Tuesday, March 22, 2016

cinema obscura: Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts" (1994)

I know, I know.

"Mixed Nuts" isn't exactly a lost film. I mean, it's available on DVD but, for more than 20 years now, this nimble comedy has been willfully ignored.

And a new HBO documentary about its maker, Nora Ephron, who passed in 2012, isn't helping matters. Ephron, largely a writer, penned 16 screenplays but directed a scant eight films, all of them pretty good in my opinion. Of those eight, only three have generated any respect from critics - "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), "You've Got Mail" (1998) and her final title, "Julie and Julia" (2009).

Ephron's first film, the charming "This Is My Life" (1992), is barely remembered, while "Michael" (1995), "Lucky Numbers" (2000) and "Bewitched" (2005) were all immediately dismissed. If I had to pick the least of all her movies, I would reluctantly point to "Bewitched."  But for some reason, the HBO documentary singles out the singular "Mixed Nuts" (1994) as her worst, with hardly a mention of the aforementioned three.

"Everything Is Copy," credited to one of Ephron's sons, Jacob Bernstein, and a co-director, Nick Hooker, includes a sequence in which Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert carry on about the awfulness of "Mixed Nuts."  Gene and Roger were frequent acquaintances, nice guys and terrific critics, but few things are as off-putting as a movie reviewer in a huff over an essentially harmless film.

I don't know why "Mixed Nuts" was so handily dismissed by Roger, Gene and other critics but my guess is that perhaps they had tired of Nora Ephron - and "Mixed Nuts" made her ripe for a bit of hero(ine) reduction.

I also suspect that if Christopher Guest's name was on this film as director, instead of Ephron's, it would have been viewed from a different, more receptive perspective. Everyone would have "got" it.

The alert "Mixed Nuts" would actually fit rather snugly into Guest's cockeyed oeuvre and it would certainly suit his cast of regulars.

Full disclosure: I have my biases, too.  At the time of its release, I was a sucker for the film's star, Steve Martin, and anything that he made during this period - "L.A. Story," "HouseSitter," "Roxanne," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Leap of Faith," "Parenthood," "My Blue Heaven" and "Mixed Nuts," companionable films all released within a six- or seven-year span.

A very faithful remake of Jean-Marie Poiré's 1982 French farce, "La Père Noël est une ordure," Ephron's movie is set in Venice, Ca. at Christmastime and, right there, it earned a valid smile from me. More specifically, it is set within the cozy confines of a suicide crisis hotline in Venice, overseen by Steve Martin (with brown hair here), a very pleasing, subtly neurotic Rita Wilson (pictured below with Martin) and the inimitable Madeline Kahn in one of her last screen roles as a flighty dame named Mrs. Munchnik.

Among the assorted "mixed" nuts who dash in and out, looking for help and making trouble, are Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia as a deadpan (and very pregnant) couple straight out of New Yawk; Adam Sandler (in his first legitimate screen role) doing his singing man-child bit which proves most apt here; a game and surprising Liev Schreiber (pictured in top photo with Martin) in an early screen appearance as a cross-dresser interested in Martin, and Robert Klein, Rob Reiner, Jon Stewart, Joely Fisher, Michael Badalucco, Parker Posey, Garry Shandling, Steven Wright, a very young Haley Joel Osment - plus the voices of Caroline Aaron, Mary Gross and Victor Garber as comically desperate people who phone the hotline.

A daisy chain of fractured relationships make up the film, giving it a breezy reason for being, even though a serial strangler is on the loose and the hotline gang face eviction. It's absolutely loopy and I love it.

OK, I'll say it: It's Ephron's best movie, period. Hands-down.

Sorry, Roger & Gene.

Note in Passing: Among the writers on Poiré's original were actors Josiane Balasko and Thierry Lhermitte, who also appear in Poiré's film - which was something of an all-star to-do in France as well.

Ephron's stellar cast (at least, some of it)


Anonymous said...

Yes, this is truly a forgotten film. I have a vague recollection of seeing it and enjoying it. I'd like to see it again. Sounds like a most off-beat Christmas movie - off the beaten track, so to speak

Nancy said...

This is my family's all time favorite Christmas movie! We watch it every year, and it is still funny after all this time. There are so many quotable moments. The Texas Alamo Draft House should have this as their winter quote-along. I also want to say that the first hour feels really slow the first time you watch it. Persevere. It does get funnier

tom c. said...

A good film, agreed. Underrated, yes. Hastily dismissed - yes, yes. Deserves to be reconsidered. Thanks for giving it a jump-start.

Suzanne said...

I couldn't believe my eyes. This was "Le père Noël est une ordure", totally uncredited and all washed down. What's the need to remake perfectly good and functioning movies that could be simply dubbed? Similarly, we movie-goers or subscribers of private channels in Europe (all-american major distributors) are unable to see our own neighbor's films while we dutifully swallow up their much duller and politically correct US remakes. Oh well, we live in the borders of the Empire.

Eli G. said...

incredible cast! I'll have to find it somewhere and see it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

U.N. said...

Absolutely love this gem. Madeline Kahn is perfection.