni, in his first major film role, is terrific and despite being of Hispanic heritage, which Reiner is not, still manages to resemble Carl quite well during Reiner’s younger years. However, the character is too painfully naïve and dumb as he clumsily walks himself into messy situations long after the viewer, or anyone else with some common sense, would clearly see the obvious red flags.

Janet Margolin is beautiful playing David’s girlfriend Wanda and her presence gets an ‘A’ simply for her attractive face alone, but the romantic scenes do nothing but bog this already slow moving film down even further. Also, having David be so oblivious to her insecurities about him working with an attractive leading lady onstage makes him seem insensitive and not funny as intended.

Elaine May is good and so is Jack Gilford as David’s boss at the repair shop. It’s also fun seeing Carl’s real-life son, Rob Reiner, who later became famous for playing Mike Stivic on ‘All in the Family, making his film debut as a nerdy, would-be actor, but overall the film is dated and contrived.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: February 25, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS

Ishtar (1987)

ishtar

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Songwriters travel to Morocco.

Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle (Warren Beatty) are losers-at-life that now in their middle-age years are convinced that they have talent as songwriters even though this opinion is shared by no one else. They manage to get themselves a talent agent (Jack Weston) who tells them that the only place he can get their act booked is at a club in Morocco. The two, desperate for any attention they can get, decide to take him up on the offer, but once they arrive they become swept up in international intrigue with the Emir of Ishtar and the CIA.

This film was a notorious flop in its day not only with its cost overruns, production delays and box office receipts, but with its behind-the-scenes discord between star Beatty and writer/director Elaine May. It seemed that critics and film goers alike considered it a bomb, but I came into this thing with an open mind. May has written some great scripts in the past and is known for her impeccably dry humor. I was convinced that in this day-and-age of broad comedy and over-the-top farces American audiences were simply not geared to pick up on the subtleties of the humor.

Unfortunately five minutes in it becomes painfully clear this thing is every bit as bad as its reputation states. The humor relies too heavily on the two main characters spending what seems like hours on end sitting around trying to come up with bad lyrics for their already dumb sounding songs and then singing them in an off-key, tone deaf kind of way. This may elicit a mild grin for a minute or so, but after spending the first twenty minutes on it, it gets really annoying. Even at the end as the two crawl on the desert floor they continue to work on these same lyrics, which by that time has become as dried up as the desert itself.

The insane, almost incoherent plotline is another issue. It’s like two diametrically different stories clashed precariously into one with only the thinnest of threads holding it together. What starts out as a sardonically amusing look at two middle-aged men chasing an elusive dream suddenly becomes the second reel of Raiders of the Lost Ark without warning. The wild array of loosely structured coincidences that the two go through as they reluctantly find themselves more and more inadvertently involved with the intrigue around them is so flimsily plotted and poorly thought out that it’s not even worth the effort to describe other than to say it makes little sense, is unexciting and most of all not funny.

The main characters are a turn off as well and not comically engaging as intended. The idea that two men hitting 50 would suddenly decide to chuck their relationships and jobs to chase after a songwriter career despite not getting any positive feedback from anyone else to convince them that they even possessed the ability to do it and which usually doesn’t pay well anyways seems weird and bordering on mental illness. Having the characters in their early 20’s and just starting out and willing to take any remote venue they could in order to get their first ‘big break’ would’ve worked better, or portrayed these middle-aged men as once being famous and now desperate for a comeback, or even has-been CIA agents caught up in one last case of intrigue. Just about any other scenario would’ve made more sense than the one that ultimately gets used.

Hoffman is a great actor, but his efforts here are wasted on the weak material. Beatty does well playing a dimwit and the scene where he ‘beats up’ on Adjani who he thinks is a boy is probably the only funny moment in the film. Isabelle Adjani though, who was dating Beatty at the time, is miscast in a role that doesn’t convey her talents and seems almost degrading especially the scene where she lifts up her dress at a crowded terminal and exposes her breasts in effort to prove to Hoffman that she is really a female.

This movie is in some way so amazingly bad that I was almost convinced that it was intentional and if that was the case then at least in that area it can be considered a success.

ishtar 2

ishtar 3

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated PG-13

Director: Elaine May

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Such Good Friends (1971)

such good friends 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her husband fools around.

Julie (Dyan Cannon) is a well-off New York Housewife living in a swanky Manhattan apartment with her husband Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) who is the successful editor of a New York fashion magazine. Her life seems fulfilled and happy until Richard goes into the hospital for routine surgery, which has unexpected complications that sends him into a coma. While going through some of his personal belongings she comes upon his little black book that lists all sorts of sexual conquests he has had with her friends, which first leads the devastated Julie into considering suicide, but then ultimately into revenge.

