Realemmon but Sweet
Opening tomorrow at the new Beacon Hill Theater, in Boston
BILLY WILDER'S BEST comedies could make you laugh when you saw them and still leave you thinking, if you were to inclined, when you get home. His bawdy farces were popular and funny, even a bit courageous for their time in the moral questions they rained. By the middle '60's, though, the sex comedies Wilder was making were far behind the vanguard, and he showed no sign of climbing out of his rut until 1970, when he made The Private Life of Sherlock Halmes, his best film in at least a decade. Had Wilder regained his originality for good" Not a chance.
Avanti' is no bomb: it's simply a minor comedy by a man who, despite his past triumphs, looks more and more like a minor director. The film spits out gags incessantly, with a slight but consistent miscalculation that makes them less than uproarious. Jack Lemmon plays Wendell Armbruster Jr., a harried cliche of an executive, a Baltimoron whose morals are romantically updated in the course of the film. Armbruster flies to Italy to claim the body of his father the conglomerate chief, who had driven off a cliff during his annual convalescence at a resort south of Naples. But Wendell learns, to his dismay, that his nearly seventy-year-old father had led a ten-summer secret Amalfi life and died intertwined with Kate Piggott, mother of Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills)--a British "bird" who's come to bury Mummy.
Armbruster says of Pamela, "Little girl! She's built like a Japanese wrestler." His quip fails, it hardly describes Juliet Mills. Not even plump, despite the insistence of the script, she single-handedly rescues the film from the early indulgence it grants Lemmon, allowing him to rant and rave and make monologue about the "grey haired son of a bitch." "Love is for filing clerk's, but not for the head of a conglomerate," he argues.
Pamela seems expressly designed as the moral contrast to Wendell, the executive type immersed in future shock. But her liberal innocence makes her character nearly as jejune as his. Predictably, the two repeat the lives of their parents, falling in love--being forced into love, in fact, by a succession of coincidences including murder, body, snatching, and their inexplicable desire to please the hotel staff, who had adored old Kate and Willy with their charming resort romance.
Juliet Mills, in her first lead role, shows talent despite the film's limitations. Most scenes are funny only if she is in them: when Lemmon plays against the terribly typed Italians the film degenerates into a patronzing travesty of Italian inefficiency and hurrsucracy. Such jokes must build on one another to be successful, until one caps the sequence, but Avanti! lacks the pacing needed to make a scene more than a succession of little jokes. Only near the end, when Edward Andrew enters as J.J. Blodgett of the State Department, does the film hit its stride.
Wilder made the film in capris, Sorrento and a studio in Rome, yet Aventi! has little more Italian flavor than Joe's Plaza. Wilder's infatuation with obtrusive angular shots emphasizes hotel musicians, airplane landing gear, the mortuary, and the like. He hopes on establish ambiance based on the incongruity of Italy the jet set vacation spot and the "real" Italy--a country he feebly represents with fetching shots of nuns, priests, hungry boys, and a breast-feeding woman. The incongruity is, in Avanti!, only a clumsy attempt to create an ironic background for ironic romance.
CARLO RUSTICHELLI'S insistent mariachi score contributes to the failure of the failure and so does the often garish Deluxe color. But there is a more important problem: Wilder cannot, when working in a place that is real, create a picture that seems real. His great environments of past films--the Hollywood of Sunset Boulevard (1950), or speak easy Chicago in Some Like it Hot (1959)--were made from studio sets, and even in Avanti' the best creations are the hotel bedrooms, which are not Italian at all.
"Italy is not a country, it is an emotion," someone says, and the strolling musicians play on: The viewer of Avanti' is treated to the spectacle of romantic Italy transforming the morals of the executive, allowing him to feel truly in love. But no real change in the man occurs. At first he has a sense of propriety, if not of morality, telling him philandering may be excused but romance may not. In the end, it seems, he has discovered the essence of love. He has taken up with the empathetic Miss Piggott, allowed his father's burial in Italy alongside old Kate, and even faked out the State Department. Avanti' presents Wendell's a change as speciously as a resort presents paradise to its guests.
Lemmon like his role in Avanti' because, he says, "there've been damn few romantic comedies in recent years." Romantic, indeed, as he and she had down and muse over their desire to remain together, his love all the stronger because he will face anti-trust action when he goes home. No wonder he clings to his lass; no wonder such sentiment at the heliport farewell. The most striking leature of Avanti' is not that it strives no hard to be romantic but that it does include amusing incongruities and cute lines in spite of its quest. Few people would dislike Avanti--it's mollifying in its innocuousness.