The Money Pit

Tom Hanks

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.

Anna and Walter stare into a hole
Here’s where the money’s going



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.



The Money Pit – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









News of the World

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks

 

British readers wondering why Tom Hanks is starring in a film about a defunct Rupert Murdoch newspaper – fondly known as The News of the Screws, because of its interest in kiss-and-tell stories – wonder no more. This western is called News of the World because that is the name of the novel it’s based on, by American writer Paulette Jiles. Simple as.

The film version is immediately reassuring on three counts. First, the look of it as it opens, honeyed light spilling from kerosene lamps in what is obviously a Western setting – props to DP Dariusz Wolski, who for a long time has been doing great work on what often turn out to be unloved films, like the Robert De Niro clinker Hide and Seek, Tim Burton’s unbearable Alice in Wonderland or the much-derided The Counselor (which I loved).

Double reassurance comes from Tom Hanks as the lead. He’s not been in an honest-to-goodness lousy movie for a very long time. Even The Da Vinci Code follow-up, Angels & Demons, was pretty OK (comparisons being handy here).

And there’s Paul Greengrass as director, another case of gold-plated, triple-lock excellence, with three Bourne films, United 93 and Captain Phillips all on a fairly slim feature-film CV.

The plot is steering a course between True Grit and The Searchers, with Hanks as a former Confederate soldier and printer by trade who now travels from one dusty frontier town. He brings with him the news of the world, reading extracts from the newspapers to people too tired to muster up the energy to read them themselves after a hard day scraping a living (as Hanks’s Captain Kidd tactfully puts it to what is doubtless a largely illiterate crowd). The hand-to-mouth existence is disrupted when Kidd comes across a racialised murder on the road, and ends up with a survivor of the violence under his wing, a petrified white girl who speaks the Kiowa language and is dressed in Native American skins.

She’s the only survivor of the murder of her family and has been living with the Kiowa ever since. In mismatched-companions plotting he has soon been charged with returning her to her only kin, an uncle and aunt 400 miles away. As the pair of them encounter trials on the way – bad guys with guns, treacherous situations, murderous weather and more bad guys with guns – the emotional temperature moves from mutual suspicion to something a lot warmer, as mismatched-companions plots tend to.

 

Captain Kidd reading the news
Captain Kidd in full flow

 

True Grit (tough cuss travels with smart girl) and The Searchers (tough cuss seeks niece abducted by Native Americans) are both John Wayne films and Tom Hanks, while playing Tom Hanks as he always does, also has a pop at playing a kind of Woke Wayne, a “the hell I am” tough nut who’s nevertheless a rationalist fond of book-learning and a respecter of people no matter their skin colour. In The Searchers Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was planning on killing his niece, to “rescue” her from the racial taint.

If the girl with Kidd looks familiar that’s because you’ve seen Helena Zengel, who plays orphan Johanna, in System Crasher, where the German actor gave a performance so spellbinding that it undoubtedly earned her the gig with Hanks. Here she’s playing a withdrawn, traumatised girl, all expressive big wet eyes. It’s quite a change.

Director Paul Greengrass earned his spurs making TV documentaries that aimed to speak truth to power. Those attitudes and techniques revolutionised the action movie in the Bourne films. Apart from a chase sequence when Greengrass reverts to the shaky camera and quick edit, he’s reaching for something different here, a John Ford-style big picture full of wide vistas and noble acts, with just a touch of Kelly Reichardt’s infatuation with the buckets-and-shovels depiction of the hardscrabble frontier life.

Greengrass has the looks down to perfection. This is the sort of film you could happily watch with the sound down. The pacing is a bit languid, though, or perhaps having largely rejected his usual techniques, Greengrass is struggling to come up with another way of suggesting urgency, without falling back on what he already knows.

It’s one of only two real niggles in a film that’s gorgeous, touching, well acted and fascinating. A bit more jeopardy wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

 

 

 

 

 

News of the World – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Charlie Wilson’s War

Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 July

 

President Carter agrees to topple the Afghanistan government, 1979

On this day in 1979, a US president whose reputation seems to rest on his profound desire to avoid conflict (see the Iran hostages crisis, a story told in Argo), signed a directive which would provide secret aid to opponents of the government in Kabul. The government, controlled by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was pro-Soviet and socialist, and Carter’s help consisted of funding the Peshawar Seven, one of two groups collectively known as the Mujahideen (the other, the Tehran Eight, was funded by Iran). The intention was to roll back Soviet influence in the area, after Soviet forces had entered the country, “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible” in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor. The billions of dollars in aid led to the Mujahideen becoming a crack fighting force, well supplied, and able to hold off the Soviets for ten years, in the so-called Soviet War in Afghanistan (also known as “the Bear Trap”).

