Friday, August 26, 2016

THE PRINCE OF TIDES (TriStar 1991) Sony Home Entertainment

Barbra Streisand continued her exploration of self-discovery, arguably, a life-long quest to find her own inner beauty, using Pat Conroy’s celebrated novel, The Prince of Tides (1991) as her catalyst and inspiration. While the novel delves deeply into a centralized brother/sister relationship and the revelations occurring from their exhumation of profoundly troubling family secrets, Streisand’s colossus of emotion divides its run time between Conroy’s originally themed scenario and a new focus on the burgeoning romantic entanglements involving the movie’s conflicted protagonist, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte in a superbly nuanced and Oscar-nominated performance, well out of his usual comfort zone) and Dr. Susan Lowenstein (the nothing short of brilliant, Streisand); a no-nonsense, though ultimately supportive Manhattan psychiatrist, passionate to spare Tom’s sister, the sensitive introvert/poetess, Savannah (Melinda Dillon) from another suicide attempt.  Upon the picture’s release, Streisand would be heavily criticized for this departure from and/or revision to Conroy’s prose, despite the fact Conroy, together with screenwriter, Becky Johnston, was responsible for the screenplay. And Conroy, something of a perfectionist in his own right, had nothing but the highest praise for Streisand’s devotion to his brainchild, in the end, sending her an autographed copy of the novel with an inscription that read: “To Barbra Streisand: The Queen of are many things… but you're also a great of the greatest to come into my life. I honor the great teachers and they live in my work…they dance invisibly in the margins of my prose. You've honored me by taking care of it with such great seriousness and love. Great thanks and I'll never forget that you gave 'The Prince of Tides' back to me as a gift - Pat Conroy.”
The Prince of Tides – the movie – has since become a sorely overlooked masterpiece from Streisand who, in a career outlasting most of her contemporaries, has unconventionally morphed from the elegant, if occasionally thunderstruck songbird of sixties’ road show movie musicals, into a dramatic star and, even more apparently unlikely refined storyteller, naturally poised to straddled the chasm between what goes on behind the camera and the impeccable performances she renders in front of it.  Arguably, Streisand urgently needed The Prince of Tide’s middle act to revolve around her. Yet, in hindsight, the carefully constructed mobile of plot points efficiently dangled, then dispatched to tell two major stories – one from the haunted recesses of childhood trauma, the other, its ever-present fallout and extraordinary aftermath – generates parallel narrative arcs on a collision course for the sort of heart-wrenching and emotionally satisfying finale, rarely seen in American movies then - and virtually unheard of in all American movies made today. In hindsight, Streisand’s lavish outpouring of unvarnished sentiment is not only very much in keeping with the novel’s diffused filter, spreading shafts of truth-revealing light on the ties that bind, but can also tear us apart; also, adding another cornerstone to Streisand’s fractured legacy from youth. By 1991, fans of la Streisand had discovered what many of her detractors still refused to concede; that apart from her ravenous perfectionism, often reinterpreted by the media as shrewish, exacting, emasculating and maniacal, Streisand nevertheless had defied what others misdirected and labeled as ‘ego’ to become one of Hollywood’s finest directors of her generation. Still, Streisand had good cause to gird her loins just prior to the release of The Prince of Tides; the picture, nominated in virtually every major category at Oscar time, except Best Actress and Best Director; the ole ‘boys’ club’ nepotism hard at work to shutter her chances from the competition that, in 1991, included such heavy-hitting and sincerely memorable entertainments as Oliver Stone’s J.F.K, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Warren Beatty’s long overdue return to the screen in Bugsy and, the ultimate winner, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.   
But 1991 was a banner year for Streisand in other ways. Not only had she elected to release a ‘then’ thirty year retrospect of her music career, but the usually shielded diva whose reclusiveness, second only to Garbo’s rich mystique, endured a rather angst-shredding interview conducted by 60 Minute’s sage and master of the nitty-gritty, Mike Wallace, whose own journalistic chutzpah proved too great for Streisand to overcome or even deflect. Challenging Streisand as ‘self-absorbed and opinionated’ Wallace, who suggested he never really like Streisand to her face, cornered her under the auspices of ‘tough love’. “Why do you sound so accusatory?” Streisand generously inquired when pressed to explain her twenty years in psychoanalysis. But soon, she was unexpectedly opening up to chapters from her past otherwise kept tightly under lock and key; the loss of her father when she was only fifteen months old, and, enduring chronic verbal abuse from a cruel stepfather who berated an impressionable seven year old as being ‘too ugly’ to have ice cream. “He couldn’t give affection,” Streisand suggested, “He never talked to me. He was mean to my mother. This was not a nice man.”   In hindsight, that interview, in which Wallace continued to chisel away at Streisand’s usually Teflon-coated austerity, catching more than a glimpse of those childhood insecurities still able to draw on a wellspring of tears, is both revealing of Streisand’s purpose in making The Prince of Tides as well as her presence as the compassionate psychoanalyst in it, and, ostensibly, the reason for the picture’s critical and box office success. Clearly, she could relate to the catharsis. And The Prince of Tides, apart from being a thoroughly compelling exposé about the journey back from a thoroughly ravaged and barren brink of mental devastation, is, in many ways a tale told by Streisand about Streisand; the mirror held up and just a little too close to be of comfort or absolutely edifying to its puppet master.    
Too often movies in which the past and the present intermingle are marred by jarring cuts, clumsy dissolves or otherwise ever-dreaded clichés in the anticipated ‘flashback’, taking the audience out of one story to zero in their attention span on the other, toggling back and forth as a sort of a visual ping-pong match that, over the course of the film’s runtime, more often than not becomes stale and emotionally dissatisfying.  Streisand’s skillful maneuvering through the labyrinth of Conroy’s turbulent honesty is assuaged by her ability to find the connective tissue and nuggets of wisdom and revelation in those proses. She instinctually switches between the two; her transitioning from ‘now’ to ‘then’ – and quite often, more adversarial, as in ‘now’ vs. ‘then’ – navigates, exculpates, and ultimately liberates our hero and heroine from the devastating foibles of their personal histories apart, and, in the third act, drawing them closer together as compatriots of a mutual scarring, destined for an emotionally-charged sexual liberation. Lost in transition are whole passages from Pat Conroy’s novel, mostly devoted to the childhood brutalities experienced by the Wingo children; Tom, Savannah, and their beloved brother, Luke (intermittently glimpsed throughout, in ‘flashbacks’ and played by three distinct child actors, Grayson Fricke, Ryan Newman and Chris Stacy) who, along with their calculating mother, Lila (Kate Nelligan) suffer the slings and arrows of a mentally and physically abusive father, Henry (Brad Sullivan), and, the hellish nightmare of a home invasion, perpetrated by a trio of prison escapees; resulting in the fierce rape of Tom, Savannah and Lila. This latter trauma survives the artistic cuts and is compounded by Luke’s wherewithal to load his father’s shotgun and murder all three assailants, their bodies later committed to the swamp; the revelation beaten into submission by the frantic Lila and never spoken of again, nor revealed to Henry who was away on his fishing trawler at the time of the attacks.      
Stephen Goldblatt’s lush and evocative cinematography, and James Newton Howard’s vibrant score, prone to groundswells of luxuriating orchestral sentimentality, extol the endangered splendor of South Carolina’s low country, contrasted quite effectively with the dusty inner-city sparkle of upscale Manhattan. And Nolte and Streisand – seemingly such disparate people in life, as well as oddly cast personalities on the screen, nevertheless possess the elusive firefly spark and magic of illuminating movie-land chemistry; neither, simplifying their characterizations herein; each, diving headstrong and heart-sure into the deep end of this creative pool; arms, legs, heads and hearts wrapped around a story that, in tandem affects and sooths. The salient elements of Pat Conroy’s novel linger and sustain, hyperbolized by Streisand’s yen for layering artifice onto verisimilitude, but with such mind-bogglingly impressive aptitude, the melding of these outwardly irreconcilable intangibles yields to an even more elusive third, more gratifying and self-assured as a universal, a parable and – yes, an ole-fashioned ‘love story’.  There is even a place in it for Streisand’s son, Jason Gould playing, what else? – Streisand’s movie son, Bernard Woodruff; a spoiled rich kid, given his first real lesson in manhood by Tom. Rule number one: learn how to throw a forward pass. Rule number two: never be held back from pursuing your passion. These lessons culminate in a devastating dinner party given by Lowenstein and her arrogant husband, concert violinist, Herbert (Jeroen Krabbé), who cannot resist treating Tom as something of an untouchable peasant in the midst of their cultured sect of sycophants until Tom threatens to drop Herbert’s Stradivarius off the balcony of their fashionable 5th Ave. penthouse, unless he publicly apologizes to his own wife for having an affair with his piano accompanist.    
