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Squandering A Fortune

The Fortune directed by Mike Nichols at the Cheri

By Kathy Holub

EVERYONE CAN REMEMBER times when they have sat around late at night with a few friends and invented some brilliant plot that they thought was absolutely hysterical. Most people never write that letter or go ahead with that stunning practical joke because the next morning no one understands it very well, and it's even a little embarrassing. Mike Nichols's newest movie, a light-headed, stale farce called The Fortune, could have been born during just such a private all-nighter, at some point when Nichols, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson got so clap-happy that they filmed their ideas on the spot.

The film is a bewilderingly thrown-together comedy about two indigent idiots who try to swindle a young heiress out of her money. Nicky (Beatty), the tall poker-faced one, has seduced and eloped with the heiress while waiting for his divorce to come through. His pal Oscar (Nicholson), the short goofy one, marries her instead to make the theft legal, and they smuggle her off to California to wait for her 21st birthday. While they are busy making inept plans, the audience has time to notice what a fortune Nichols has already stolen: characterization from Laurel and Hardy, a plot unembellished from a basic list of Most Popular Themes, dialogue from the stock lines of period scripts, style and method from 20's and 30's vaudeville, and even a set which is unmistakably from The Day of the Locust. Stealing is fine if the director is respectful or even reasonably restrained (in which cases it is called homage), but here the pieces are so obvious and so carelessly jumbled that they leave us unsure exactly what Nichols added himself.

Freddy (Stockard Channing) is bored and neglected by the pair, whose constant bickering suggests that Freddy was just an excuse for them to marry each other. After an afternoon in bed with first Oscar, then Nicky, she finally explodes in a vaudeville-style rage, dumping a sinkful of dirty plates and ten pounds of bird food on the two men, who are wrestling on the floor, ignoring her until she screams, "I'm going to give it all away! To charity!" Nicky's rejoinder--"Let's not go off half-cocked, now." Her snappy comeback--"The scales have fallen from my eyes! I don't care to be the butt of your amusement." The script seems just badly written until one listens critically and realizes that every line could have been lifted from a Late Show rerun. The lines are as carefully strung together as if the whole purpose of the script had been to construct the perfect dialogue from long-retired phrases and adolescent sexual puns. Oscar's favorite line, as he tries to figure out how much the girl is really worth, is the standard flyer: "Didn't her brother leave her something?" In classic versions of the "fortune" plot an aristocrat's title was responsible for all that loot. But this is a painstakingly American comedy; it turns out that Freddy's mother has left her a fortune in Quintessa Sanitary Napkins.

THE MEN DECIDE to kill her for the money, and the rest of the film is a series of asinine murder plots that they botch through sheer stupidity. You've seen it all before. The poisonous snake that turns out to be harmless. The failure to drown her in a birdbath. The leaky casket, cast out to sea, that deposits her unharmed on a beach, still in a fog. Drawn as close as possible to the rich-broad stereotype, she's as deficient in human skills as they are: not only can't she cook, but she can't refuse sex to men she doesn't like and can't even muster the intelligence to see she's being murdered. When she learns the truth she airily trots back to the scoundrels anyway. We are left wondering which is the appropriate cliche--"Just like a woman?" Her rationale, not given, would seem to be on the order of "boys will be boys." She has an unlimited capacity for swallowing their neglect and abuse even after their attempts to drown her have failed; she is as thick and absorbent as her mother's sanitary napkins.

In her only moment of insight into their dim schemes Freddy has wailed. "You're ten times more interested in each other than you are in me!" She's right, of course, and she might as well have added that even her fortune takes second place. As in all vaudeville meant to enshrine two male stars, their relationship is what the show is really about; the plot serves as its stage, and they walk all over it. The characters of Oscar and Nicky have been pieced together with bits not only from Laurel and Hardy, the first two-man comedy act, but from all of their successors: Hope and Cresby, Abbott and Costello, Carney and Gleason, and Nichols's own broad way pair, the Odd Couple. All of these teams run on the same fuel--the big, ponderous straight-man who masterminds the operation always blowing up at the little dumb one, who muffs everything but stumbles on brilliant ideas through his wit. One's neat, one's messy. One's methodical, one's haphazard. It's all there in Oscar and Nicky, who could have synthesized everything that's funny in his paradigm if their relationship had been at all developed.

