Tag Archives: F

MERCI DOCTEUR REY

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Is there anything more painful to watch than a flat, shapeless farce? Certainly it’s no fun sitting through an arch, clumsy effort like “Merci Docteur Rey,” while flails away like a wounded beast before collapsing in narrative disarray. The sense of desperation is palpable, not only on the screen but increasingly among the audience, who are likely to feel trapped and queasy by the halfway point. Medical intervention may be necessary.

The linchpin of the intricate but messy script is Thomas Beaumont (handsome but bland Stanislas Merhar), a young gay Parisian trying to connect with a kindred spirit through male-seeking-male classifieds. Thomas’ mother purportedly widowed Elizabeth (Dianne Wiest, totally miscast and never remotely convincing) is an operatic diva starring in a new production of “Turandot” staged by her flamboyant friend Claude (Bulle Ogier). Somehow–in what is but the most unlikely of the coincidences scattered throughout the story–Thomas gets “invited” by one of his ad contacts to hide in an apartment closet and watch an older man named Bob (Simon Callow, in what amounts to an unsavory cameo)–who just turns out to be the father he’d long thought dead!–be murdered by his young lover (inexpressive Karim Saleh). Thomas then impulsively decides to visit the titular psychiatrist, only to arrive in her office just after the doctor has dropped dead during a session with a long-time patient, Penelope (manic Jane Birkin), a near-hysteric actress ho specializes in dubbing all of Vanessa Redgrave’s film performances into French. For some reason Penelope pretends to be Dr. Rey when Thomas shows up and begins offering him advice; and though the imposture is quickly revealed, they go off together anyway, leaving the corpse behind. Meanwhile Elizabeth comes to believe–again, for reasons that are never clarified–that Thomas has been abducted, but that plot thread is soon abandoned in favor of one involving a police investigation of Bob’s death, with suspicion inevitably falling on Thomas. To add to the unlikeliness, Elizabeth and Thomas both get involved individually with the murderer, and at one point even Redgrave, playing herself, shows up for a sour in-joke involving Penelope. Alice B. Toklas-style marijuana-laced brownies also make an appearance, to no particular effect. The ending is very peculiar–a feel-good group hug that entirely ignores the deaths that led up to it.

There’s a muddled, frantic air about “Merci Docteur Rey” that’s especially dispiriting when combined with Andrew Litvack’s halting, uncertain direction. If his script was to have any chance of working, it would need a light, carefree approach, but here everything is played in a stentorian, heavy-handed fashion that smothers any glimmer of wit or style. So the picture is not only poorly written but ineptly staged, and the performers either underplay so dully (like Merhar) or mug so ferociously (like Birkin) that the movie never achieves any sense of balance of comic consistency. A few nice shots of outdoor Paris apart, the picture is visually pedestrian–which is perhaps appropriate, since the characters walk the streets a lot.

Astoundingly, “Merci Docteur Rey” is a Merchant Ivory production (Litvack was a crew member on some of their films, and their support is apparently an act of friendship, but one untouched by good sense). The only reasonable reaction to a misbegotten bit of curdled whimsy like this one is to exclaim: Mercy!

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S GOLD DIGGERS

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A movie like “National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers” poses a real challenge to a critic. In the case of excellent films, one is often forced to analyze them deeply in order to disclose the minor flaws that might be important to readers. In that of an ordinary bad picture, you still try to find something, however minor, to praise. But with a movie like this, you can only throw up your hands in despair. But there’s absolutely nothing good you can say about “Gold Diggers”–it’s such a stinker that each ticket should come with a can of Glade. One would like to say that its brevity is a virtue, but although the picture is less than ninety minutes long, it’s still not short enough.

The plot is itself a dreadful idea. Two bumbling young guys, Cal and Owen (Will Friedle and Chris Owen), orphans now on their own after hitting the streets, try to become successful thieves after trying a string of dead-end jobs, but they prove complete failures. Finally they decide to marry two elderly sisters, Betty and Doris Mundt (Renee Taylor and Louise Lasser), whom they’ve recently tried to rob–without success, of course–under the mistaken notion that they’re rich. But the sisters are actually on the verge of bankruptcy, since their screwball uncle inherited the family fortune (derived, one must note, from condoms), and they plan to kill their new husbands. What follows is a ghastly, totally misguided attempt at a black comedy in the “Ladykillers” mode (indeed, the original title was “Lady Killers”), as the wives attempt to snuff their husbands and vice versa, resulting in the deaths of a number of innocent bystanders and culminating in a joint effort to rob the maniacal uncle. The appalling ending actually has the quartet getting away with murder and enjoying the fruits of their misdeeds.

But even if some way had been found to revise the plot line in order to make it less morally horrendous (even the darkest farce has to play by some rules, so that–for example–the victims aren’t just passersby), “Gold Diggers” would have been abominable. Gary Preisler’s script hasn’t a trace of wit or insight, relying on the crudest dialogue and crassest situations (the parade of jokes involving farts and withered skin is itself execrable), and his direction is equally ham-fisted, lacking even the basic rudiments of style and pacing. (A purported silent movie dramatizing the Mundt paterfamilias’ invention of the condom–from his work in a sausage factory!–is especially awful.) The actors have to suffer the worst sort of indignity, so that even as one groans at what they’re doing, you still have to feel acute embarrassment on their behalf. Friedle might mug and squeal beyond all endurance, for example, but he also has to don Hasidic garb and spout a terrible Jewish accent at one point. And as much as his even dumber buddy Owen might annoy with his glazed expression and malapropisms, even he doesn’t deserve to be strapped to a bed and covered in whipped cream and nuts. Taylor is terrible, but she shouldn’t be compelled to dress in such astoundingly garish outfits and fondle her bosom so extravagantly. And as for Lasser, what can you say? Here’s a woman who once had a career–charmed us, even, on the screen and the tube. To think that she’s sunk to the level of trying to get laughs clothed in outfits that look as though they might have come from the leftover wardrobe of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” is incredibly depressing. To add to the miserable news, “Gold Diggers” is a chitzy, grubby production, ugly to look at as well as to watch and listen to.

The National Lampoon name, which used to be attached to pictures like “Animal House” and “Vacation,” has certainly fallen on hard times if those who control it now choose to apply it to drek like this. At one point in the movie, the caricature black preacher who weds our two couples follows up his instruction to kiss the bride with the words, “Somebody give me a blindfold–I don’t want to see this shit.” As far as “Gold Diggers” is concerned, those are words to live by.