Movies are, by their very nature, a communal activity; art by committee, as it were. But in The Prince of Tide’s case, the committee is undeniably ruled by the iron-fisted will of Barbra Streisand who knows precisely what she is after and is never afraid to demand it from cast and crew. Streisand’s inability to accept anything less than the passionate vision going on inside her own head is precisely the reason John Barry, the original composer chosen for this project, elected to bow out. “I can’t work with someone looking over my shoulder all the time,” Barry admitted. And Streisand is not only ‘looking over the shoulder’ but during her creative process, constantly reinventing, expanding and even changing and scrapping the perimeters of her own artistic license to begin anew, doubly reinvested in the outcome and the precision behind it meant to inform, cultivate and will a more concrete definition from that invisible value lingering in the back of her mind. “It’s how I grow,” Streisand once admitted, “How I get better and hopefully improve.”
The Prince of Tide’s opens with a spectacular montage of images gleaned from a seemingly idyllic childhood on the Carolina bayou; the Wingo clan, living in a great white house won by Tom’s great great-grandfather in a poker game; the children indulging in the sun-filtered steamy serenity of thigh-high reeds and rushes, shrimp trawlers lazily traversing the smooth waters, golden sunsets, and, the voice-over reflections of an adult Tom Wingo, superficially looking back on a time he would rather not explore more deeply. Nick Nolte’s great gift in the role is his uncanny faculty to covey the duality of conflict roiling close to the surface of Tom’s shaky resolve. His seemingly deadpan narration, at once suggests emotional detachment and yet an unrestrained fondness for the picture postcard images presently gleaned from this childhood he has yet to actually and fully come to terms. From this halcyon vantage we are plunged squarely into the nightmares of the present, soon to unravel, and yet ironically restore Tom’s inner soul; a phone call in the middle of the night alerting him to his sister, Savannah’s latest suicide attempt in Manhattan. Arriving in the big city after an estrangement from his wife, Sally (Blythe Danner) and their three children, Tom is alarmed to find his sister nearly catatonic and strapped down inside a padded cell at the psychiatric hospital; Savannah’s psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, not terribly interested in Tom’s glib and wholly unfair assessment of her skills as a ‘head shrinker’. “My only concern is my patient’s welfare,” Susan suggests. “Well, you’re doing a hell of a job!” Tom replies.
Lowenstein confronts Tom on a fundamental level: to tell her, the story of his life – and, by extension, Savannah’s – in the hopes of unlocking the inner torment causing Savannah such grave emotional distress. As it turns out, Tom is an even tougher ‘nut’ to crack. He has had a lifetime to build his own insular cocoon around his truer feelings, caustically slick and uncommunicative in anything beyond a pithy retort or embittered smart against their mother, Lila – a status-hungry matriarch who divorced Henry to marry Reese Newbury (Bob Hannah); a powerful attorney who, in Tom’s youth, manhandled the boy with thinly veiled threats of sending him off to boarding schools from which he likely would never return. Tom takes up residence in Savannah’s apartment, making small talk with her amiable gay landlord, Eddie Detreville (George Carlin). What could have possessed Savannah to end her own life? Tom reasons his sister has never entirely recovered from the loss of their eldest brother, Luke, an ex-Navy seal and Vietnam vet, likely suffering from PTSD, who applied military tactics in his personally waged war against the threat of a nearby power plant, destroying bridges and sabotaging building equipment. Luke, so we are later told, though ironically never shown, was later shot to death by the local police in a standoff.  
In the novel we get a lot more back story on the Wingos; particularly, severely flawed patriarch Henry, a WWII bomber crewman who survived a hellish bail out over Nazi Germany. Henry’s idea of family discipline during peace time is to regularly beat his children into submission while squandering his hard-earned wages as a shrimper on pie-in-the-sky business ventures; including a gas station advertising the added attraction of a live tiger, named Caesar; something of the family’s mascot, and, later to be unleashed by Luke on the prison escapees/rapists invading the Wingo household one rainy night. In the movie, Henry’s physical abuse is supplanted with mere verbal maltreatment. At one point, Henry grabs Tom rough by the arm. Tom, who is sensitive and thus rife for belittling, is defended by elder brother, Luke. We also get levity interjected: Lila, ordered by her husband to improve the swill she has newly concocted for their dinner, takes Henry’s plate back to the kitchen, mixing in several cans of dog food before re-serving the meal – now declared superb by him – as his children, knowingly look on. Even more interestingly, in the movie Tom has managed to reconcile his bitterness toward his father, enough to entrust Henry with his own three children, Lucy (Maggie Collier), Jennifer (Lindsay Wray) and Chandler (Brandlyn Whitaker), partaking of supervised outings on their grandfather’s shrimp boat. Tom’s relationship with Lila is, alas, never as fully resolved.
Another major departure from the novel is Streisand’s handling of the revelation of the family’s darkest secret - the rape. In both the novel and the movie, this pivotal moment arrives late. However, in the book, Tom and Savannah are both eighteen at the time of the incident, while Luke is in his mid-twenties. In the movie, all three are still very much children; Luke, barely sixteen; Tom and Savannah more like twelve or thirteen. This alteration serves a twofold purpose: first, to make the already insidious nature of the crime even more despicable because it is now being perpetrated on the very young; but second, to heighten the confession Tom makes to Lowenstein as an adult in the present; an amplification of both its emasculating and humiliating qualities.  In the book, Luke releases Caesar from his cage – the animal viciously attacking and killing two of the rapists, while Tom kills his own attacker with a rifle. In the movie, the onus for the penultimate retaliation and murder is squarely placed on Luke’s shoulders. The boy shoots the attackers dead with an uncharacteristically vindictive aplomb for one so young that not only rivals the rage of the attackers’ but portends to Luke’s future vigilantism against the state, resulting in his own death. Tom’s confession to Lowenstein ends with a paralytic stare. When asked how the incident was later explained away to both Henry and the police, we learn from Tom that Lila maniacally threatened her children to remain silent; scrubbing away all evidence of the blood-stained coup and sinking the battered remains in the mire of the nearby swamp; effectively burying the physical evidence, though never able to fully expunge the emotional wounds, left to fester and dehumanize Savannah and Tom, leading directly to their inability to connect with anyone in their adult lives.
In the present, Tom remains in contact with Sally. During one of their long-distance phone conversations, she confides a proposal of marriage from a mutual friend; neither, particularly wanting to address the prospect of getting a divorce. Instead, Sally and Tom have affairs; Tom with Lowenstein, whom he rightly assesses as always being ‘so sad’. She has begun to admire the sacrifices he has made in order to free Savannah from her tortured memories. Tom tries to encourage Lila to provide her account of the rape to Lowenstein. Alas, she is as ever resolved to pretend it never happened, despite the fact her acceptance of the truth might further along Savannah’s recovery. “Who taught you to be so cruel?” Lila insists. “You did, mama,” Tom astutely points out. It is a moment of truth so utterly blood-curdling and revealing of the sort of devastating impact a terrible mother can have on a young boy’s life. And Streisand handles it with uncharacteristic intensity without ever dwelling on the situation. Some things will never change. To gain new insight into Tom’s failed venture as a former teacher and football coach, Lowenstein asks if he will instruct her son, Bernard on the finer points of the sport with a few tips on how to ‘tackle’ the sport. Bernard is spoiled; also, likely bitter over his parents’ dysfunctional relationship; a father, too self-absorbed in his own prominent career as a virtuoso violinist, and a mother seemingly on the cusp of throwing everything away to have a tryst with one of her patients. Tom is not about to take any guff, however, but especially not from Bernard. He puts the kid through the paces of basic training. From this, Bernard learns physical and mental discipline. But he also comes to respect Tom as the type of father-figure he would like to have had; and Tom equally warms to Bernard; in the movie’s penultimate farewell, showing utter amazement for the boy’s obvious skills as a budding concert violinist. “Boy, I tell you if I could play the violin like that I’d never touch a football,” Tom tells Bernard, moments before sending him off on a train at Grand Central. “What’s wrong with doing both?” Bernard suggests. “Absolutely nothing,” Tom is pleasantly forced to admit.
