The Marx Brothers as a Sign of God?
A CINEMATIC VIEW
Viewing the new films by author/directors Paul Mazursky and Woody Allen provides students of contemporary film an especially timely stimulus for critical thinking. Mazursky and Allen began their double duty roles in filmmaking at the same time: Mazursky co-authored and directed Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and Allen wrote and directed Take the Money and Run. Though in 1969, when the two films appeared, I would have bet that Mazursky would become the more significant artist, over the years he has grown little while Allen’s growth as a creative artist is nothing short of astounding.
A Mazursky film is never a complete waste. In films such as Alex in Wonderland (1970), Blume in Love (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), and Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Mazursky has satirized much of contemporary life and has almost always tried to insert a serious point into the comical proceedings The assets of a Mazursky film are its humor and the performances. The problem with a Mazursky film centers on his messages: he consistently seems either to be reaching beyond his depth or to be sacrificing his statements for commercial reasons. Viewing a Mazursky film, I have the feeling that it was created with one eye on the box office.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is quintessential Mazursky. At times the film is quite humorous. The plot centers on wealthy Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss), who saves derelict Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte) when the latter, wandering around Beverly Hills, tries to drown himself in Whiteman’s pool. Housed, clothed, and fed by Whiteman, Baskin then becomes a kind of mini-savior for Dave’s wife, Barbara (Bette Midler), Dave’s sexually confused teenage son, and his radical daughter. Opening shots of the Whitemans’s peach-colored house, peach-colored both inside and out including his-and-her peach-colored refrigerators in Dave and Barbara’s bedroom, set the stage for the superficial relationships among family members, who, though materially rich, seem emotionally impoverished and spiritually bankrupt.
As the film moves toward its climax we discover that Jerry has been conning each member of the family, playing whatever role he perceives each of them wants him to play. When the denouement takes place, it’s Mazursky’s “message moment,” but the message is mystifying and is conveyed with no dramatic power. The film does not end as much as stop. Mazursky’s career has been a commercial success and my guess is that Down and Out in Beverly Hills will make big profits, but as a creative artist this Brooklyn-born author/director continues to be a disappointment.
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