Nicholson has a genius for creating pungently unlikable characters, but not cartoons. He is best playing the kind of handsome, slightly cheap con-man whose tentativeness at the wrong time shows that he's secretly more than a pushover--a brazenly healthy specimen with a weak-willed, soft-hearted core, a man whose oblique playfulness (meant to hide everything) pleads desperately for help and affection but who is vacillating, mean and a bit of an ass. Here he plays a sly, greasy Dennis-the-Menace type with the manipulative whine and offended pout of a three year old. He waddles through the film grinning lasciviously, scratching his belly--a charicature of immaturity and meanness. It's a putrid role for him. The director has pared away Nicholson's sleekness and suavity, left only that soft, slightly rotten center of his acting character and made him play it pure. Exposed to the open air it festers, it's no longer Nicholson, and it's grotesquely unfair and unfunny.

Beatty has also been stripped. His buoyant sensuousness and vulnerability have been sheared off, leaving only sullenness. Cast as the wrong kind of stud, he plays a priggish, humorless, overdressed dandy, with pencil-thin eyebrows and moustache, who acts like an eight-year-old. Nicholson plays a bratty little brother to him. Beatty seems too uncomfortable in this role to play it back. The emotional current that should sparkle between them never connects. Their obsessive bickering, which ought to reveal an underlying affection, is irritable rather than responsive and only makes them seem incompatible. They have no signals in common; they are both having so much trouble fitting into the undersized characters of Oscar and Nicky that they can't keep their minds on the game, and the cues they toss each other go flying into the stands.

Stockard Channing shines through the debris like prospector's gold; she fits the period and the part because her ingenue role is so undemanding that she fleshes it out with her talents. Supposedly on the brink of 21, she plays 20 by seesawing around it, looking and talking 30, acting 14. She is so sharply out of synch with herself, speaking with her mother's haughty assurance yet still compulsively playing Daddy's girl, that she is instantly, perceptively comical in a way that the men's flabby clowning is not. Her blue-blooded New England accent, sharp and petted, is a perfect edge against Nicholson's nasal, sparwling diction and Beatty's bland tones (though she's mostly allowed to say things like. "You're so je ne sais quoi, I could just eat you!"). She has a great face, amazingly variable: she looks like the cherub on the Gerber Food labels. When she rages about boredom and neglect she might be indicting more than her costars. If Nichols had given her more to do she might have saved the act.

A FEW SCENES are such good vaudeville that they would have worked anywhere. Yet Nichols based too much of the film's appeal on this kind of repetitive slapstick--where people slam into walls and sharp objects without pain, mug elaborately, and heap abuse on each other without offense--that the Three Stooges did much better. It's good textbook vaudeville but not good comedy.

The "fortune" plot is an archetype that makes great entertainment for people who are obsessed with money. In cultures like ours, where the strongest clear attitudes toward established wealth are awe and contempt, the story is especially satisfying because its Robin Hood overtones are morally appealing. It tells you who the good guys and the bad guys are, and within its constructs the ambiguity toward wealth is temporarily resolved. Kind Hearts and Coronets, the famous British film comedy on the same theme, is in fact so moralistic that in the end nobody wins out, everyone having been clearly shown the error of his greedy ways. Nichols tampers fatally with the format by making the heiress the one who wants to give it all away, and the two men selfish dopes who don't deserve the money but apparently get it anyway. The moral simplicity of the tale is so distorted, and its punch so diluted, that we end up disgusted with the heroes and indifferent to the outcome. Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and even Mel Brooks in his undisciplined way are intensely moral comedians; they treat comedy as much conflict between concepts of good and evil as tragedy, and accordingly are very strict about who their heroes and villains are and what values are being knocked around. There is substance in laughing at their films because the tricks played have moral meaning. Chaplin's imitation is funny, Groucho's anti-establishment pranks on hotel-managers and rich matrons are funny. Gene Wilder's charicature of Dr. Frankenstein is funny; the audience cheers them on. Jack Nicholson dumping the heiress in a birdbath is discomfiting because she's nice and he's a slimy creep. The indignity should be the other way around.

NICHOLS has never attempted a movie like The Fortune, and it spoils a beautiful record. The Graduate, Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge were based on real and depressing subject matter from which Nichols shaped a lot of very funny scenes. The relationship of humor to unhappy truth was accurate. If he conceived The Fortune as homage/satire about the vaudeville era, he forgot what Mel Brooks proved in Young Frankenstein: that the best way to poke fun at past cinematic formulas is still to take them seriously. He gave us buffoonery but it was a joke we didn't catch. The grimy, bourgeois wit of his earlier films was more perceptive and more easily shared.

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