Recognizing the positive change in her son’s attitude, to show her gratitude Lowenstein invites Tom to a social gathering at her husband’s penthouse; the soiree attended by a hoity-toity blend of Nuevo riche and self-important prigs; literary critic, Madison Kingsley (Frederick Neumann) providing his ‘gold seal of approval’ on Savannah’s book of poems, recently published before her suicide attempt. Yet, even here, Susan’s husband, Herbert cannot be a gracious host; earlier, accosting Tom with a rather sly rendition of ‘Dixie’ to illustrate for the rest of his guests what he misperceives asTom’s limited music appreciation and now, revealing to everyone, under the guise of ‘polite dinner conversation’ Savannah’s precarious mental condition.  The tone of the party turns darker still when Herbert refocuses his slightly inebriated disgust on his own wife, accusing her of transforming their sensitive son into ‘Quasimodo in a football uniform’. “I can’t believe you’d let Bernard play football when you know it could ruin his hands,” Herbert’s piano accompanist, Monique (Sandy Rowe) declares, to which Susan swats back, “…and I can’t believe you’d come to my house when everyone knows you’re fucking my husband!”  Having thrown down the gauntlet, the evening looks as though to have come to a grinding halt when Tom expertly interjects a moment of levity; holding Herbert’s priceless Stradivarius hostage over the edge of the balcony until he apologizes for his smug condescension. Turning to Susan, Tom adds, “Now I know why you always look so sad.”
Now, director Streisand moves into the biggest departure from the novel. At the time of the picture’s release, the affair de Coeur between Tom and Lowenstein was heavily criticized as The Prince of Tides biggest blunder; several uninterrupted days spent in blissful escapism in the country, having great sex overlooking an endless series of roaring fireplaces; all of it caught in a montage of overlapping images set to one of James Newton Howard’s less tome-like music cues. Undeniably, it all looks very good for the cameras. But it equally tends to bring the central narrative to a screeching standstill. Mercifully, this flagrante delicto leads to a sort of nostalgic assignation; a mutual awareness for Tom and Susan. There can be no future together. Despite having been brought together to lend solace to each other, they nevertheless come from very different and irreconcilable worlds. Thus, Tom returns to Sally, renewing his commitment to their marriage and family; a decision Lowenstein is unable to argue with, having already recognized Tom as the only man to whom her heart belongs. In New York, Tom witnesses Savannah gradual coaxed from her schizophrenic hallucinations; Lowenstein, using her newfound knowledge of the Wingo’s family’s background to liberate her patient from the tyrannies of her past. Witnessing his sister’s slow recovery is very gratifying for Tom. He knows he has done the right thing by divulging these suppressed family secrets. Has Savannah come through the storm of her own private hell with a new resolve to withstand future attempts to take her own life? Only time will tell. Still, The Prince of Tides remains open-ended, open-minded and optimistically hopeful of this prognosis as Savannah and Tom share in their heartfelt reunion; then, farewell as Tom prepares to go home to Sally. Lowenstein and Tom embark upon a bittersweet goodbye of their own; one last dance together inside The Rainbow Room; a sequence originally intended to play host Streisand’s rendition of ‘For All We Know’, but instead set to an orchestral arrangement of that J. Fred Coots/Sam M. Lewis time-honored ballad.  Lowenstein and Tom will likely always remain paramount in each other’s memory as the idyllic coupling never to be. But the heart is a strange appendage, prone to fondness for the things and people it cannot ever fully possess, as Tom drives home across the causeway, whispering Lowenstein’s name as both an exultation and prayer of thanks for his former life, now restored to him.
The Prince of Tides is supremely edifying entertainment; an eloquent elegy to everlasting love made by a master film-maker/star who capably understands the type of heartfelt movies that can sell tickets almost singularly on her box office clout alone. And, to be sure, Streisand never disappoints in her proficiency in front of or behind the camera. Think it easy to be star, director and executive producer? Think again and then try it sometime. What Streisand has achieved herein is nothing short of lyrical, smart and sexy; a beautifully crafted, solidly acted, exquisitely photographed and superbly underscored masterpiece; the way all movies based on best-selling novels ought to turn out, though far too few actually do. Streisand and her co-star, Nick Nolte have great on-screen chemistry; conceived in mutual antagonism but ultimately burgeoning with more subtly nuanced threads of mutual respect, and, tinged with flashes of comic relief. Nolte commits to some of the finest acting in his entire career; running the gamut of emotions and really getting under the skin of his alter ego. It’s an adult performance, which sounds rather condescending, except that far too few male leads in American movies - then or now - actually give us reflections of adulthood from the masculine perspective. No, what we generally get is tough guys or boys behaving like they think ‘real men’ ought; the clichéd swagger and boastfulness of a guy’s guy, too self-involved and thinking muscle tissue and testicles the mantra for self-professed paragons, distilled into cock of the walk. Nolte, however, gives us ‘a real man’ – warts and all; imperfect, damaged, sensitive, and utterly terrified of being found out as anything less than. It is a tour de force for which Nolte was passed over at Oscar time: the Best Actor Award, almost forgivable in going to Anthony Hopkins’ towering presence in The Silence of the Lambs. We will forgive the Academy…this time.
The Conroy/Johnston screenplay, often erroneously described as ‘uneven’ is actually a miracle of concision, concentrating the action of the novel, and even expanding upon its certain theme; adding to the milieu by morphing the tale to suit the medium of the motion picture. It ought to sink through contemporary film-maker’s heads: a great movie need not – and, in point of fact, should not be a literal translation of any great work of literature to function as its own entity, but excel as a movie pop-u-tainment. Like it or not, American movies have never aspired to existentialist, experimental art house. The few and far between ventures in this direction have generally proven unmitigated bores and quite often box office disasters. Leave the neorealism to the Italians, folks. Hollywood movies are about stars, glamor, the excitement and the fantasy of stepping into a world created, not a world to be discovered in nature. That’s fine. Heck, under the right circumstances, it is art too. No false modesty here. And Streisand knows implicitly where to draw the line. She unpacks the novel’s weighty psychological trauma and familial angst. But she never forgets or mislays the central purpose of her movie – to entertain with a subtext as the time-honored morality play. The Prince of Tides is a truly magnificent achievement with few peers in its day and virtually none in competition for the top spot today.   Streisand’s own drawing power at the movies used to be secure. I cannot say as much, as the actress has moved away from such finely wrought portraits, committed instead to such drivel as 2004’s Meet the Fockers and 2012’s Guilt Trip. La Streisand in a Seth Rogen movie?!?! Did she really need the money that badly? Ugh, I wanna throw up!!! 
In a perfect world – hell, even a just one – by now, The Prince of Tides ought to have made the leap to Blu-ray, along with Streisand’s other miracle of self-exploration, 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces: also Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994), and, Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999). It is quite obscene to be celebrating Blu-ray’s 10th anniversary in 2016 and not have such monumental picture-making readily on tap to champion the format. Far too many substandard releases and even more A-list Blu-ray releases of substandard pictures have made their way to hi-def, so why not these gems? But I digress. Sony’s old DVD release is about what you expect; imperfect but competent, with plenty of age-related artifacts floating about; colors that consistently adopt the pallor of orangey flesh tones, weaker than anticipated black and contrast levels and some minor edge-enhancement sporadically cropping up. Now, no one has more admiration for Sony’s more recent endeavors on Blu-ray. Indeed, the studio has led by example with a stunning output of both quantity and quality hi-def releases.
So, in the spirit of encouraging them to do more; I would politely suggest to their EVP in charge of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering, Mr. Grover Crisp (who I am a big champion and fan of) that it is high time Sony get busy and release more of its more recent catalog. Of the aforementioned titles listed above, three of the MIA are under their banner. The Prince of Tides DVD is desperately due for a video upgrade. Darn it anyway – it’s a movie so ripe and deserving of the honor! So, here is to hoping this plea for a Blu-ray has not fallen on deaf ears. The DVD’s 5.1 audio is adequate, but only just.  Extras…forget about it. We get some scantly prepared ‘bios’ on cast and crew – basically a less than informative Cole’s Notes version of the Los Angeles’ directory with highlighted movie credits; also trailers for The Mirror Has Two Faces and The Way We Were (another obscenely absent Streisand classic, given short shrift but mercifully, at least a limited Blu-ray release through Twilight Time).  Bottom line: hoping for a Blu-ray to rectify the sins committed herein. We’ll see.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, August 21, 2016

