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REVIEW: Notorious big city gangster “Snaps” Provolone made a promise to his father on his deathbed. He’s going legit. No more crime. Gonna make money and influence people the right way. Which all seems easy at first, but whoa does it turn out to be anything but.
It starts with a planned big meeting with the city bankers, who aren’t keen to the idea but with a massive recession need money in their vaults. Snaps invites them to his mansion with hopes of joining the board of trustees. They are arriving at noon and there is much ado in anticipation. That morning, unexpectedly, Snap’s naive young accountant Anthony bursts in and demands to the the boss, claiming that he’s fallen in love with his daughter and needs a big raise so they can be married. This doesn’t sit well with Snaps, whose daughter, Lisa, is a precocious, spoiled girl who wants only to travel and be free of her over-protective father. But it’s not Lisa Anthony loves, it’s Theresa. Who is Theresa? Snap’s doesn’t know either, but before Anthony can figure it out, Snaps has arranged for him to marry Lisa, who now claims to be pregnant. Enter the good doctor Thornton Poole, Snaps’s dialogue coach, a world traveler and a man Lisa takes an instant liking to, if for anything, to get her out of the house.
Meanwhile, police Lieutenant Toomey is convinced Snaps isn’t going straight and struggles to catch Snaps doing something illicit. The Finucci Brothers have come to tailor a suit. Aldo, Snaps’s right hand man now turned butler is finding the role exhausting. Connie, Snaps’s goon is confounded by everything, and there are three black bags, each with something surprising inside, constantly finding themselves in the wrong hands. And of course, there’s Oscar.
A slapstick 1930s era comedy is not the first place one might expect to find Sylvester Stallone, but he leads an all-star cast in a sometimes riotous, often very funny fast-paced romp that pays homage to films of the classic screwball comedy era. Smartly directed and gleefully off-beat, it holds up well, perhaps better now than when it was released.
Scene Setup: There’s been a lot of double crosses and trickery so far. In this scene, Anthony and Snaps have recently signed papers that guarantee that Anthony will marry the pregnant daughter, which he thinks is Theresa, and Snaps will guarantee that if anything happens to Anthony, all the money will go to his daughter. Turns out, Anthony was fooled and it is Lisa who is pregnant and he’s out all his money. He confronts Snaps.
Why it Matters: All the pieces are in play now and everything is in motion. There are a lot of plates spinning and it’s fun to see Stallone try to keep it going. Nobody is smart, everyone thinks they are clever, and the Finucci’s, well, they are the Finucci’s. It’s the best gag in the movie and showcases the nice timing and setup for the joke. We know the Finucci’s are simply tailors and the news-clipping they carry with them, despite it being that of a mob hit, is good advertising for their suits, but Anthony doesn’t. We’ve wondered why the suit makers have had so much time in the movie before this, being called in and out of the living room. Now we see the pay off, and it works wonderfully.
More: This isn’t a deep film with a broad message. Director John Landis, who we recently posted about his highly symbolic An American Werewolf in London, is not going for anything more than homage and fun. It’s a screwball comedy with a strong emphasis on capturing the feel of the golden age of cinema. Some of that is lost of course by using bright colors and actors who are much more familiar in other genres (it would be interesting to watch this in black& white and slightly sped up), but it succeeds in more ways than it fails. This scene in particular gives us a real sense of the homage and humor.
We’re big fans of movies that are basically filmed stage productions, capitalizing on one or two sets or having that feel of a “live” continuous run. Movies like the immeasurably touching drama The Dresser, or comedies such as Soapdish and the underrated Noises Off are some choice selections. Of course what’s different about Oscar is its time period and the attention to detail in bringing that moment in cinema back to life. It’s only fitting that we recognize the genre ourselves. (Check out this great list over at Classic Film Guru). For us, the Marx Brothers are the tops. Fast-paced, whiz-bang set-ups and knock downs, sight gags and lots and lots of speedy twisty dialogue make them a joy to watch. Oscar can’t nearly compare but what it does is pay respect and is worthy in at least bringing that grand tradition of comedy into modern theaters (well, modern in 1991).
First things are the sets and wardrobe. Even if you’re not a fan of the movie, the period costumes and sets (and cars) all make the story more inviting. Dapper suits and frilly dresses, slicked back hair and Homburg hats, its got the look and feel of a classic gangster film, minus Al Copone, Tommy Guns, shoot-outs, gratuitous violence, prohibition drinking, a Godfather, horse heads, corrupted cops, a hit, and any connection to Francis Ford Coppola. Okay, so ‘gangster film’ is a loose term here. Still, wouldn’t it be great to spend a day in that world, or at least the fictionalized version? We’ve spent decades hoping spats would make a comeback.
Next up is acting. A lot of people miss the point here (both Stallone and Tomei were nominated for Razzie’s). Granted, Stallone doesn’t have the comedic timing or facial expressiveness that a more suited actor might possess, but he has a strong presence and holds his own. The over-actions, exaggerated gestures and odd dialogue seem out of place with current filmmaking styles but are reflective of the mannerisms, speaking vernacular and cadence of 30s cinema, especially Tomei, who invokes the most from the era. Let’s compare a scene from the 1936 Alfred E. Green classic, More Than A Secretary with the bubbly and charming Dorthea Kent.
Despite the criticism, the real fun comes from the misdirections and gags that arrive in rapid fire. Seemingly at every turn, something is causing someone a bit of grief, most especially Snaps. While his henchmen try adjusting to new roles in the organizations as cooks and footmen we see gangster types in the kitchen talking like speakeasy regulars while kneading dough and preparing melon balls.
The very talented Chazz Palminteri gets the most laughs, delivering the most from of his dimwitted palooka character. He’s been doing the heavy work, greasing people for the boss. He’s got no social graces and hasn’t a clue what is going on, mostly pointing guns at anything he sees out of place, much to Snaps’s frustration as banker types don’t often have associates packing heat. He’s also a secret romantic and fawns at the sight of young lovers, which distracts him enough to allow another crucial plot point to develop. When linguistics professor Dr. Poole tells him he has a dangling participle, Connie’s reaction might be the funniest in the film. Also, by now, it’s cliché having a baddie empty their loaded pockets of weapons to revel they have enough small arms to stock an army, but it still makes us laugh here.
Oscar is no great masterpiece but it has a lot of fun with the material and the whole ensemble seems to be having a great time. Sylvester Stallone tried a fews times to shed the muscle man image with movies like Rhinestone Cowboy and Stop! Or My Mom will Shoot, but is most successful here under director John Landis. This is perhaps mostly because he is surrounded by a cast of seasoned actors who elevate the premise with some tongue-in-cheek bravado. The movie itself was a bomb, and few critics applauded the effort, save for the supporting actors, but over the years audiences have warmed and it has held its own. For us, we can get past some of the forced laughs and a few stilted jokes and just enjoy the charm and pace of the farce.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love That Moment In . . . Oscar.