Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wise Guys (1986): The Beginning of the End

Wise Guys (1986)
dir: Brian DePalma

By 1986, mafia satires had already started taking off as its own genre. In 1984, Amy Heckerling had brought us Johnny Dangerously, her follow-up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We'd already had Prizzi's Honor and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. In 1988, we'd get Jonathon Demme's Married to the Mob. It would be 2 years before we got Scorcese's Goodfellas.

In addition to the cultural milieu, Brian DePalma had already done an iconic 80s mob movie by 1986: Scarface. Plus, in 1987, he'd do the mob movie The Untouchables. Between the plethora of satires already in existance and DePalma's participation in the mob genre, it seems more than a little excessive for Brian DePalma to do a straight-up comedy with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscapo as mob guys. 

The reason I bring up the surrounding films of Wise Guys is that, when watching it 27 years after its release one is left with a very mixed feeling. Some of my thoughts were, "Oh, they're sending up Goodfellas." Which is wrong. While many of the plot points of Wise Guys mirrors the plot points of Goodfellas, Wise Guys came out well before Goodfellas. Others were "Oh God. Yet another '80s mob mafia comedy." Which is totally correct. And, then there is "OMG, Danny DeVito is wearing a wig!" Which, OMG.

Comedies in the '80s tended to have sometimes more sitcom-style feelings to them. They felt smaller, with narrower camera work and more stodgy setups, and that is exactly what Wise Guys is. 

Danny Devito plays a short Italian mobster who gets no respect and his Jewish best friend who is also his sidekick in the business. Both are at the lowest of the ladder, where they get stuck with the shit jobs like grocery shopping, or trying on suit jackets to test for bulletproof qualities. Why? Because they're fuck ups. When they're given the task to go to the tracks to bed $10g on a long-shot horse, they decide to change the bet to a horse they think is a sure thing. Except the fix had in, and now the mob is after them. 

Just writing it sounds so cliche. Even when they go to Atlantic City after stealing Freddy the Fixer's Pink Cadillac, and then booking themselves into an $1100/night suite with his credit card, it just keeps feeling like you've seen it before. And, really, Joe Piscapo doesn't help matters, making it feel almost like a rejected SNL sketch. 

A large part of this problem is the television-style script written by Norman Steinberg and George Gallo. This is George Gallo's first screenplay credit, who would go on to do Midnight Run and Trapped in Paradise as well as the story of Bad Boys. While Trapped in Paradise definitely points to the type of comedy that lies within Wise Guys, it's Norman Steinberg's career that tells exactly what movie Wise Guys is. 

Norman Steinberg started his career with a bang by having a credit on Blazing Saddles. And his next big credit would be the purposefully sitcom-esque My Favorite Year. But, then he did Johnny Dangerously and Wise Guys back to back before diving deep into television with Doctor Doctor

Thus was created Wise Guys, one of the least DePalma movies ever to be made by Brian DePalma. Hot off Body Double, Scarface, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill, DePalma would delve into a comedy that bore almost none of his signature trademarks. Wise Guys felt likemore like a movie for hire than a film that DePalma actually felt passionate about. And, besides next year's The Untouchables, this is the beginning of the forgettable DePalma era that would extend until 2002's Femme Fatale. And, yes, there is a movement to reclaim Snake Eyes, even though it is a largely flawed film.

The main flaw here is that DePalma is asleep at the wheel. He seems baffled by the screwball comedy. Joe Piscapo and Danny DeVito ride ripshod all over the place. DeVito is in a territory of semi-hyper good-hearted numbskull for almost the entire movie, and it seems almost unnatural for him. Meanwhile, Piscapo is just running around as the dimwitted straight man to all this. It becomes almost aimless. The script does DeVito no favors either by not allowing him to be his trademark asshole (which he is amazing at, BTW) until the finale. 

The fact that so many people (screenwriters, actors, maybe even crew) were ported over from Johnny Dangerously also gives this the air of an unnecessary film. Sure, they updated the satire of Johnny Dangerously to the 80s and made it a moron movie instead of a screwball. Also, Wise Guys is not a parody but a straight-up comedy. But, you have the screenwriter and two of the stars (both DeVito and Piscapo) returning from the earlier film, plus several of the co-stars. And, it makes you wonder, "why?"

Wise Guys isn't a terrible movie. It just isn't worth anything. This is a huge throwaway of DePalma's career. What makes it almost interesting is how rote it is, and how it will foretell the extreme terribleness that DePalma would put forward with his misfire The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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