FOR RICHER OR POORER: Blu-ray (Universal/Bubble Factory, 1997) Universal Home Video
In tone and overall mood, Bryan Spicer’s For Richer or Poorer (1997) comes closest to hitting that delightfully wacky bull’s eye in 1930’s screwball comedy, bringing together some wonderfully inept characters caught socially unaware in the most unlikely, yet fun-loving and idiotic of circumstances. Screenwriters, Jana Howington and Steve Lukanic bring nothing new, or even fresh to this largely predictable 'fish out of water' scenario. Yeah, English…we get it. The Amish live by a more Christian-principled honest life, unfettered by the constraints of material goods. They measure their good fortune in friends they number and children, like-mindedly raised to follow in their footsteps. So, it is saying a great deal of co-stars, Tim Allen and Kristie Alley that, as the proverbial ‘English’, they manage to snag us into the sentimental vector of their improbable plot twists. Despite its evisceration from the critics, personally, I really enjoyed For Richer or Poorer when I first saw it theatrically. Let us be clear here. It’s not a great film. But it is, without apologizing for it, a competently made ‘little charmer’ with a great deal of invested interest by virtually all its cast, nimbly directed by Spicer with precisely the sort of Minnie Pearl-ish bucolic joie de vivre to offset the more superficial trappings of its largely Hollywoodized and high-key glamour.
The pairing of Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen as Brad and Caroline Sexton – feuding marries on the cusp of a nasty divorce - is perfect casting. I have long been a fan of both these talents; Allen, since he was a regular act at The Comedy Store, and Alley, since I first discovered her as the fiery Virgilia Hazard on ABC’s mini-series, North and South (1985). Allen can mug with the best Vaudevillians of yore, deriving little jabs of pleasure from seemingly the most innocuous of life’s little foibles gingerly exposed. As for Alley, she is able to emit an innate empathy that draws us closer to her, simply by entering a room, and seemingly without any effort at all. When Allen’s Brad and Alley’s Caroline venomously spar at the start of For Richer or Poorer, the sparks crackle. But when they love – or rather, fall in love with each other all over again – we believe every careworn nuance in their rediscovery of the reasons to stay married, even as their fair-weather colleagues and superficial friends urge them to separate for good.
Far from being a conventional comedy about the woes in a marriage gone horribly awry, For Richer or Poorer is really an ensemble piece that introduces us to some fantastic character actors doing what they do best. Jay O. Sanders and Megan Cavanagh are perfectly cast as Amish marrieds, Samuel and Lavinia Yoder; the outwardly simple folk, devotedly the antithesis of the warring Sextons, who plan to hoodwink the couple for a few weeks’ hide out from the IRS for tax evasion. We also get some stellar support from Michael Lerner (as the Sexton’s loyal attorney, Phil Kleinmann), Wayne Knight (perennially cast as the heavy…pardon the pun, as corrupt accountant, Bob Lachman), Larry Miller (at his irascible best as slightly unhinged IRS Inspector Derek Lester), Miguel A. Nuñez (his more level-headed counterpart, IRS Field Agent Frank Hall), John Pyper-Ferguson (as a somewhat gooney young love interest, Henner Lapp), Carrie Preston (his betrothed, Rebecca Yoder) and finally, Katie Moore (as the delightfully precocious, Anna, the youngest of the Yoder clan).
After a main title sequence attesting to the obscenities of wealth, set to the O’Jay’s 1973 classic, For The Love of Money, For Richer or Poorer wastes no time arriving at the front offices of Sexton Enterprises; more specifically, accountant, Bob Lachman’s private office. Bob has just been informed by IRS agent Frank Hall that the Sexton’s are seconds away from being indicted for tax fraud. Bob is nervous, and for good reason. He has been secretly cooking the accounts for nearly a decade without Brad’s knowledge. Not that Brad hasn’t been extravagant in his own right. In fact, he has just purchased a new and fairly pricey ‘massage chair’ complete with manicure options and a gel face mask. Alas, this expense pales to Bob’s personal expenditures on a private jet and lavish vacations around the world…all, written off on the company’s cash flow. Bob’s in deep and he knows it. We cut to New York’s Plaza Hotel; the Sexton’s celebrating ten glorious years of wedlock, or so it would seem, with an ostentatious spectacle. Half party/half business venture, Brad hopes to schmooze potential investors, including Judge Joan Northcutt (June Claman) for financial contributions on his latest real estate development misfire – The Holy Land; a shamelessly commercial prototype theme park for the religiously bankrupt. Think Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker’s Heritage U.S.A. and you are getting warm…very warm. The Judge, however, is not amused, even less so when Brad’s model of ‘the burning bush’ accidentally sets her treasured Balenciaga on fire, forcing Brad to use his glass of as staining red wine to put out the flames.
