Barely ever really funny, The Money Pit is something of a slapstick classic all the same, a triumph of a kind of Hollywood film-making and playing that’s so precise that you have to admire it… even though you’ll probably not laugh.
The scenario is lifted wholesale from the 1948 comedy Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, which starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as the couple who buy a doer-upper and realise there’s more to do up than they can possibly manage.
Here it’s Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as the pair who leapt before they looked. Hanks, two years after his breakthrough in Splash, is in his high comedy phase. Two years later he’d make Big, and two years after that he’d signal that he wanted to be more than just a comic actor by forking into the drama of Brian de Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Long had just left the TV show Cheers to make a go of it in the movies. She didn’t achieve Hanks hugeness, obviously, but she’s a brilliant co-star here and it’s noticeable that when the movie does actually get funny, it’s not because of one or other of the many, many sight gag – the stairs collapse, the chimney falls in, Hanks gets wedged in a hole in the floor – but because of the verbal jousting between its two stars. In fact the climax of the film is an extended sequence of the two of them trading insults while a team of bemused tradesmen follow them around the house.
The Money Pit has a New York Jewish comedy’s pace and vibe and is full of the sort of performers you’d expect to pop up in a New York Jewish comedy – Maureen Stapleton as the boozy matron they buy the house off, Joe Mantegna as the randy carpenter keener on womanising than sawing wood. And it’s directed by Richard Benjamin, who brings to it the same sort of zip (he also directed Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in City Heat, Cher and Bob Hoskins in Mermaids, Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg in Made in America) as he did when acting in films like Portnoy’s Complaint or The Sunshine Boys). Light, easy, effortless-looking.
But, marital zingers to one side, the film’s not funny because we’ve no idea what universe it’s operating in. A sight gag only works if we understand the physics involved. If the front of a house falls down on you, Buster Keaton-style, and you survive because where you’re standing corresponds exactly to where the front door ends up, that’s an amazing fluke and we applaud both the construction of the gag and the ingenuity of the get-out. But if the stairs collapse while you’re standing on them, Money Pit-style, and you don’t seem injured at all, even though you’re lying in the wreckage, then the get-out is a cop-out.
They are good, these sight gags, and there are a lot of them, and they are constructed in precisely the way Buster Keaton would have understood, 20 years after his death, 60 years after The General. But they carry no real dramatic weight, because they’re all taking place in an “only in the movies” parallel universe where doors fall in and the electrics burst spontaneously into flames, all without consequence. Out here in the real world, you put your foot through a rotten floorboard and end up in hospital.
More use could probably have been made of the tradesmen, probably, beyond the Shirk brothers (Mantegna and his plumber screen sibling Carmine Caridi), and there’s enough humour wrung from the chasm between middle class and working class attitudes to suggest that an extra half an hour of material ended up on the cutting room floor. And there’s probably more footage there too of former Bolshoi star Alexander Godunov as Long’s preening ex-husband (flicking his long blond hair about much as he did as the villain in Die Hard). Opportunities missed.
Not funny does not equal not enjoyable, however. The Money Pit moves at such a pace and is so deftly directed and so brilliantly played – particularly the whipcrack interaction of Hanks and Long – that it’s easy to just sit back and admire, like watching a gifted tradesperson doing their thing.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021