Thursday, April 25, 2013

film favorite: down and out in beverly hills

The comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills came out in 1986. That was 27 years ago, and it is just as fresh and funny to watch today as it ever was (echoing David Byrne's lyrics that open the film, "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was..." Directed by Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman, Tempest), Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a modern adaptation of the French play Boudu sauvé des eaux, which was also made into a film in 1932 by Jean Renoir. Note to self — must track that movie down.

Dave wants to help Jerry get back on his feet
Mazursky sets his version in 1980s affluent California, with a pastel pink palette, oversized linen garments with wide shoulders, and lots and lots of exaggerated behaviors for its wacky cast of characters (including Little Richard as neighbor Orvis Goodnight). But Down and Out in Beverly Hills isn't all high ceilings and New-Age trends. The movie opens with the Talking Heads's "Once in a Lifetime" blasting over a montage of the homeless on the streets of Beverly Hills. The camera and story then zero-in on Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), a homeless man who becomes despondent after his dog Kerouac takes off for greener pastures while he was sleeping on a park bench. Jerry wanders all over Beverly Hills, trying to find his dog, to no avail. He eventually finds himself in the back yard of a huge mansion, standing at the edge of a pool. He fills his coat's pockets with heavy stones, and throws himself into the water, hoping to drown. But the pool's owner, Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss), sees the whole thing happen from inside his manse as he's yakking on his cordless phone and rushes out to rescue the homeless man, screaming, "Call 911! Call 911! Call 911!"

Jerry's dive into the pool changes everything. For Jerry, for Dave, and for everyone Jerry meets. Dave's wife Barbara (Bette Midler) is at first repulsed and suspicious of Jerry,
"He's going to give that dog fleas."
Jerry may have a cure for Barbara's headaches
But she and their maid Carmen (Elizabeth Peña), son Max (Evan Richards), and daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) are soon touched and transformed by his presence. As Jerry stays with the family he becomes all things to all people. He even manages to enchant the Whitman's dog Matisse (Mike the Dog), whose behavior has been so out of control that Barbara had resorted to consulting a dog psychiatrist to modify his behavior. Mazursky has a blast poking fun at Barbara's various New Age fads, showing her chanting and running on hot coals. He also turns up in a cameo as Dave's partner in the wire hangar business.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a comedy of manners, a sex farce, and also a cultural critique. But most importantly it is full of funny moments, like Jerry teaching the finicky Matisse how to eat dog food out of his bowl.

Barbara looks doubtful as Jerry teaches Matisse how to eat dog food
Jerry cleans up real good
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is not only funny, but it is a reminder of how wonderful Richard Dreyfuss's manic energy can be when channeled into the right role, as exhibited in a scene where Dave, not paying attention to his driving while listening to the car radio, runs into a police car:
Police Officer, "Sir, may I see your driver’s license?"
Dave, "Um  … yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Uh, huh, huh, huh, huh, who … who hit who?"
Police Officer, "May I see your driver’s license please?"
Dave, "Nuh huh, uh huh, I’m just, I’m just trying to figure out who, who I’m mad at."
Dreyfuss's Dave Whiteman is at first thrilled with doing good — he has a real opportunity to help some one. When Jerry is reluctant to change, Dave is happy to take a walk on the wild side with his new friend. But when Jerry starts to not only be his friend, but to get cozy with all the women in his life, Dave's love quickly turns to hate. Nick Nolte cleans up real good, as Dave performs an Eliza Doolittle transformation-of-sorts on him (or more accurately a Pretty Woman), but his initial appearance is a bit of a harbinger of roles real and fictional to come. Bette Midler does more with her waving manicured hands and a running technique that involves wearing very high heels while taking very tiny steps than many other actors can do with a Shakespearian monologue. In short, Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a lot of fun to watch. One of the funniest films of the 1980s or any era.


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