PATCH ADAMS: Blu-ray (Universal 1998) Universal Home Video

In my 2010 review of Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year (2006), yours truly suggested, “There needs to be a special place in heaven reserved for the utterly gifted Robin Williams; a man so generous with his ability to make us laugh at the absurdities of being human, that to simply classify him as a ‘comedian’ is to shamelessly distill those formidable talents into crass pop-u-tainment. Like Chaplin before him, Williams is a consummate raconteur and astute philosopher of life: deceptively weighty in the tiny nuggets of wisdom he peppers throughout his bravura routines. His genius lies not in the myriad of rapid fire laughs, farcically - if generously – ladled one upon the next, nor in his unrelenting sugar-spun delivery – the wisp and waggle that confounds the senses as it tickles the funny bone.” Alas, in 2010, I could not have imagined a world without Williams’ virtuosity; certainly, not in my own lifetime, despite Williams having a solid twenty years head start on life’s journey. Has it really been more than two years since Robin Williams bid us all a sudden farewell? My God, where has the time gone? And sadder still to reconsider what has become of our contemporary strain of comedy in the movies without him to steer this now rudderless ship into port. Even at his most ribald, Williams’ vein of court-jesting was skewed toward seeing the shocking fragility, silliness and ineptitude of the human world; a reflection, perhaps, of the raging insecurities from within, yearning to make meaning and sense of it all through the rubric of comedy.
Yet, in preparing this review almost two years after Williams’ passing, I continue to grapple with my own conflicted sorrow over his untimely death. It goes without saying Robin Williams was very much a part of our family’s good-humored movie-viewing, a sort of benevolent go-to on rainy/snowy afternoons when a pick-me-up was sorrowfully needed. However, in the two years that have since gone by, I have sincerely resisted revisiting Robin Williams at the movies; his passing on Aug. 11, 2014 somehow altering my appreciation for his talents, not as they have been diminished in my own meager estimation, but rather because time has only served to illustrate the peerless perfection gone away for good. I find myself being unable to sit through the wit without as painful sadness ready to engulf, reminding me, as though reminders were needed; first, and rather obviously, that Robin Williams is no longer with us; although I have no doubt he is presently entertaining the angels, apostles and the saints right now with his bawdy take on the incongruous nature of an eternal heavenly rest. Perhaps, I am still in mourning.
Yet, somehow knowing Robin Williams was morose and deeply troubled behind the laughter only serves to stir a wellspring of tears, regenerating his legacy now, tainted and offset from that celebration of his life, more impossibly false and marred by silent tragedy.  But no, Robin Williams' great gift to the world ought not be remembered in this way; rather, for his affecting fondness for the audience. His film career has constantly striven toward loftier platitudes, even when the films have been less than ample to sustain his grand insanity. So, perhaps it is not surprising to find my admiration for Williams’ work reached his creative pinnacle in Tom Shadyac’s Patch Adams (1998); the tale of an unhappy and near suicidal middle-aged man, rediscovering not only his chosen calling in life, but better reasons to live it, perhaps even more fully than he might have at first perceived; the title character based on a much-celebrated and semi-biographical account, Gesundheit: Good Health is a Laughing Matter’ written by the real Hunter Doherty ‘Patch’ Adams (co-authored by Maureen Mylander) and astutely consolidated into a manageable – and frequently vivid – screenplay by Steve Oedekerk. Patch Adams works, not so much as a biographical account of Hunter Adams’ early life and career, but as a seminal reflection of Robin Williams’ own struggles to find self-worth and make meaning of the world: a project about one man whom he so clearly admires, could relate to, and, was able to breathe creative life into, through his inimitable brand of graceful, sensitive humor.
In one of the fictional Patch’s penultimate speeches, an impassioned Williams addresses his detractors with, “You treat an illness – you win, you lose. You treat a patient I guarantee you win every time!” And although Robin Williams is likely to be long remembered for a myriad of other performances, meant more directly to capitalize on his gifts of farce, as an all-around entertainer he could have wished for no finer an epitaph than this movie. Whether Patch is challenging himself to do better, caught in a search for soulful satisfaction, while redefining the first precept of the Hippocratic Oath – ‘do no harm’ – or taking it to the absolute extreme, by attempting to inject more than a modicum of hope-enriching goodness in a roomful of various sick and terminally ill patients trapped in their unflattering sort of depressive limbo, too much with their silent thoughts, Williams characterization of Patch Adams brings a sort of unapologetic dignity to the forefront of his performance. Patch dismantles the self-professed pomposity of being a ‘good doctor’ in his soul-searching quest to ultimately become a great one. Williams invokes a certain kind of ‘every man’ heroism into this odyssey of self-discovery; questioning, probative and even off-putting to the status quo. Alas, from the vantage of 1969 – the year our story is set – Patch’s journey was rife for monumental disappointments. The fictional Patch Adams comes into conflict with the school’s administrative pufferfish, Dean Wolcott (Bob Gunton) who sees no joy in the purpose, goal or place of modern medicine, and finds Adam’s verve for discounting the ensconced authority of their chosen profession in favor of a more humanistic approach irresponsible ‘feel good’ nonsense. At a juncture where most patients arrive to surrender themselves completely to the capacities of a ‘good doctor’, Patch seems to simply be inferring the best cure of all is a little levity brought forth to its most absurd conclusion.
Like the very best comedies, Patch Adams becomes embroiled in its sincere ambition to do a great deal more than simply give the audience a multitude of reasons to be amused in the dark. The picture’s endeavor as consciously-made social activism put forth as undiluted entertainment remains a mantra most movies made then – and virtually all made today – would never attempt, and most doctors remain sorely unaccustomed to in their daily practices. Not surprising, director, Tom Shadyac has cast his movie with important dramatic talents rather than foppish, comedic ones; from Robin Williams, who has always harbored the base hallmarks of humanity in his best work, to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman; yet, another titanic loss to Hollywood’s ever-evolving artistic community. Gosh almighty, 2014 was not a good year for saying ‘goodbye’ to the very best Hollywood had to offer. Hoffman, who could – and so eloquently did – discover compassion in even his unlikeliest of roles, as in, playing the bombastic storm chaser in 1996’s Twister, or bumbling boom operator in Boogie Nights (1997), and could play it right down the middle with an ominous streak of iniquitous homoerotic lasciviousness, as in his dazzling performance as the prep-school bully, Freddie Myles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1998), herein emerges as Mitch, the tightly wound heir apparent to a family legacy in medicine; a bright mind utterly lacking a human soul until he is able to at least acknowledge, if never entirely embrace Patch’s precepts for the business of doctoring with a smile. 
And Hoffman is only one of the solid talents on tap in Patch Adams. We get an eclectic blend of the established and up-and-comers in this movie; from Peter Coyote’s gruelingly embittered father and husband, Bill Davis, dying of pancreatic cancer, to Monica Potter’s doomed Carin, an uppity student, resisting Patch’s mercy; to Irma P. Hall’s clear-eyed nurse, Joletta, who begins by admonishing Patch as yet another wet-behind-the-ears egotist, but eventually comes around to his way of thinking, and finally, Josef Sommer’s benevolent Dr. Eaton – Patch’s one friend in this otherwise austere community of dyed-in-the-wool physicians who have taken their ‘life-saving’ far too seriously to actually be effective or even of meaningful passing comfort to their patients. In all, Patch Adams excels at establishing this roster of sensitively honed performers and their alter egos without ever dwelling upon the particulars of their character traits; actors who are able to tap into their own charity and disseminate it to the audience. And even more miraculous, the exercise never devolves into stiff archetypes. It is something of a grand disappointment in movies today, most have abjured from providing anything more or better than thumbnail sketches of the people they are supposed to be playing; the part, just a part, and not a person to be believed as anything better or beyond an attractive stick figure with no soul. But Patch Adams is a movie all about the breadth of compassion built into the human soul, set to repudiate and withstand that harsh and malingering world just beyond these ivy-covered halls of academia.
Patch Adams may not get all of the particulars of ‘Hunter Adams’ life just right (in point of fact, there’s a lot of leeway and artistic license applied throughout), but at its core Shadyac’s movie delivers the sort of unabashedly sentimental one-two knockout punch to the heart, teetering on the brink of becoming artificial and maudlin, but never entirely transgressing into sticky treacle that could so easily have befallen the exercise and caused it to fall entirely out of fashion. Love, after all, is a universal of life; like good, as the evil and hate and compassion and contempt; polar opposites for a fascinating influx of narrative threads, brought even more unexpectedly together in their satisfying crescendo; the movie’s penultimate graduation ceremony. Having sidestepped Dean Wolcott’s repeated endeavors to end his brilliant career even before it has begun, Patch accepts his diploma before a gathering of his peers - in the raw - having cut away the backside of his graduation gown to reveal more than just his unbridled disdain for Wolcott’s waning brand of academic stuffiness. It’s the sort of showy – ‘literally’, as well as figuratively – finale I personally could have done without; a gilding of the lily, as it were, that nevertheless manages to pull off one final outburst of exuberant laughter from a story as much about tears of sadness as it remains ensconced in drawing upon the infinitely more satisfying tears of joy – or, laughter through tears – and effortlessly punctuated by an upsurge of composer, Marc Shaiman’s supremely audacious underscore. 
