In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in December’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Pushing 80, Brian De Palma is almost certain to die without a competitive Oscar or even a nomination, leaving him among few New Hollywood enfants terribles utterly shafted by the Academy. (By contrast, De Palma has four Razzie nominations.)
But De Palma’s nearly five-decade filmography — compelling and confounding in almost equal measure — suggests this iconoclastic writer-director doesn’t give a damn … and likely never did. (He deserved an Oscar nomination for 1993’s Carlito’s Way; if the award was Steven Spielberg’s to lose, why not throw a bone to De Palma’s best?)
Instead, De Palma has reveled in insistent provocations without the pressure of protecting any sort of prestige assigned to him — whether through vivid violence, ostentatious style, sexually aggressive subject matter or simply the sheer awfulness of Mission to Mars. His influence encompasses Nacho Vigalondo’s free-swinging horror pulp, Quentin Tarantino’s embrace of gore and gravitas, the cerebral chilliness of Mark Romanek and even Terrence Malick, who credits watching De Palma’s earliest films with inspiring his own filmmaking path.
As capable of delivering a mistake in any go-round as he is a masterpiece, De Palma is the subject of a sure-to-be-fascinating retrospective documentary bearing his name — coming to theaters this summer from fellow filmmakers Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach. Culled from 30 hours of interviews, De Palma is said to reference nearly all of his films — even those often first on the slagheap when sifting out the stinkers, like Mars, The Bonfire of the Vanities and 1986’s stalled-out Mob comedy Wise Guys.
Although not good, and perhaps De Palma may be first to say so in the documentary, Wise Guys is nevertheless an interesting interregnum — simultaneously De Palma’s least interesting film but also his most curious because it strays furthest from almost anything else he’s ever made.
Certainly, Wise Guys seemed a purposeful palate cleanser after consecutively heavy meals of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface (1983) and Body Double. Instead of a movie that would give MPAA members the vapors, here was one a few “fucks” away from a modest PG-13. Plus, it wasn’t as if De Palma never attempted straight-up comedy. Before being branded a modern-day Hitchcock, De Palma’s modestly successful Greetings and its sequel, Hi, Mom! (with Robert De Niro as a Vietnam draft dodger and adult filmmaker) paved his way for entry into the studio system.
As mid-1980s odd-couple pairings go, the 15-inch height differential between Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo is good for a few low-hanging laughs. A few years removed from his own De Palma (Louie) on Taxi, De Vito was also hot off supporting turns in adventure hit Romancing the Stone and its quickie sequel The Jewel of the Nile. A rare popular performer during an otherwise fallow period for the show, Piscopo had left Saturday Night Live two years earlier. Both appeared in 1984’s Johnny Dangerously, a gangster parody with which Wise Guys shares co-writer Norman Steinberg (Blazing Saddles and My Favorite Year).
As Harry Valentini, DeVito treats dialogue the way Beyoncé does lyrics — subject to dynamics and vocal runs often more instructive than the words themselves. Outwardly, he’s the less harried of the duo, dressing in tailored suits and conjuring big ideas. Harry thinks his constant invocation of the “grand design,” and the salesman-like stretch of those three syllables, paints the picture of a persuasive man. But it’s more illustrative of Harry’s desperate, delusional dark streak.
Meanwhile, Moe Dickstein (last name much maligned by his colleagues) is lucky if he can spray enough deodorant on a button-down shirt to make them passable. Moe is a Jew in an Italian racket, “the Jackie Robinson of organized crime in New Jersey.” Playing a pinched-voice mook in his first cinematic leading role, Piscopo amusingly operates outside of his beefy build and it’s fun to watch a frame built to intimidate flail so feebly.
