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Days of De Palma (Part 7): Wise Guys (1986)

Hello!  And so, after a delay of nearly two years, we arrive at the film that nearly derailed my “Days of De Palma” series: 1986’s Wise Guys.  I’m not exactly sure why I avoided watching this film for so long.  I’d never seen the film before and I knew next-to-nothing about it.  (I’d never even heard of it before starting work on this De Palma series.)  There was just something about what little I knew about the film that made me think it would be dumb.  My movie “Spidey-Sense” was going off.  So without realizing I was doing it, I kept putting off and putting off watching this film.

But last month I decided the time had come to return to my “Days of De Palma” series and complete my journey through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  And so I buckled down and popped Wise Guys into my DVD player.

The Italian Harry Valenti (Danny DeVito) and the Jewish Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) are best buddies who are extremely small-time mobsters.  The two men live next door to one another, do everything together, and even have very similar morning routines.  They’re technically in the mob, but they are the smallest of small fries in the criminal undertakings run by mob boss Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya).  Their job doesn’t consist of much more than starting Castelo’s car to make sure it won’t explode before Mr. Castelo gets in.  One day Harry and Moe are assigned to place a bet at the racetrack on behalf of their boss.  Harry is convinced he knows which horse will win, and he convinces Moe that they should place Castelo’s money on that horse, and then split the winnings.  Unfortunately, Mr. Costelo had fixed the race, and so by not betting on the horse Costelo told them to bet on, Harry & Moe wind up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.  The two men must flee from the vengeful Castelo and his goons, especially the huge and vicious Frank “The Fixer” Acavano.

Unfortunately, Wise Guys is even worse than I feared it would be.  The film is a catastrophe, through and through.  It’s supposed to be a goofy comedy, but this is one of the most un-funny films I have ever seen.  You can see the flop sweat.  The whole thing is, frankly, embarrassing.

I knew we were in for trouble early on, in the scene in which poor Harry is sent outside to start Mr. Castelo’s car.  Everyone is convinced the car will explode, and Frank is scared out of his wits.  When the people in the neighborhood see that Frank is heading out to start the car, they all flee.  In what is supposed to be a hilarious moment, we see a sped-up-film shot of everyone on the street running away.  The sped-up-shot is so ridiculous and unfunny that I was cringing on my couch.  It was such a tone-deaf moment.  We’re supposed to like Harry, but now the film wants us to laugh that he thinks he’s about to die?  And that sped-up-shot was so amateurish and unfunny that I couldn’t believe it.

The film doesn’t get any better from there.  We’re supposed to be amused by Harry and Moe’s bumbling antics, but I was anything but.

I like Danny DeVito and I like Joe Piscopo, but they’re unable to salvage the material here.  Joe Piscopo seems especially out at sea, unable to land the jokes nor to imbue his character with any sort of real human core, he’s just a cartoon character.  And, sheesh, could they have found anyone LESS Jewish than Joe Piscopo to play the Jewish Moe Dickstein??  Give me a break.

Dan Hedaya is always great and when Harvey Keitel enters the film in the third act, the film threatens for a moment to actually get good.  But this ship had long since sailed.

The interesting thing is that I think this film would’ve been far more successful had it been made as a drama rather than a comedy.  (That change in tone wouldn’t have required much adjustment to the script, since there are hardly any actual jokes there to be found.)  I think there is a good story buried at the core of this movie.  Two friends, an Italian and a Jew, are low-level hoods who, through an unfortunate twist of luck, find themselves on the run from their former mob bosses and forced to outwit the mob in order to stay alive.  That could be a compelling story!  It’s a question of an adjustment of tone.  Unfortunately, the movie that Brian De Palma made is completely tone deaf.

It’s astounding that this same director made Scarface.  After the dreadful Body Double, this is two huge stink-bombs in a row for Mr. De Palma.  (Fortunately, he will turn things around with his next film, The Untouchables.)  To Mr. De Palma’s credit, I can say two positive things.  First, I am impressed by his willingness, with each of his films, to try to make a very different type of film in a very different genre.  Wise Guys is a failure, but it’s certainly an attempt to make a very different type of film than he’d made before, and Mr. De Palma’s next few films would continue that trend, with each one quite different from the one that came before.  Second, if you read my previous “Days of De Palma” reviews, you’ll notice that I had found a repetition of certain elements in each of his films (like a gratuitous shower scene) as well as the development of a familiar ensemble of actors who would appear in film after film.  With Wise Guys, Mr. De Palma attempted to jettison those familiar elements and, here again, we’ll see that his next several films will continue that trend.  The familiar De Palma actors like Nancy Allen and Dennis Franz are nowhere to be found.  Mr. De Palma would start working with a variety of new and different actors, developing a series of very different types of films.  This is an impressive and admirable push to keep himself and his films to stay fresh, and I believe this is a reason that Mr. De Palma was able to survive what must have been this low point in his career.

I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on Mr. De Palma’s collaboration with David Mamet, The Untouchables!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 — Body Double (1984).

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