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Fine Mess, A
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by Jack Sommersby

"Not Really 'Fine', But Not a 'Mess', Either"
4 stars

Oh, this guilty pleasure is nothing worth writing home about, but there are far, far worse comedies out there, that's for darn sure.

Blake Edwards' go-for-broke screwball comedy A Fine Mess isn't likely to be enamored by a whole lot of moviegoers because many of the jokes misfire and are broader than the side of a barn, but it's been engineered with so much color and energy that it manages to put a smile on your face if you're in the right undemanding mood. It's quite the anomaly that Edwards' screenplay is mostly a shambles yet his direction has never been more assured: cannily working in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Edwards, immeasurably aided by cameraman Harry Stradling, Jr. and his candy-colored lighting, makes the movie a luxurious widescreen visual feast for the eyes. The images pop! with life, whether it's the simple interior of an apartment or a fancily-designed recreation room with bright pool-table balls in the foreground; and unlike many of his ilk, Edwards has a real knack for canny composition -- this is definitely the kind of movie that will suffer on a non-letterboxed home-video format. It's not a noteworthy piece of work like Edwards' outstanding Dudley Moore star vehicle Micki and Maude from two years prior (then again, he's working with his own mediocre material this time around), but it's actually preferable to his overrated period musical Victor/Victoria (which, despite some impressive production design, never managed to take off). With A Fine Mess, Edwards proves that bravura execution can sometimes overcome the thinnest of scripts -- he keeps everything so consistently revved up you don't have much in the way of lag-time to groan at what isn't working. It would have helped, however, had he cast the two lead roles better; or, to be more specific, cast someone other than the dreadful Howie Mandel as the sidekick to straight-man Ted Danson, because they enjoy absolutely zero genuine chemistry together. (To use a cliched expression, they mix together as well as oil and water.)

What there is of the bare-bones story involves Danson's Spence Holden, a struggling actor scraping a living as a movie extra; but if he's a bust in the Hollywood industry, his ladies-man self is a bona-fide success in the bedroom -- in the best running gag, he's forever getting slapped by his past female conquests whose names he can't remember ("Well, give me a hint. How long ago was this?" The lady replies, "Last night."). On a lunch break during a shoot at a derby racetrack, Spence overhears two goons illegally doping a racehorse due to run in a big race the next day. Seeing the opportunity to make some big money by betting on it, he checks the name of the horse, is discovered by the goons Binky and Turnip (energetically acted by Stuart Margolin and Richard Mulligan), and is pursued so the secret can't get out. He escapes by commandeering a nearby car, and then proceeds to enlist buddy Dennis Powell (Mandel), a roller-skating fast-food waiter, in his scheme. They're spotted at the track by the goons, but not before winning ten-thousand dollars on the bet; they're chased by foot and then by car until they take refuge inside an auction house, where, for reasons too stupid to bear sensible mention, they pay all their winnings for an antique piano so as not to attract attention. From here, the buddies try finding a buyer for the piano, the goons keep trying to find them at the orders of their Mafia boss Tony Pazzo (a game Paul Sorvino), Pazzo's hot Latina dish of a wife Maria (a sexy Maria Conchita Alonso) starts an illicit affair with Spence without Spence knowing who she's married to, Dennis romances auction employee Ellen (the dull Jennifer Edwards), and it all culminates at Pazzo's mansion where our heroes have gone to deliver the piano while still in ignorance to whose home it is, and the rest of the players wind up there just before practically the entire L.A. police department surrounds the place. Never a dull day in the City of Angels, eh?

To give a fair idea of the ultra-low level of some of the humor, Dennis reads the directions on a can of deodorant before spraying hits armpits, "Shake well before using," then physically shakes himself. Later at the auction house, schooched down in their seats so the goons won't see them, wondering where a nasty smell is coming from, Spence and Dennis take turns raising their arms to smell their pits, and the auctioneer mistakenly thinks they're bidding. When at the racetrack, Binky, tired of Turnip's sassy lip, orders him to stick out his tongue, and a nearby drunken lush, thinking Binky's talking to him, disgustingly sticks his own out. A couple of minutes later, to distract the goons so Spence can place the bet, Dennis puts liquid soap in his hand, walks up to the goons asking if they've seen a rabid dog around, puts it in his mouth, and pretends to be foaming from its bite. And so on. It's hard to believe Edwards or any sane-minded person could possibly believe such gags are funny, but nevertheless they're thrown out with the subtlety of bowling balls let loose during a church service. But there are a fair number that score. Though generally unappealing, Mandel rises to the occasion in his best scene: in a textbook example of a masterful slow burn, he gradually turns wide-eyed hysterical while trying to extinguish the growing heat in his mouth after eating just a single forkful of hot Indian food -- the scream he ultimately emits in the crowded restaurant is ear-shattering. Spence is saved from the goons by a rattled post-coital Maria charging at them, and while calling after her as she runs out of the apartment, he's slapped by a former lover passing by who thinks he's calling her by the wrong name again. Turnip unintentionally knocking Binky around while closing three of a car's doors is wonderfully staged, as is the mansion sequence where, right out of those '60s bedroom farces, people hide under sheets and beds and in various rooms with slamming doors and doorknobs falling off, so the unexpected husband is not made the wiser.

After a while it's hard to fault Edwards for all this unchecked silliness because the elements that do work couldn't possibly have been borne without the ones that don't -- when he's working in this kind of undisciplined mode, he can't seem to see the forest from the trees; he's incapable of separating his bad ideas from the good ones. (One can easily envision some studio execs wincing at the armpit jokes during a screening.) Yet Edwards manages to throw us because some of his timing here is as good as any comedy director's. And he keeps a lively rhythm going throughout, with the help of a bouncy soundtrack full of bubbly light-rock tunes, not to mention two ace editors whose work is as keen as a Bowie blade. Granted, Turnip winding up with the same kind of horse-stimulant dildo shoved up his rump may not be a laugh riot, but his lightening-fast running resulting from it, which can literally outrun bullets, is cleverly interspersed through the remainder of the running time, with Billy Vera and the Beater's song "Slow Down" perfectly punctuating it. (Curiously, being that Edwards clearly modeled the movie after the Laurel & Hardy's 1932 The Music Box, he neglects to include a moving-the-piano-up-the-staircase sequence that was that movie's highlight. Maybe it was a post-production casualty in the cutting room.) As mentioned, the Spence/Dennis interplay never comes alive, but the Binky/Turnip one does, even when their shenanigans become repetitive -- there's an inspired moment where Binky closes a front-door peephole and gets his hair caught in it. Edwards also comes through in the chase-sequences department, giving them technical acuteness and variety; and darned if the last scene, with Spence and former-actress Maria shooting a scene for a cheesy Mexican western, isn't superbly brought off, with Spence's female-name-forgetting finally getting him in the hottest of water with this volatile beauty. As one can clearly surmise by now, A Fine Mess is most definitely an acquired taste. But for those willing to drop their guards and give themselves over to Edwards' madness, it can cure a halfway-case of the doldrums.

Proved neither Danson nor Mandel had what it took to be a box-office draw, but luckily Edwards hit it big a year later with the extraordinary "Blind Date."

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23011&reviewer=327
originally posted: 09/11/11 10:23:52
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USA
  08-Aug-1986 (PG-13)
  DVD: 06-Dec-2005

UK
  N/A

Australia
  25-Sep-1986


Directed by
  Blake Edwards

Written by
  Blake Edwards

Cast
  Ted Danson
  Howie Mandel
  Stuart Margolin
  Richard Mulligan
  Paul Sorvino



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