It’s easy to see what drew De Palma to this story and these characters. Rather than his usual morally dubious degenerates or deviants, and in spite of their employment as low-level mafia errand boys, Harry and Moe are fundamentally good guys and lifelong friends. Their only goal? Opening “the first Italo-Judeo restaurant,” wherein cannoli and ravioli nestle up to corned beef and knishes. On its face, Wise Guys caters to De Palma’s attempt at a counterpoint — testing friendship by pushing it from amiability to aberrance and, in general, purposefully attempting to avoid violence that was then his stock-in-trade. (“I truly believed there would be another way out of this than the usual violent approach!,” Harry yells at one point.)
Operating out of Newark, N.J., Harry and Moe’s boss, Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya), isn’t even anywhere near their organization’s upper echelon, and the film has fun with the city’s pronunciation, chiefly that it’s in New York’s shadow even when verbalized. Tasked by Castelo to bet $10,000 on a specific horse, Harry instead talks Moe into backing a different nag. After all, Castelo has lost the last few bets he’s made, and what a great way to get in his good graces to bankroll their restaurant. Unbeknownst to Harry and Moe, Castelo has fixed the race. Having now lost a quarter-million of his money, each is tasked to kill the other as a show of loyalty. Not a bad idea, this morbid spin on the what-if gamesmanship of Trading Places, as Harry and Moe’s colleagues place bets to see who kills whom first.
Wise Guys seems on its way to slyly satirizing ethics in a profession where they are, if not expressly prohibited, regularly compromised. And it offers, however unsurprisingly, far greater visual sophistication than any other filmmaker would have brought to the same script.
De Palma’s operatic choreography of carnage in his earlier films lets him sustain long takes of comedy going here, and the blocking is more balletic than most; note one understated moment in which De Vito’s standing height matches the seated stature of his peers.
The director also confidently adapts his signature style of 360-degree pans, twinned images and equally split focus between extreme foreground and deep background. Ordered to start Castelo’s car, Harry watches in panic as the entire block scrams in anticipation of an explosion; when cinematographer Fred Schuler’s sped-up camera arrives back at Harry, it’s a fine payoff to a Benny Hill-esque gag. A seemingly throwaway scene in which Harry and Moe prep for their day subtly hints they’re more similar than they’d care to admit. And once Harry and Moe are tasked to whack each other, De Palma’s use split focus speaks to their emotional predicament in that moment; these couldn’t be closer in the truth of what they are actually saying … or farther apart in what’s being left unsaid.
If only Wise Guys had perpetuated this disciplined pep for the duration instead of collapsing into a shapeless mess lacking comic rigor, a sensible storyline or character development. (Looking back, perhaps what went wrong about Wise Guys inspired De Vito to better explore unexpectedly murderous relationships in Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses.)
So unexpectedly does the second act degenerate into the blah and banal that you wonder whether someone ripped it from De Palma’s hands. Here, it becomes a standard-issue on-the-run comedy in which Harry and Moe flee to Atlantic City with a bad guy’s credit card and Harvey Keitel turns up as a deus ex Mafioso. Pitting Harry and Moe against fearsome, fat assassins played by Captain Lou Albano rather than each other strips the film of its distinguishing characteristics. Steinberg and co-writer George Gallo (who went on to pen 1988’s far superior Midnight Run) rally the will-they-won’t-they idea for the finale, but it’s too little, too late. Abandoning the notion of these characters’ compulsions leaves you with little to care about, and the maximum-mugging comedy that ensues is hardly enough to compensate. Outside a hilariously hijacked “walk this way” bit from Young Frankenstein and a recurring joke about mobsters accepting car-bomb fates the way soldiers might a bullet, Wise Guys crawls to a ho-hum resolution.
It’s tempting to dismiss Wise Guys as some sort of pointlessly ill-advised forebear to Dumb and Dumber. But even if only for an act, you can sense De Palma striving for more artful zaniness a la the Marx Brothers or the grimmer side of the “veddy British” Ealing Comedy spectrum a la Kind Hearts and Coronets or 1955’s The Ladykillers. It’s a failure I would never even consider watching again … but one whose folly I can’t wait to hear De Palma deconstruct in that documentary.