By Richard Winters
My Rating: 3 out of 10
4-Word Review: Marcel Marceau says no.
Mel Funn (Mel Brooks) was a one-time top Hollywood movie director, whose career spiraled downward due to alcoholism. He though, along with his two sidekicks, Marty (Marty Feldmen) and Dom (Dom DeLuise), aspires for a comeback. His idea is to make a silent movie, but the studio head (Sid Caesar) initially rejects it and only warms up to it when Mel convinces him that he can bring in some top name stars. Mel and his two buddies then set out to find the talent and although it isn’t easy they’re able to get Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft, and Liza Minnelli. The movie is eventually made, but then on opening night the one and only print of it gets stolen by a greedy conglomerate named Engulf and Devour, who want the studio that produced the movie to go under in order for them to take it over.
In 1975 after the success of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, writer-director Brooks was on top of the film world and I suppose any zany idea he came up with the studios would be willing to roll with considering his already built-in cult following, so it’s no surprise it got made. It even, to my surprise, did quite well at the box office pulling in $36 million from a $4 million budget though this was mainly due to the fact that Brooks had his legion of fans upfront who would be willing, if not running to see his next movie even if it was about farm pigs mating. What really flabbergasted me was how, at least at the time, most critics reviewed it favorably with Roger Ebert even giving it 4-stars. I for one though found very little that was funny and felt more like Anne Bancroft, who was Brooks’ wife, who responded negatively to Alan Alda when he congratulated the couple on it after watching it during an opening night screening. After describing how hard he laughed Bancroft then turned to her husband and said: “You see Mel, I told you some idiot would find this funny.”
A lot of the problem is with the script, or lack thereof where too much emphasis is placed on disconnected gags and not enough on story. Many silent films from the era had intricate plot lines, so to say because the movie didn’t have dialogue, only title cards, so it had to remain simple is just not a good excuse. There needed to be more at stake and a threatening bad guy, some would say that Harold Gould, who plays the head of the conglomerate is the heavy, and he probably is, but he’s too bumbling, not seen enough, and there’s never any confrontation/showdown between him and Mel.
Having three guys essentially playing the protagonist didn’t make much sense either. I didn’t understand what bonded them, or since Mel was down-on-his-luck, where they would find the time, or money to traipse around in a snazzy little sports car all day and not have to work. There’s little distinction between the three and they could’ve been combined into one person, preferably Marty, whose odd face is perfect for this kind of material.
The humor is on the extreme kiddie level, which may disappoint some Brooks fans who at the time was known for his bawdy and even envelope pushing material. The gags aren’t all that imaginative. I think the only one I got a kick out during the entire 87-minute runtime was the heart machine at the hospital, which inadvertently gets turned into Pong, the very first video game. The Geriatric Lounge where no on one under 75 is admitted and everyone gets carded was alright too, but literally everything else falls flat and for the most part horrendously lame. The jokes have very little to do with the plot, which is anemic enough, and thus takes away from the main storyline as they just get haphazardly thrown in at regular intervals and in certain cases take quite a long time to play-out, which robs the movie of any momentum and makes it seem like it’s bogging down and going nowhere.
The cameos by the famous stars are wasted. I did like Bancroft, who does a rare comic turn from her usual drama forte, and is quite good particularly with the freaky eye trick that she does, which was taught to her by Carl Reiner. Paul Newman, who goes on a wild wheelchair race, isn’t bad either, but Reynolds segment doesn’t have enough going-on and Caan’s moments, in which the four try to eat melon balls inside his trailer that has a broken spring, is just plain silly and highly strained. In Minnelli’s bit she does nothing but just sit there as the other three try to sit down at her table while wearing body armor, which again takes agonizingly long to play-out and less sophisticated than a comic bit on ‘Sesame Street’.
I will give Brooks all the credit in the world with his ability and daring to come-up with what many people would consider an unworkable idea and have the guts to pull-it-off, or at least attempt to. However, like with History of the World, Part 1, it becomes an overreach that can’t equal its grand concept. Having characters that weren’t broad caricatures and a script that didn’t rely so heavily on mindless shtick would’ve helped.
My Rating: 3 out of 10
Released: June 17, 1976
Runtime: 1 Hour 27 Minutes
Director: Mel Brooks
Studio: 20th Century Fox