Skip to main content

Tell me, in all your calls has anybody ever impaled themselves?

Mixed Nuts
(1994)

(SPOILERS) The faintly desperate title says it all. Farces are deceptively difficult to get right, which is probably why so few writers try them anymore. That Nora Ephron should have deep-dived into this Christmas black comedy immediately after one of her most celebrated romcoms (and certainly the most celebrated she directed herself) only makes her errors of judgement look that much worse. Indeed, the only bits of Mixed Nuts that vaguely land are the ones with romantic twinge.

Much of Ephron’s writing here (with sister Delia) appears to mistake humorous for noisy, frenetic and laboured, compounded by a mismatch of comedy styles from the various cast members that rarely leads to anything creatively salvageable. Mixed Nuts is an adaptation of 1982 original Le père Noël est une ordure, itself based on a stage play, so one can merrily blame the French if one so wishes. Or simply a Hollywood machine that never seems to learn with remakes. One might commend Ephron for attempting to introduce an edge to Yuletide fare, but on this evidence, black comedy really wasn’t her forte (and let’s face it, the same year’s hit The Santa Clause opens with Santa being killed by the lead character, while a decade earlier Gremlins was one of the biggest Christmas movies ever, so twisted Christmas flicks aren’t that rare; Bad Santa remains one of the most enduringly popular).

To that end, Ephron cast by-that-point-increasingly-less-wild-and-crazy-guy Steve Martin – not content with their previous collaboration My Blue Heaven being a hot mess? – as lead character Philip, head of suicide-prevention hotline Lifesavers. He’s distinguished by an unsettling dye job (did someone persuade him it made him look younger?) and – ho ho ho, because he mans a suicide hotline, right – really bad people skills. At one point, fellow worker Rita Wilson tells him he isn’t good in person, but there’s precious little evidence he’s other than bad on the phone also.

It’s Christmas Eve and the team – which also includes Madeline Kahn, who can’t be bad in anything, but even she’s tested here – is facing eviction from Garry Shandling’s landlord. Shandling is awarded a good line (the title quote), but he’s only cameoing so there’s really nothing else for him to chew on. And what is it with characters buying Christmas trees in movies on Christmas Eve? That should ring instant alarm bells.

Also in the cast are pregnant Juliette Lewis and ex-con boyfriend Anthony LaPaglia, the former about as irritating as she is in every one of her movies that decade, the latter giving her a run for her money. They’re tenuously linked to the main action, as is Adam Sandler (he lives in the same building as the hotline). Sandler’s '90s shtick of gurning man-child was never my favourite, and he’s on particularly resistible form here… until he meets Liev Schreiber’s transgender Chris, who earlier called the hotline and managed to elicit the address from Philip. Sandler sings her a song that’s surprisingly sweet and amusing, for all it being in keeping with his goofy character. But then, the only half-decent scenes in the movie are ones featuring Schreiber (in his movie debut). The aforementioned, and one prior to that where Chris dances with Philip, and the overstrained, wacky hijinks abate for several minutes.

Other business involves Kahn getting trapped in a lift, a fruitcake changing hands, a trip to Rob Reiner’s vet – the effect of LaPaglia taking pet meds is, well… skip Mixed Nuts for Kramer doing likewise in Seinfeld episode The Andrea Doria – and a subplot concerning the Seaside Strangler. I’m tempted to give a backhanded credit for Shandling turning out to have been the Seaside Strangler all along, revealed after he’s been accidentally shot in the head by Lewis and his body has been disguised as a Christmas Tree (which may sound funny, but don’t be misled). Except that gets everyone off their criminal behaviour, and it isn’t as if they haven’t got form; a misunderstood instruction by Wilson early on (“Click! Click!”) led to Steven Wright’s depressive blowing his head off.

The climax finds Philip rediscovering his “help others” vocation when he talks LaPaglia down from a roof, so Ephron keeps her foot in the heart-warming festive fare camp, I guess. I’ve seen it suggested that all the characters are Christmas archetypes (hence Lewis giving birth at the end), but I shudder at the very thought of such analysis bearing fruit. Enough Christmas movies go great guns at the box office despite being abjectly awful that it may sometimes seem as if they’re a guaranteed goldmine (how else do you explain Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus or Christmas with the Kranks?). You only need one Mixed Nuts to evidence that even the public can’t be suckered every time, however.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.