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 a 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)




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