Caroline is Brad’s partner in crime, making herself the belle of the ball while taking the time to mingle with her own flock of ruthlessly cold-hearted fair-weather friends (Marla Maples, as Cynthia, and Marla Sucharetza as Stacy). On the surface, Brad and Caroline have everything – wealth, power and a genuine love for each other. One problem; it’s all a lie. In fact, Brad’s about to discover just how badly he has misjudged both his marriage and his lifestyle. Returning to their fashionable penthouse for another of their presumably on-going, and celebrated arguments, Caroline asks Brad for a divorce. Believing this row, just like all the others will blow over, Brad and Caroline spend another night in separate bedrooms, contemplating how sad, alone and frustrated each has become in their marriage. The next day, Brad returns to his office to begin solidifying his plans for The Holy Land. He is more than a little put off by Bob’s lack of enthusiasm, even more so when Bob attempts to escape his company as the pair heads in an elevator, down to the bank. At some point, Bob manages to leave his employer behind to discover the fraud for himself. Indeed, the IRS agents have already put a lean on Brad’s liquid assets. He cannot even take a few bucks from the instant teller. Believing Caroline’s vindictiveness to be the cause of this embarrassment, Brad is informed by Bob that he has cooked the company accounts to the tune of $5 million. And now, with no recourse, Bob is getting out of town – fast – advising Brad to consider doing the same.
Meanwhile, across town Caroline is startled to find her unlimited line of credit has been permanently cut off. Emerging from the bank, more harried than worried, Brad is confronted by IRS agents, Derek Lester and Frank Hall. Derek is a loose cannon, perceiving danger where none exists. Trigger-happy in the extreme, he shoots Brad’s cell phone from his fingertips before pursuing him on a foot chase through lower Manhattan’s financial district. This concludes when Brad steals the cab of one Malik Ali Farquhar (Anthony Azizi). Inadvertently stalled at a red light, Brad picks up his first fare: Caroline, momentarily disgusted to find her millionaire hubby driving a Yellow Cab. Pursued in a high-speed race through the city’s downtown core, Brad manages to elude Agents Lester and Hall before heading for the country. Caroline is incensed, accusing Brad of having no genuine plan to get them out of their current dilemma, compounding their situation by adding ‘grand theft auto’ to the long list of indictments. Embroiled in yet another of their famous fights, Brad narrowly misses hitting a Holstein on the lonely country road, overcompensating in his swerve, only to drive off the edge of a grassy landing into a nearby shallow pond.
Enraged by this latest turn of events, Caroline is forced to concur with her husband. They have nowhere safe to turn. In the morning, Brad finds his way on foot to the nearby old Amish community of Intercourse, PA. He uses the telephone at a nearby trading outpost to alert his attorney, Phil Kleinman for counsel and advice. Told to remain out of sight for a few days, Brad overhears a conversation between two of the locals about the pending visit of Jacob and Emma Yoder; cousins from Missouri the family in town has never met before. Stealing a few clothes and other accoutrements for this masquerade, Brad convinces Caroline to forego her usual demands for plush accoutrements and fake being Amish, at least until Phil can come through with news of their exoneration. Caroline is resentful at first. And the couple’s initial reaction from Samuel and Lavinia Yoder is one of complete confusion. After all, Jacob and Emma were not expected for another month.
The Yoders introduce Brad and Caroline to their extended family, children, and grandpa (David Harscheid) and grandma (Rosemary Knower). The Yoder’s eldest, Rebecca is smitten with Henner Lapp; presumably an amiable – if tragically shy – suitor who desires to be wed before the natural allotment of courtship has taken place. Brad vows to help Henner out in this regard with the Council of Elders. He also promises Samuel to exercise Jacob’s formidable horse-training tactics on ‘Big John’ – an enormous and obstinate Belgian that really puts Brad through the paces while plowing the fields. Meanwhile, Caroline begins to suffer from her own nervous insecurities. She confides in Brad that the Yoder women know how to do everything. Brad reminds Caroline how before she gave up her dreams of being a fashion designer she was quite accomplished at a lot of things. Alas, and before long the couple begins to quarrel yet again. The Yoder farmhouse has no heat and no indoor plumbing. The walls are paper thin, and Brad and Caroline’s bitter arguments are overheard by Samuel and Lavinia who are determined, secretly, to help them restore their marriage.