For all its attributes, Patch Adams was ill-received by the critics at the time of its release, with such noted, arguably jaded, voices from the balcony seats calling it ‘syrupy, ‘overbearing’ and ‘obnoxious’. Even the real Patch Adams disavowed the picture, suggesting Shadyac and Robin Williams had taken a very socially-conscious life devoted to activism and public service and simply distilled it into 2 hours of slick movie-making with the fictionalized Adams as its ‘funny clown’. While Adams was also critical of Williams’ performance and his failure to donate ‘even $10’ in support of helping to build the real Adams’ dream hospital, after Williams’ unexpected death, Hunter Adams did release a rather about-face eulogy for the man and the picture that, in part, read “…we mourn this tragic loss and continue to treasure his comic genius – a wonderful, kind and generous man… his personality, unassuming—he never acted as if he was powerful or famous. Instead, he was always tender and welcoming, willing to help others with a smile or a joke…Contrary to how many people may view him, he actually seemed to me to be an introvert (valuing) peace and quiet, a chance to breathe—a chance to get away from the fame that his talent has brought him. This world is not kind to people who become famous, and the fame he had garnered was a nightmare. While saddened, we are left with the consequences of his death. I’m enormously grateful for his wonderful performance of my early life, which has allowed the Gesundheit Institute to continue and expand our work.”
Geared as a Christmas release, Patch Adams would gross $25.2 million on its opening weekend alone, more than half its initial outlay of $50 million, ranking #1 at the box office and going on to take in a whopping $202,292,902 worldwide by the end of its theatrical run. It is rather gratifying to see the general public did not feel the need to heed the warnings put forth by these cultural mandarins, sitting in review of the picture.  While I continue to place very little ‘merit’ in box office tallies alone as a barometer of any movie’s greatness, it is, I think more than rewarding to see this picture particularly embraced by a show of dollars, thus, encouraging the bean counters in Hollywood to make more. And Patch Adams proves a maxim inherent in the best of movie-land’s Hollywoodized accounts of real people, laughingly referenced as ‘biopics’. Despite taking some severe artistic liberties to tell its story; chiefly, in presenting Adams as a middle-aged incumbent in medical school (when in reality, he came to the calling at the tender age of most of his then contemporaries – twenty-six), and concocting the wholly fictional character of Carin to support filmdom’s never-waning desire to transform even the most unlikely narrative into something of a conventional ‘love story’ – in this case, bittersweet and tragic (the inspiration for this character actually a male friend of Adams who died under similar circumstances), the reincarnated Patch Adams is very much joyously fictitious, getting the main points right without placing too much – if, in fact, any emphasis – on ascertaining the particulars of Adams’ life. Like so many great bios, it is the ‘first impressions’ that count and continue to linger thereafter; the appearance of truth more important and fulfilling than truth itself.
Patch Adams begins in Fairfax Hospital 1969, an asylum nestled in the hills of Virginia. Having self-medicated his depression for years, of his own volition Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams commits himself into the care of Dr. Prack (Harry Groener) in the hopes to better understand his suicidal thoughts. What he quickly discovers is a hospital administration disinterested in unearthing a cure for any of its clientele; Patch assigned to a cell with the manic, Rudy (Michael Jeter), who suffers from delusions of squirrels coming to attack him. These fantasies even prevent Rudy from venturing across the relatively modest room to use the facilities. Recognizing he will never get well inside Fairfax, Patch also comes to the realization he was born to find the redeemable in others, proving it by entering Rudy’s imaginary fear as the brave warrior, pretending to pick off ‘the squirrels’ using his fingers as loaded pistols. Patch is also introduced to another inmate, Arthur Mendelson (Harold Gould) who, until recently, was renown as one of the mightiest intellects in the scientific field. Art teaches Patch to see beyond the problems directly set in his path, thereby helping Patch see more clearly the road leading to his newfound vocation.
Flash ahead two years: Patch enrolls to become a doctor, attending classes at the prestigious Medical College of Virginia. His ambition will need all the help it can get, however. His roommate, Mitch Drummond (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is both arrogant and condescending, even having the audacity to accuse Patch of cheating on his exams because his grades seemingly have come too easily and are in line with his own hard-won grade point average. Carin Fisher, a partner in their study group, finds Patch’s frequent – if harmless – attempts to get to know her better annoying and idiotic, and, tells him so to his face. Could the world really be this cruel? Ostensibly, yes: Patch is the outcast. His theories as to how best humanize the craft of practicing real medicine fly in the face of Dean Wolcott’s austere and systematic quest to remove the essence – the very soul – from those aspiring to don the white coat; a trend Patch repeatedly bucks and outright refuses to ascribe any merit. Patch is not without his empathizers; Truman Schiff (Daniel London), a fellow student who believes in the sanctity of preserving life while treating the patient instead of focusing on the illness. To prove his point about human beings’ desire to connect on a personal level, Patch and Truman crash a meat packer’s convention; Patch adopting a Texas accent and partaking of the conference’s silly parlor games, in the process becoming the life of the party. Thereafter, Patch carries his social experiment one step further; mildly accosting an elderly woman with a toothy ‘hello’ in the street; the woman responding in kind, though clearly thinking Patch a nut, until she momentarily pauses to return his smile with a polite nod. Patch also has a silent champion in Dr. Eaton, who thinks Wolcott’s views on medicine are downright archaic; a perspective more circumspectly shared by the Head Dean Anderson (Harve Presnell).
Patch wants to treat patients as people, and begins his one-man ambitious campaign to overhaul the campus’ mentality, first, by visiting sick and dying children in the cancer ward (real patients of the real Hunter Adams); making light of their disease by offering amusing sight gags, such as transforming a rubber ball into a shiny red clown’s nose. It’s shameless, but effective; the children stirred from their relative depression into giddy fits of joyful laughter. Dean Wolcott is incensed. After all, this is a hospital, not a sideshow carnival. The children need rest to recuperate. But Patch disagrees, inquiring the purpose of staving off death (i.e. prolonging life) if life itself is confined to an interminable reflection upon the inevitable. What patients need is a diversion from their medical woes; also, a friend to empathize with their circumstances. But Patch quickly realizes he and Wolcott will never see eye-to-eye on this bone of contention.  Wolcott makes several thwarted attempts to have Patch expelled from the program, particularly after Patch, having been put in charge of the arrangements for an obstetrics convention, leads these esteemed and rather Teutonic colleagues into an auditorium by way of a gigantic pair of paper mache legs hoisted in stir-ups. Wolcott is enraged and tries to kick Patch out for what he deems his ‘excessive happiness’. Instead, Patch goes to the top – to Dean Anderson, who vetoes Wolcott’s decision. Nevertheless, Anderson encourages Patch to steer clear of Wolcott until graduation.
In the meantime, Patch has made considerable progress establishing a personal connection with Carin. She confides her abject hatred of all men stemming from an implied rape and family incest; true confessions to form a bond that gradually blossoms into real love. At the same time, Patch gets the inspired notion to establish the Gesundheit! Institute; a place in the country far removed from all the institutionalized rhetoric of hospital policy and procedure, where doctors can care for their patients on a personal level. Carin and Truman are inspired by Patch’s example and elect to spend their free time helping Patch establish the basis for this respite inside a rickety cabin situated on land owned – and freely donated by Arthur Mendelson.  The personal toll their commitment requires has yet to be fully tested but begins in evidence on all of their grade point averages. Still, Patch insists they are contributing to a very promising future of which they can continue to be a part of after graduation. Alas, Patch’s dream for a safe haven for all is not to be. Only a few weeks before graduation Patch, Truman and Carin are introduced to the sincerely disturbed, Lawrence ‘Larry’ Silver (Douglas Roberts); a wealthy heir suffering from ominous visions he is unable to control and frequently is prone to act upon. As the needs of Patch’s free clinic clientele mushroom, the institute runs out of badly needed supplies to see the project through. Patch has an idea, disguising Truman as a corpse and loading his stretcher full of supplies stolen from the hospital’s supply room. The pair narrowly escapes detection from Wolcott, but are amusedly observed by head nurse, Joletta.
