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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.