Life on the farm is devoted to the daily struggles of hard work and a devotion to God. After Henner proposes to Rebecca, Samuel elects to purchase an adjacent property from the local Good Guys Realty Ltd. As Brad inadvertently proves he knows a great deal more about buying, selling and bartering for property, Samuel encourages him to come along. Meanwhile, Caroline convinces Rebecca and Lavinia their ordnung should introduce ‘color’ to their clothing. The women concur. For some time, they have desired as much; their appeals to the Council of Elders always vetoed. Lavinia now encourages Caroline to become their spokeswoman on the matter. With her intelligent debate, Caroline convinces the Elders to at least entertain the idea of a fashion show to illustrate her designs. Enlisting the women of the community to her cause, everyone begins sewing to meet the week’s end deadline. In town, Brad is confronted by the arrogance of Jerry (Ethan Phillips) and Dave (John Caponera); the ‘English’ owners of Good Guys Realty. Jacking up the price on the property Henner desires to purchase, Jerry and Dave consider the Amish suckers at best. Brad asks Samuel and Henner if he may speak in private for just a moment to Jerry and Dave. But after they have left the room, Brad promptly drops the charade of being Amish, telling Jerry and Dave to take their price and blow it out their respective asses.
Exiting the realty offices with a new, and far more profitable deal for the soon to be newlyweds, Samuel and Henner are both amazed at Brad’s negotiating skills. He has managed to save them both a lot of money. The deed now in Henner’s name, he and Rebecca are free to marry and begin their lives together. Meanwhile, Agents Lester and Hall continue to tap Phil Kleinman’s phone for clues as to Brad and Caroline’s whereabouts. Eventually, they get a lead about the Amish and decide to scour the countryside with ‘wanted’ ads for the couple’s arrest. Regrettably, these do not offer up any concrete proof Lester’s hunch is correct. But then the agents stumble across the same cow having caused Brad and Caroline to veer off the road; their car landing on the roof of the half-submerged taxi in the nearby pond. Back at the farm, Caroline and Brad are slightly amused, listening in on the nightly conjugal activities of the Yoders, who seem to spare not an evening’s worth enjoying each other. Brad and Caroline recall how they too were once so very much in love.
At a local barn-raising party, Brad confides in Caroline; he has changed, and perhaps, for the better. Everything, in fact, seems different – clearer to him now. Although he still cannot wait to get back to civilization, Brad realizes he loves his wife. Caroline too has had a stunning change of heart. Deprived of her cigarettes, fine clothes and makeup has made her more contrite and respectful of how others live. Moreover, she is determined to broaden her horizons and learn from Lavinia and her lot how to be more domestic in her wifely duties. This leads to one of the film’s most hilarious vignettes; Caroline’s preparation of a beef liver, lung and kidney casserole, causing Brad to toss his cookies in the outhouse. But now, Caroline launches into her fashion show for the elders; dubbed Autumn Harvest ’97. One by one, she parades the women in a flourish of outfits sewn from colorful fabrics bought in town. The Council of Elders pause for a moment’s thought. But are they impressed or perturbed? At the last possible moment, Henner (intended to be Caroline’s male model) backs out of the show (actually, he passes out from fear), and Brad gallantly takes his place. The council is even more impressed. Unanimously, they agree to have color introduced to their attire.
We advance to Rebecca and Henner’s outdoor wedding; idyllically set against a pastoral backdrop. Brad, who previously had confiscated his and Caroline’s wedding bands (as the Amish do not wear them), now quietly replaces Caroline’s diamond ring on her finger, and she, the plain gold band on his, solidifying the vows they took a long time ago. Alas, their moment’s serenity is shattered when police cars descend on this festive occasion; agents Lester and Hall emerging to inquire about ‘the Yoders’. The real Jacob (Stefan Aleksander) and Emma (Johanna Cox), newly arrived, step forward, forcing Brad and Caroline to confess to all they have been living a lie all this time. The Amish turn their backs on the couple, and Brad and Caroline are taken back to New York to face indictment for tax evasion. The presiding Judge is none other than Joan Northcutt, who plans to make an example of the couple. Mercifully, Phil Kleinman, who has been absence for several weeks, suddenly bursts into the courtroom, late to trial but with the newly extradited Bob in tow. Explaining the real situation to Judge Northcutt, the charges against Brad and Caroline are immediately dropped.