Returning home to discover a message from Larry on her answering service, and unable to make immediate make contact with Patch, Carin elects to go to Larry’s estate and provide him with exactly the sort of compassion Patch would admire. It is a miscalculation from which she is never to return. For no sooner is Carin admitted into Larry’s study than he begins to behave erratically. A short while later Patch is summoned to Dean Anderson’s office. Believing someone has tipped off the hospital administrator about their earlier theft of supplies, Patch is emotionally wounded to learn from Anderson, Carin has been murdered by Larry. In a fitful rage, Larry assaulted her with a shotgun before turning the loaded weapon on himself. Unable to bring himself to accept the loss, even going so far as to assume full blame and responsibility, Patch decides to leave school. Perhaps Wolcott was right: he is not suited to the profession of doctoring after all. Truman tries to talk some sense into Patch but to no avail. Returning to that picturesque spot on the hillside, where he earlier explained to Carin his future plans for the Gesundheit! Institute, Patch angrily addresses God directly, adding “…you rested on the seventh day. Maybe you should have used it for compassion.” Miraculously, Patch’s sorrow is intruded upon by a single monarch butterfly. It playfully lands on his medical bag and suitcase, before migrating over to his shirt, landing near his heart. Earlier, Carin confided in Patch, as a child she often wished to be reincarnated as a butterfly. Now, Patch takes this as a sign.
Reinvigorated, Patch learns from Mitch one of their mutual patients, the elderly and infirmed Mrs. Kennedy (Ellen Albertini Dow) has seemingly lost the will to go on. Remembering a childhood wish the old woman earlier expressed, Patch fills an inflatable pool with buckets of freshly cooked pasta noodles; Mitch and Truman accompanying Mrs. Kennedy in her wheelchair to the edge and Patch hoisting her into this sticky tub of goo where they frolic and play as the hospital’s nursing staff look on in utter amazement. Patch has finally crossed the line. Accused of practicing medicine without a license, he is ordered by Wolcott to vacate the premises immediately. Instead, Patch consults Mitch who urges him to fight the decision by appearing before the school’s Board of Directors for a final decision. It could go either way for Patch. And indeed, at the outset, the odds are decidedly not in Patch’s favor as the presiding head, Dr. Titan (Richard Kiley) demands he explain himself to a packed room of his peers during the board’s inquest. Patch freely confesses to administering to the poor, the underrepresented and the outcast; all of whom have been denied medical help through ‘legitimate’ channels at their hospital. Patch further insists to the Board he is the victim of Wolcott’s insidious need to destroy any hope for anyone wanting to become a doctor unless the incumbent completely submits to his will and thereafter surrenders any and all compassion for humanity at the front door.
“You treat an illness, you win, you lose,” Patch insists, “You treat a patient, I guarantee you win every time!”  The Board is impressed with Patch’s verve; his eloquence, and ultimately, moved to reconsider their decision after a contingent of the terminally ill children arrives, placing red clown noses over their own in a show of support. The Board elects to allow Patch Adams to graduate with full honors, Adams arriving to accept his diploma butt naked and defiantly parading past Wolcott for the last time. A freeze-frame of Patch’s ebullient satisfaction is married to an epilogue, explaining how, during the next twelve years, he opened a privately funded home-based family practice, administering to more than 12,000 patients without payment, malpractice insurance or formal facilities. We learn Patch also purchased 105 acres outside of Hillsboro, in Pocahontas County, West Virginia where construction on the Gesundheit! Institute was later begun; an organization that continues to thrive to this day and is viewed by the real Hunter Adams as not mere socialism, but a reformation of how and why health care gets practiced. As the epilogue further acknowledges; a waiting list of more than 1,000 physicians are ready to leave their current practices and partake of Patch’s revisionist approach to modern medicine. What the movie could not acknowledge is what came next – a campaign of international philanthropy and goodwill; Adams and his cohorts travelling around the world to raise public awareness while continuing to administer Patch’s particular brand of homespun treatment; also, to raise a million dollars to build a fully functional facility on that same track of land acquired back in 1971. Ground was broken in 2011. Fundraising continues to this day. Patch Adams is 71 years young. Long live ‘the clown’!
In retrospect, Patch Adams remains a movie of extraordinary kindnesses bestowed upon the movie-going public. It isn’t often any movie comes along to question our hearts, furthermore, to coax us into looking outward from the inside in order to find our inner happiness, and, tug at its strings, while pursuing the one-time honored ‘golden rule’ all movies used to ascribe to, but so few do today, merely to entertain without some liberalized diatribe and/or indoctrination. The life and legacy of Hunter Adams has clearly proven an inspiration to the picture’s director, Tom Shadyac who readily explained, “Patch Adams challenges all of us to do more…to do better, in a society that’s all about me-me-me. As such he’s a threat to all of us because his radical thinking is all about giving, not getting. On one hand, it’s extraordinarily threatening, but it’s also liberating. It’s just a better way to live.” “I didn’t want just some goofy doctor movie,” the real Patch Adams would later admit, “But the world needs some positive images in the media about following your dreams. Some stimulation to help and bring hope to our society.”
In courting a myriad of offers suddenly lobbed at him upon publication of his book, Adams was circumspect and genuinely disheartened, describing his first encounter with typical ‘Hollywood types’ – all gold chains, their eyes greedily glazed over with dollar signs, ready to exploit the prospect of turning another man’s life into their glossy garage sale. “I could see there wasn’t a real human being in the room,” Adams later confided, “I wasn’t human. I was a product. Like a candy bar.” But then Adams turned to his old pal, Mike Farrell; formerly an actor, then a producer. Farrell would begin by taking up the cause to find a home for the project, but finish by agreeing to raise the necessary capital to make the movie himself; the new focus on the dehumanization of the medical profession and Adams’ lifelong crusade to restore its fundamental ‘do no harm’ precept by giving everything to the journey for the betterment of all. In hindsight, Patch Adams is a transitional piece in Tom Shadyac’s career; then, primarily known for deliciously featherweight screwball comedies veering far away from any sort of reality-based intelligence. Patch Adams is decidedly different than say Shadyac’s raw remake of The Nutty Professor (1996) or Liar, Liar (1997). In a career spanning only ten feature films, Patch Adams now appears to mark Shadyac’s apex as a landmark, unassumingly imbued with extreme positivism as a testament to the man who inspired its story in the first place.  Yet, in spite of all the passion Shadyac has poured into the picture, at its core it remains a Robin Williams movie – perhaps, his finest. In closing out this review, I find myself again welling with a few tears, bittersweet and heartfelt, for the very great loss of Williams’ – and not simply for his legendary off-the-cuff sense of humor. So, if I may, I would like to address these parting comments to the late Robin Williams’ spirit, as it continues to emanate deep and penetrating warmth as a flannel mackinaw or nourishing hot bowl of good soup might.
Dear Robin:
Today I laughed and cried in tandem again as I have not for a very long while at the movies. And from this catharsis I awoke several hours later with the unhappy startle to recall that while you are no longer with us you are never farther from our hearts desire today than our movie screens; perfectly preserved as that vibrant artifact of life: ensconced as a delicate piece of the great American movie-land folklore. I trust the road ahead has once again made you strong. But the path you left behind will continue to illuminate, inform, and best of all, enrich and entertain our lives for many centuries to follow. Your free and breezy sense of humor, your effervescent passion for life, has spread the sunshine along many a graying field. God may bless those who have done half as much to light the way. But He surely has saved a special place at his table for you today. Thoughts and prayers renewed to the family of Robin Williams, on the anniversary of his loss to us all – though, undeniably, more directly felt by them. 
Sincerely, NZ
Universal Home Video has done Williams, Shadyac and Patch Adams proud with this long overdue Blu-ray release. It is gratifying to observe the penny-pinchers have taken a backseat; the coffers opening wide for this brand new 1080p hi-def scan that shows no untoward digital manipulations and gives evidence of having been the beneficiary of some modest and more recent clean-up to ready the original film elements. Colors are a sublime feast, the screen bathed in cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous copper-tinted hues. Flesh tones have been superbly rendered. The lushness of the green outdoors comes bursting through as though with a freshness of instant Spring to leap off the screen. Both contrast and fine detail have been expertly rendered. Prepare to be royally entertained by the visuals of this engrossing tragi-comedy. The wait is over. Patch Adams is back! The 5.1 DTS audio is as much a revelation, with dialogue and effects subtly directionalized and Marc Shaiman’s memorable score breaking forth from the sonic floodgates to augment the poignancy of the performances throughout. Universal has also ported over virtually all of the extra features that were a part of their lavishly produced DVD; albeit, left in their original (and uninspired 720i) format. While image quality on these extras is highly suspect and more than a little disappointing, it is good to see Universal simply did not elect to lop them off altogether for a quick n’ dirty Blu-ray release. No, this one gets all the bells and whistles; a comprehensive ‘making of’ with interviews from Shadyac, the real Patch Adams and other cast and crew; also, deleted scenes and outtakes, an audio commentary and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bravo and kudos to Universal Home Video: back from the brink of mediocre hi-def releases with this disc. Patch Adams is required viewing. But make sure you have a full box of Kleenex on standby. There are moments within where you will definitely need it. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