 

 

 

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007, dir: Mike Nichols)

Here’s a film that tells the whole messy story of United States foreign policy vis a vis Afghanistan, but tells it as a David and Goliath tale of one small guy battling insuperable odds. The guy is the eponymous Wilson, a Texas congressman who went on a protracted charm offensive to get the Afghanistan aid budget (ie military spending) upped from nothing to gazillions in an attempt to get the Soviets out of the region. It’s an extremely interesting period – as the Cold War starts turning in favour of the USA and people are just beginning to think in terms of “the end of history” – but director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin don’t try to bamboozle us with dates, geopolitical machination or grand theory. Instead they give us Tom Hanks – the man who explained survival in space in Apollo 13 and the Second World War in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers – playing Wilson as the charming old rogue he was. Opening scene: we meet Wilson in a jacuzzi, with some girls, a hillock of cocaine, a bottle of bubbly, having a good time. Brilliant. A typically Sorkin-style got-it-in-one piece of shorthand that requires no further elaboration – Wilson is seedy, intelligent, fun, principled (the dialogue tells us), fast-talking, sex-obsessed, and possibly looking for some grit in his oyster. And as good as Hanks is in this, and he is very very good, Philip Seymour Hoffman is even better as the sweaty low level CIA wonk whom Wilson gets promoted, the better to help Wilson get what he wants. Watch Hoffman deliberately gabbling his lines, his character almost falling over himself in an effort to please Wilson, the gravy train that this overlooked man thought would never arrive, and we’re watching a masterclass in desperation.
That’s the film, boiled right down, a series of encounters between one man or the other, and various other parties who have to be flattered, fended off, misinformed or lied to. This is where Julia Roberts comes in, as a rich socialite bankrolling Wilson because she hates commies, is a personal friend of Pakistan’s General Zia and, like Wilson, is probably a bit bored. Around the edges are Amy Adams, as Wilson’s bright fixer, one of an office full of good looking girls dubbed Charlie’s Angels – Wilson likes his girls. And there are meetings with people in bars, in refugee camps, in bland hotels in nameless parts of the world. It’s classic Sorkin, walkie-talkie writing, in other words – smart and expository, telling us just enough to keep us moving forward, adding a piece of the jigsaw here and there, but leaving it to us to connect them up. As with The West Wing, viewers should not come to Charlie Wilson’s War hoping for insight. This is not Geopolitics 101. But it is Screenwriting 101 – United States foreign policy in the region boiled down into one man. There’s even a bit of criticism of US foreign policy – that they shoot, then leave, behind them a mess that only gets messier after they’ve gone.
But for the most part it’s a celebration of a moment when America suddenly realised it had all but won the Cold War – a euphoric period that continued until 9/11 – when global forces were at such a point that one man with a very persuasive turn of phrase could really change the way things were done. Who’d have thought the creation of the Mujahideen could be this entertaining?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another great Hanks character
  • Part of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy
  • Smart Aaron Sorkin writing
  • Another fine political film from veteran Mike Nichols (Primary Colors)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Charlie Wilson’s War – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Da Vinci Code

Audrey Tautou, Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code

 

 

“What, [dodges bullet] you mean Jesus wasn’t really the Son of God [jumps into speeding car] and married Mary Magdalene [hijacks armoured vehicle] who bore a child who [takes plane to an England full of half-timbered cars] established a bloodline which [evades knife-thrust of albino monk] if it were ever to become public knowledge would [accidentally shoots cardinal] undermine the power of the Catholic Church [garrottes nun]?”

There’s plenty more of this sort of carry-on in director Ron Howard’s almost satisfying attempt to turn Dan Brown’s 560 pages of lecture-chase-lecture into something cinematic. And it had to be made into a movie – the sales figures of the book said so. But did a decent director like Ron Howard have to do it? Did someone hold a gun to his head? Maybe, after Cinderella Man (aka Russell Crowe’s Rocky), Howard owed someone a favour. Either way, here it is, with Tom Hanks starring, but barely registering, Audrey Tautou ditto. Only Ian McKellen really grasps that this is a gigantic nonsense and, by Simon Callow, doesn’t he have a fine old time as a crusty academic. To be fair to everyone, it works. Just.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Da Vinci Code – at Amazon