This film can be considered Otto Preminger’s swan song as the two movies he made after this weren’t worth watching. This movie also proves to be a giant improvement from the awful Skidoo that he did just three years before where he tried unsuccessfully to get with the ‘hip generation’, but failed miserably. It has the same irreverence and satire as that one, but it is much more disciplined and sophisticated and makes its point without going overboard. It also shows that despite his renowned cantankerous nature behind-the-scenes he was still a gifted director who managed to span five decades with movies that had vastly different styles and themes and he deserves to be labeled a filmmaking legend.

I loved the way the camera spins around in a circle during a scene inside a New York art museum as well as some breathtaking shots of the New York skyline while on top of Jennifer’s and Richard’s condominium. The fractured narrative that deals heavily with flashback sequences is also nicely handled though the scenes showing a middle-aged Cannon trying to look like she is an adolescent while wearing pigtails looks tacky and should’ve been scrapped.

The film is based on the Lois Gould novel of the same name and while that book had a much more serious tone the movie gives the material more of a satirical spin much like Diary of a Mad Housewife, which Preminger had scriptwriter Elaine May (who gets credited as Ester Dale) watch before writing this one. The result is endlessly witty dialogue and some near brilliant conversational exchanges between the characters. Some of the best bits are Jennifer’s discussions with Richard’s doctors who seem reluctant to take responsibility for their medical blundering as well as Jennifer’s awkward sexual encounter with her friend Cal (Ken Howard) when he is unable to ‘rise to the occasion’.

Although she has a face that can show pain and sadness well Cannon may not have been the best choice and some other actresses would’ve been more interesting in the part. Apparently Preminger had her in tears already on the first day and she has in subsequent interviews called him a ‘horrible man’. The scene showing her naked in a snapshot is actually that of another nude model with Cannon’s face cropped on it.

James Coco is great in support and I was genuinely shocked that it didn’t get him nominated for best supporting actor. The scene where Cannon is undressing him for some sex and he tries desperately to distract her while he takes off a corset that he is wearing underneath is frickin’ hilarious. Burgess Meredith has an outrageous moment where he is seen nude while attending a posh party and only his genitals are covered by a book hung from a belt that he is wearing.

The only real negative is the ending that is too serious and somber and deflates the energy from the film’s otherwise snarky tone. Some of the music used doesn’t work with the scenes either including the O.C. Smith song played over the closing credits. Otherwise it’s as fresh, original and timely as it was when it first came out and ripe to be rediscovered by the right audience. The title sequence created by Saul Bass that is used to open the film is diverting and I wished it had been extended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 16, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated R

Director: Otto Preminger

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1975)

sheila levine is dead and living in new york city

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Heartbreak in the city.

Sheila Levine (Jeannie Berlin) is a recent college grad who moves to New York City in search of a more exciting and glamorous lifestyle, but finds a long line of heartbreak and empty opportunities instead. When her younger sister gets married before she does she becomes jealous, but refuses to give up and continues to strive to make her mark no matter how small it might be.

Based on the Gail Parent novel the film manages to hit a few marks. Her nagging mother and the exchange that she has with a job placement coordinator at an employment agency is good. However, the idea that a woman’s sole purpose in life is to get married and then not have to work afterwards is seriously dated and will not connect with today’s viewers.

The main character isn’t exactly likable either. She is bossy and intrusive with her roommate and seems to think that because she is a college grad that should entitle her to only ‘creative’ and interesting jobs that doesn’t involve typing. She is also strangely naïve as she gets picked up by a middle-aged man (Roy Scheider) at a bar, goes back to his place for sex and then somehow thinks that means he is in love with her and is genuinely shocked when he bluntly tells her that he was simply appeasing his ‘animalistic instincts’. We are supposed to feel sorry for her, but instead it’s more fun seeing her get slapped down.

Berlin is the daughter of Elaine May who was the queen of sardonic humor and I came into this thing with high hopes, but her performance is only so-so. She does indeed look very Jewish and the perfect composite of the Rhoda Morgenstern TV character and a young Joan Rivers. However, her incessant whiny and nasally voice may be too much for some.

Scheider manages to be pretty solid. I was never impressed with his acting range, but here he gives quite possibly his best performance in what is most likely his least known role.Sidney J. Furie’s lifeless direction though makes the production come off like a filmed stage play with scenes that seem to go on forever.

Michel Legrand’s melodic orchestral score is out-of-place and better suited for a romance. There is also a song with a funky 70’s sound that gets played at regular intervals and becomes increasingly annoying.

I was expecting this to be a quirky, dry humored comedy, but found it to be more of a stilted drama that relied too much on the obvious and at times became almost painful to watch. The romantic angle between Scheider and Berlin is unbelievable and ultimately quite corny, which impedes the film from achieving any type of true potential.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 16, 1975

Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Studio: Paramount

Available: YouTube