THE MONEY PIT: Blu-ray (Universal 1986) Universal Home Video

Take one harried violinist, her domineering conductor/ex-husband, a frazzled Manhattan attorney out of his depth – both financially and socially, a boa-lined frump of a con-artist, and, a stately manor house in the country, quietly falling apart behind its very thin veneer, and what have you: director, Richard Benjamin’s rather joyously obtuse minor gem, The Money Pit (1986) – a picture slapped together with all the spit and polish of a Ferris Bueller-esque day on, exploiting the considerable cache of its executive producer, Steven Spielberg to suggest more artistic secrete than the picture actually possesses. The Money Pit harks from a decade steeped in whack-tac-u-lar escapist pseudo-romantic comedies, at their core, deadly serious about finding Miss/Mr. Right; gushing to the gills sentimental and occasionally desperate to make their points – however idiotic – about the sanctity of home and hearth, and the love of a good woman turning even the most petrified excrement into a lush and thriving bed of roses. In this case, the high-heeled shoes are worn by Shelley Long’s mildly irritating, virtuosi, Anna Crowley Beissart, a blind-sided Suzy Cream Cheese, whose optimism supersedes all common sense. 

To be fair, Anna possesses a modicum of this virtue God gave a lemon; much more than our hero, nebbish lawyer, Walter Fielding Jr. (Tom Hanks), who makes the biggest/worst impulse buy of his life, taken in by a seemingly dotty widow, Estelle (Maureen Stapleton), who is about to play one of the most grotesque scams in modern real estate. For a paltry $200,000.00, Estelle pawns off a crumbling country estate – estimated at a cool million – pitched as the perfect retreat away from all the big city woes. In fact, the house is a money pit, or rather, a sink hole, sucking up Walter and Anna’s savings and assets; the plumbing, a noise-inducing nightmare spewing thick green sludge; the electrical, prone to fitful and fire-hazardous outbursts capable of jet-propelling a fully cooked turkey like a torpedo through the bathroom window, and, a roof with more holes than finely-aged Swiss. Fielding’s new home doesn’t need it contractor. It needs an inspired act of God, a few Molotov cocktails or a box of matches to put everyone out of their misery.

To some degree, The Money Pit is vaguely reminiscent of H.C. Potter’s quaint and, by direct comparison, convivial, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); a charming, if feather-weight comedy costarring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as the recipients of a far more modest country house, also plagued by home renovation obstacles. These are taken to absurd extremes in The Money Pit; bathtubs plummeting through hardwood floors, a rickety spiral staircase that crumbles with all the fragility of a newly assembled dinosaur (see the finale to 1938’s Bringing Up Baby for inspiration), a peeing fountain pissing on cue right on Walter’s head, and, a sort of Keystone Cops-inspired pièce de résistance that has Walter stumbling into a vat of fresh plaster, blinded by the experience; then, plummeting down a series of chutes and ladders on a disintegrating scaffold erected by a pack of would-be  non-unionized plumbers, carpenters and various other sundry construction workers, who have descended on their abode shirtless, oiled and flexing; a real dumb bunch of thimble-headed/steroid-pumping dim bulbs. The problem with The Money Pit is it throws every ridiculous and terminally exhaustible cliché at the screen, while apparently forgetting that the best comedies are grounded in restraint and something clever – even introspective – to say; not just sight gags, badly bunched and bungled together. We get the thirty second laugh, but without the necessary breather between these moronic flights into fancy.

Director Benjamin, who began his career as a B-grade actor (and should have remained such), is undeniably having a whale of a time putting his stars through these paces of self-degradation. As example: a misconception about Anna having slept with her ex, philharmonic maestro, Max Beissart (Alexander Godenov) leads to all-out war between Anna and Walter after she confesses what she believes to be the facts of their one-night stand (of course, fed to her by Max, who is lying). Walter’s uncompromising acceptance suddenly turns to acidic contempt. He calls her a whore. Actually, this is one of the funnier moments in The Money Pit, unapologetically sexist (as a good many 80’s comedies deliciously are), with Long’s prickly perfectionist (a holdover from her days as Diane Chambers on TV’s popular sitcom, Cheers) standing her ground and refusing to tell Walter what really happened, even after she knows for certain she did not have sex with Max. The Money Pit would be a better comedy if it were not so abjectly intent on aspiring to become an exceptional one; straining like a constipated midget, much too hard for its laughs, time and again coming up embarrassingly short with more garrulous gaffes than gurgles of giddy laughter. There are merits to be had; first, and foremost, Gordon Willis’ cinematography – much too good to have been wasted here; Willis’ gorgeous shots of Rio de Janeiro, New York and Connecticut, providing three eclectic overviews of middle-class, yuppie-infused go-go/spend-spend like there’s no tomorrow – a predilection of the 1980’s in general and all 80’s comedies in particular, with a good many more of its dramas following suit. From our present vantage of an America in steep cultural/financial and artistic decline, these movies now suggest a fancifully plush and unimaginable oasis, never to have existed in the first place. What can I tell you? Growing up middle class in the eighties, American movies made sense then. They at least appeared plausible, even desirable: the be-all/end-all of gracious living.
The other plus here is Dick Ziker’s stunt coordination, utilizing a small army of experts in their field to pull off an array of truly harrowing and occasionally humorous bits of business as Anna and Walter’s home slowly begins to acquire its own dastardly charisma, belying the originally promised stately retreat in the country. We should, I think, tip our hats to both Shelley Long and Tom Hanks; youngsters in 1987; Hanks continuing to build a reputation as a reliable actor apart from his deliciously silly stint on the much-beloved TV series, Bosom Buddies (1980-82) and Long, gearing up to walk away from the even more celebrated sitcom, Cheers, after five years, two Golden Globes and an Emmy later. Long’s movie career has come under scrutiny ever since. Indeed, by direct comparison to Hanks’ prolific rise from featherweight comedian to ‘sought after’ dramatic star, Long’s tenure in movies under a newly inked contract with Disney was not nearly half as prolific or as profitable and, in more recent times, is described as one of Hollywood’s epic career blunders. Personally, I disagree with the latter half of this assessment.

For a time, Shelley Long’s public persona embodied the perfect – or rather, perfectly flawed gal primed for the eighties sitcom; a sort of self-involved feminist. That the forthright gals Long was repeated reincarnated as actually just wanted husbands and homes, but could never get past the idea they were somehow betraying the sisterhood by wanting less, thus became the brunt of a tongue-in-cheek feminist backlash. And Long played these incredibly flawed/semi-tragic and delightfully obtuse serial monogamists better than anyone. Again, it served the eighties pop culture mantra that generally discounted women, either as fashion plates, squeezing out their Mop-n-glow in designer jeans and high-heeled shoes, or otherwise severely mocked for their desire to be independent as tight-assed femi-Nazis; babe, district attorney and ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ aside. In the more ‘progressive’ nineties and beyond this cliché has fallen hopelessly out of fashion, leaving Long’s professional reputation somewhat in tatters.

The Money Pit opens with a breath-taking overview of Rio; Portuguese designer, Cristo Redentor’s Christ the Redeemer statue oddly facing away from the camera and offset by a series of exhilarating fireworks. We are introduced to Walter Fielding Sr. (Douglass Watson); a randy ole sod who has just wed the exuberant sexpot, Florinda (Tetchie Agbayani), twenty odd years his junior. Walter Sr., so we learn has absconded with millions of dollars embezzled from his musician clientele back in America.  Without casting aspersions, Walt appears to be a man who knows how to live life to the fullest – albeit, on someone else’s coin; his son – the complete opposite, an incessant worry wart, presently lying in the arms of his paramour, Anna Crowley, recently divorced from her demonstrative husband, Max. Exactly how Max agreed to allow Anna and Walter the run of his fashionable Manhattan penthouse while he is away on a symphonic world tour is open for discussion. One thing is for certain; with Max’s surprise early homecoming Walter and Anna are left ostensibly homeless. From the outset, we are given glimpses as to why Anna is hesitant to commit to Walter and exactly why they might not be entirely suited to each other; Anna’s highly-disciplined third violinist under Max’s eviscerating baton, a complete disconnect from Walter’s usually slack stock-in-trade, managing B-grade heavy metal bands with a penchant for short fuses and even shorter on raw talent.  To ease the pain of having to immediately relocate Walter contacts obese realtor and close personal friend, Jack Schnittman (Josh Mostel). In between suffering near fatal bouts of arrhythmia, Jack tips off Walter to a ‘can’t miss’ opportunity; a million dollar mansion on the chopping block for only $200,000. You know what they say about any situation ‘too good to be true…’ But apparently Walter and Anna have never heard this idiom before and, partly out of desperation, are prone to taking the home’s owner, scatterbrained Estelle, at face value. The gin-soaked dowager spins a yarn about her husband, Carlos (John van Dreelen), arrested and deported by the Israelis for supposedly having been Adolf Hitler’s pool man.

Does this sound fraudulent? Doesn’t matter. Anna, but especially Walter, are hooked into coming up with a down payment to buy the property. Before the week is out, the couple arrives to take possession of their dream house. Anna insists half the financial burden rest squarely on her shoulders. To meet her end of this bargain, she turns to Max, gradually selling him back ever priceless antique she received in their divorce settlement.  As for Walter, he elects to get his half from his wealthiest client, Benny (Billy Lombardo); a spoiled prepubescent pop-singing sensation who is not adverse to throwing temper tantrums and seeing his own mother (Mary Louise Wilson) on her hands and knees, scrubbing the tile floor of his stately abode. Benny has no heart. So Walter appeals to his greedy little ego and wins the wager. Alas, Walter and Anna’s first day’s move-in proves anything but routine. She sinks into the mattress of their four-poster bed. Even the weight of Anna’s skimpy nightie, placed on a hanger, brings down the shelving in their master bedroom closet. Meanwhile, the entire front door and frame rip out of the wall. In no time at all, Walter also sticks his foot through a rotten stair, the entire winding set of steps imploding into a heap of dust-raising debris.