Phil presses Brad to join him in a venture capital real estate project even as Caroline is already being courted by her fair-weather girlfriends to file for divorce. Instead, Brad and Caroline return to Intercourse, PA and the Yoder farm to plead their case. Brad apologizes to Samuel and Lavinia. Far from harboring lingering animosity, Samuel and Lavinia confess they knew all along the couple were not their natural relatives. As a gesture of goodwill, Brad trades his car and a pocket watch given to him by his grandfather for Big John and a beat-up 54’ Ford pickup, determined to buy the adjacent property to build their new dream house. In the end credits, Caroline confesses to Brad she is expecting their first child. Surprise!
For Richer or Poorer may not be a side-splitting comedy of errors, but it is a rather charming one besides. The keepsake quality of its adult and homespun magic is chiefly derived from four central performances, or rather, the subtly contrasted quaintness of Samuel and Lavinia, pitted against the caustic vibrations of Brad and Caroline; the former’s lasting influence on the latter, the crux of Spicer’s storytelling prowess. The perceived antiqueness of the Amish is never undermined here. They are never considered ‘the lesser’s’ in this tale. Nor are Brad and Caroline revealed as superficial beyond all hope for eventual redemption. As example: brought to tears by Lavinia’s kind-hearted words about the sanctity of marriage and what the love of a good man can mean for a woman, Caroline’s emotional fragility is deflated as Lavinia jovially suggests what they both need to do right now to feel better is to go out and beat the rugs. “Oh,” a tearful Caroline replies with silly enthusiasm, “Could we?!?”
Budgeted at $35 million, and despite abject negativity from the critics, For Richer or Poorer went on to take in $67.2 million at the box office. Since its theatrical release, the picture has acquired something of a cult following. Personally, I do not find it quite the turkey others have suggested. With time, and consideration, a good many such critiques have tended to mellow and/or fade into obscurity. Again, it’s not a blue-ribbon comedy classic. But it does offer some badly needed ‘feel good’ vibes that continue to sustain our daydreams for better days ahead while tickling our funny bones in tandem. As Hollywood’s present age of comedy seems grotesquely even more vacuous or nonexistent without harboring some politicized agenda, a simple little comedy like For Richer or Poorer appears even more rare, if still marginally enchanting. There are plenty of better rom/coms out there, and many more worse for the wear with the passage of time. But in hindsight, For Richer or Poorer has weathered the last twenty years rather well. Twenty years?!?! Where has the time gone?
Universal Home Video’s exclusive Blu-ray release of For Richer or Poorer appears to have hit a few snags along the way. Many will recall this catalog release was advertised for October of last year, before being repeatedly stalled, then almost canceled on Amazon.com. Aside: it hasn’t been a very good year for Amazon.com. Virtually all of my orders have either been delayed or come days, even weeks after their promised ‘expected arrival’. Not exactly sure what sort of hiccup in their alliance with Universal caused For Richer or Poorer to nearly be expunged from the ordering itinerary. But finally, and rather surprisingly, this disc arrived in my mailbox from special UPS courier; and this, a scant 48 hrs. after my Amazon notification posted that the item had, in fact, shipped! Well done, I suppose. Disc specs, however, are a mixed bag. Universal has again forgone the trouble of creating either menus or searchable chapter stops on their Blu-ray. One can advance at 10 min. intervals through fourteen arbitrarily inserted chapter stops or access a ‘subtitle’ option from one’s remote control. Honestly, can this studio just get its act together once and for all? When Uni announced its 100th anniversary spate of Blu-rays, they put their best feet forward. What’s come after this golden epoch in 2014 has been a gradually dumbing down of a class act: basic, boring and frankly well below par for the status quo in physical media being peddled even by third-party distributors today. For shame on a big operation like Universal! For shame! For shame!
For Richer or Poorer appears to be sourced from a less than perfect print master. Not sure if the original camera negative was even considered here. But colors on this Blu-ray veer between bold and bland, with age-related white specks sporadically present throughout this transfer. Color balancing seems a tad off too; particularly during Rebecca and Henner’s wedding ceremony where flesh tones suddenly adopt a yellowish cast and the spectrum of color in general registers as washed out. On the whole, there is nothing overwhelmingly negative to say about this release. But it is hardly the sort of eye-popping and rich color spectacle originally envisioned by cinematographer, Buzz Feitshans IV. Contrast is a tad weaker than anticipated in 1080p, with blacks looking more mid to deep grey than black. The DTS 5.1 audio is less than aggressive, everything graded to a mid-register listening experience; including Randy Edelman’s underscore. There are no extras. Bottom line: recommended, but with caveats. Like the movie, this transfer is hardly perfect. Good, but not great. It could have been, though. Regrets and pity that!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)