More bad news; the plumbing is kaput, spewing thick green sludge in heavy globs.  Walter’s routine trip to the kitchen causes the entire electrical system to catch fire; the short, creating the perfect conditions for the turkey Anna has newly placed inside their gas oven to be ejected through the glass pane of an upstairs’ window. Aside: I am not entirely certain how a small electrical fire is capable of influencing both the temperature and air compression inside a ‘gas’ oven. Then again, ‘logic’ increasingly seems to have not been applied to the making of this movie. A simple attempt to take a hot bath after a long day’s cleanup causes the ball-and-claw porcelain tub to come crashing down from the second floor, through the ceiling and shattering into a million pieces against the hardwood living room floor below; a moment of such shocking disbelief, it leaves the thoroughly exhausted Walter half-braying like a drunken mule, much to Anna’s chagrin.  Walter and Anna are inducted into the purgatory of hiring sleazy contractors, Art (Joe Mantegna) and Brad Shirk (Carmine Caridi) to shore up their mess; Art, actually making an unpleasant pass, incurring Walter’s jealousy. To save face, Walt lies to Art about Anna being his wife. Earlier, Anna had refused Walter’s rather offhanded proposal, perhaps fearful to repeat the circumstances from her disastrous first marriage.

With no time to waste, Art and Brad bring their motley crew of bodybuilding exiles, biker babes and gym rats to the house; the crew, chaotically tearing into home’s front façade and ripping up the landscape out front. Brad’s original assessment of two weeks to accomplish ‘the miracle’ gets gradually elongated into months and months: stalemates and even more ambitious renovation plans, momentarily stymied after humorous miscommunication with the Building Inspector delays the necessary permits. When it is suggested Walter may not be able to cover the checks he has written to the construction crew, Anna turns to Max, offering to sell him the remainder of those priceless artworks they collected together while married, but that were a part of Anna’s half of their divorce settlement. Although Max is thoroughly disinterested in the paintings, he nevertheless buys them; Anna pouring all the money into the money pit. With patience strained at home, Anna agrees to go out to dinner with Max who still harbors deep-seeded romantic desires towards her. Anna gets quietly drunk and awakens hours later in Max’s bed; Max, suggesting the previous night’s exertions were just like old times. Anna is mortified, thinking she has thoroughly betrayed Walter’s trust. Upon her return home, Walter inquires where she has been. Anna lies to him. Regrettably, her conscience will not rest, especially after Walter repeatedly suggests that whatever her reasons, he would sincerely not hold anything against her – even if she did sleep with Max. So, Anna confesses to Walter that she has. In reply, Walter flips out and calls Anna a whore. How could she do this to him? Has their love meant so little to her?

Anna and Walter agree to complete the renovations, but then sell the house and split the proceeds fifty-fifty before going their separate ways. It isn’t what either really wants, and yet, neither is willing to concede how much the other has been hurt by this revelation of infidelity. The last act of The Money Pit is wish-fulfillment in the extreme as Art, Brad and their entourage of fixer-uppers pulls together, despite many a mishap and near calamity. The mansion is renewed to its original glory; truly the dream house Walter and Anna had initially hoped to live in for the rest of their lives. Alas, due to the couple’s stubbornness, neither is willing to apologize for their complicity in their looming breakup. Walter breaks his silence first, confessing on bended knee he was a fool for having doubted Anna’s loyalties to him. It doesn’t matter – at least, not to Walter – if Anna did sleep with Max. Whatever her motivations, she would make him a very fine wife. Touched by his admission, Anna offers up one of her own. She never slept with Max. Liberated from the angst of his lingering doubt, Walter and Anna agree to get married. In the movie’s penultimate sequence, we see Anna and Walter exit their front door in a white wedding gown and powder-blue tuxedo respectively; the couple pelted with rice from Art, Brad, members of the construction crew and a small contingent of loyal friends as Max serenades everyone with the full orchestral support of the symphony set up in the garden. Anna and Walter embrace. Theirs, so it turns out, is a love to outlast the betrayal that began this odyssey in the first place. We flash ahead to Walter Sr. and his bride back in Rio, having only just signed the lease on a stately waterfront chateau; Estelle, hurrying Carlos away from the property to a waiting boat. Quite obviously, Walter and Florinda are unaware they have just stumbled into the midst of their own money pit. Will their May/December romance be able to endure a similar series of catastrophes? Hmmmm.

The Money Pit has its moments of charm. But they lack the finesse of good quality writing to build on a more solid foundation, not very effectively fleshing out the movie’s basic premise. There is no arc in character development either. We get cardboard cutouts of archetypes that, more often than not, do not stand in relief from the series of circumstances that befall them, but rather, are just present and accounted for to connect the necessary dots in this rudimentary exercise. Worse, characters are being maneuvered like chess pieces through a labyrinth of sight gags without a singularly convincing motivation to string them along. Take, for example, Max – who starts off as a grotesque caricature of the driven impresario. We can wholly understand how and why Max and Anna’s marriage did not last. She hasn’t the over-weaning ego or maniacal discipline to be a perfectionist’s wife. But then Max’s principles begin to falter. He pursues Anna with insidious plotting to create a situation that will deliberately destroy happiness with Walter. Yet, without any sound logic, other than Anna’s insistence she harbors absolutely no emotional connection to him any longer, Max suddenly attempts to do the right thing…for love? Hardly, as Anna explains, the only genuine love affair for Max is the one he shares with himself while staring into a mirror. So why the philanthropic gesture to bring the couple back together? And why should Max even be present at Anna’s second wedding to Walter if, indeed, he went through all that trouble to wreck their dreams of a life together?

I suppose at some point we simply have to disavow ‘common sense’ and accept the machinations of these characters as part-in-parcel of the eighties verve for regenerating the 1930’s screwball comedy; by its very definition, a platform on which otherwise seemingly normal adults are given carte blanche to behave badly, or, at the very least, with all the benign embarrassments of a drunk rabble let loose within a carnival-like atmosphere of nutty aplomb. But The Money Pit has forgotten that the very best ‘screwball comedy’ is based in a sort of truth gone bad – normalcy, momentarily turned hilariously rancid. Herein, we get silly little vignettes thrust together as tectonic plates frequently shifting the action, characters’ motivations and even the general focus of the story back and forth. It is as though director, Richard Benjamin is sifting through the dust and debris of his rubble in the hopes to expose a deeper truth about life, liberty and the pursuit of marital bliss. Tragically, Benjamin never gets down to the bedrock of what makes – or rather, ought to have made – The Money Pit click. In the final analysis, the film is quaintly amusing for Shelley Long and Tom Hanks’ performances as the frequently feuding, though ultimately devoted, young lovers. Benjamin and David Giler’s screenplay get a lot of mileage from Long and Hanks’ professionalism and on-screen chemistry. Even so, it only goes so far, leaving The Money Pit with a lot more holes in the plot, never entirely patched up in the end.

I have to admit I am pleasantly pleased with the results on this Universal Blu-ray. Universal Home Video has not always been a very forward-thinking studio when it comes to delving into their deeper catalog releases in hi-def. Herein, I am reminded of both Blu-ray releases of Xanadu and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: two major disappointments, lacking even a modicum of color correction and/or general cleanup to prepare either movie for its hi-def debut. These sins have been rectified on The Money Pit. The image is free of age-related artifacts. While visually this is not always razor-sharp (a quality I suspect more the result of optical printing techniques, vintage film stocks and Gordon Willis’ use of soft filters to augment certain scenes), what we do get here is a 1080p image that appears faithful to its source. Colors are remarkably robust. Greens, reds and flesh tones all pop with considerable brilliance. Contrast is also solidly rendered. With the exception of one or two scenes, film grain exhibits a fairly impressive natural patina. Good stuff actually and consistently achieved with overall impressive results.

The vintage 2.0 stereo DTS audio is also quite appealing; with the eclectic blend of typical 80s pop tunes, including Stephen Bishop’s The Heart is So Willing and resurrected classics like Beethoven’s Ode To Joy sounding fresh and snappy. Dialogue is very natural sounding too, if isolated primarily front and center with very limited use of the surrounds, as is in keeping with Dolby Spectral recordings from this period. The only extra is a vintage junket, advertised as ‘the making of…’ but actually little more than an excised snippet and sound bite used to promote the film’s theatrical debut. Oh well, I don’t suppose The Money Pit warrants any further consideration by way of extras. Bottom line: this disc looks good, but the movie itself is wanting for something intelligent – even moderately engaging – to hold your attention. Now, if we could only get Universal to release Blu-rays of The Secret of My Success, Tammy and the Bachelor, The House Sitter, Flower Drum Song, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Sweet Charity. Hint-hint.

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)