Friday, April 1, 2016

The Marrying Man (1991)

By 1990, Neil Simon had been marred four times, and was in the process of remarrying his latest wife, Diane Lander. As one who seldom passes up the chance to parlay his real-life experiences into his fiction, he told his story with his screenplay for the same year’s The Marrying Man. But he opted to tell it metaphorically, through the character of Charley Pearl, a millionaire playboy and heir to toothpaste empire, and in the style/tone of a swinging 1940s Vegas-gangster picture. The result is a relatively entertaining product that takes a while to get into, but is also abetted by a healthy dose of star power, that of Kim Basinger in particular. Gone is Simon’s trademark rapid-fire wit (he ditched that a few pictures ago), but we still get better-than-average dialogue, serving, at the very least, a handsomely mounted film. 

Charley, rich beyond belief off his dad’s Boston business and perhaps more than a little spoiled, is engaged to an California heiress, and couldn’t be more in love with her. His buddies take him to Vegas for a bachelor shindig, and there he meets… her: Vicki Anderson, a lounge singer who’s perfect in every way except one – she’s Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend. Anyone caught messing with her will be soon fitted with cement shoes. Charley’s buddies immediately try to end Charley’s infatuation with her, but to no avail: he’s head over heels. Naturally Bugsy finds out, but instead of offing them both he forces them to marry (he was through with her anyway) as punishment. Marriage #1.

Of course, they can’t believe their commitment to each other, despite declaring their undying love when they were still single, so they promptly get the marriage annulled. Charley attempts to go through with his planned marriage, but he can’t get ol’ Vicki out of his head, so they marry again – on their terms this time. Marriage #2. But the tedium of domesticity sets in, and things start to go south when Charley visits his dying dad, who wants to meet the new bride (he just barely misses her when she goes to the bathroom). Charley winds up staying in Boston, she stays with him but remains resentful that she had to put her singing profession hold, and the two realize the “zing” has gone out of their once passionate love life. Despite bearing his children, she divorces him, and resumes her crooning career 

In a completely chance encounter, Charley and the boys stop off at a roadside dive and see… you guessed it… Vicki. A big singer now, she’s wowing the crowd again but on a tight leash by the mob-affiliated club owners. After a nasty brawl followed by a quick getaway, Charley yet again pronounces his love for his ex-ex-wife, and the two marry once again. Marriage #3. But yet again things get ugly, and the two divorce – for good, it seems. Charley’s friend played by Paul Resier, the narrator of the story, brings the story to the present. Mooning over Vicki’s sultry performance he sees his old friend Charley. Why is he there? He’s holding an engagement ring. You do the math. Vicki, during her song, kisses her old flame while furtively taking the ring. On stage she wears it proudly, a firm indictor of her proposal acceptance. Marriage #4.

After the fact, the film certainly has its fair share of charm. Not so much the actual viewing of it (there's a rave), which takes a long time to get going, but
rather the metaphorical value – slapsticky reasons for repeated nuptuals representing real life marriage/relationship repetitions. And if it seems completely looney and irrational in the movie, well, isn’t it so in real life? Doesn’t our head tell us not to get involved again when every other molecule of our body is issuing one warning after another against it? But the film’s beginning creaks with the “marrying the wrong person” formula, the source of so many rom-coms and chick flicks, and it doesn’t help that the Bugsy Siegel subplot comes off as all-too unrealistic – what self respecting gangster would administer punishment in the form of an arranged marriage? But once the tone kicks in – and the lightheartedness settles – the device is forgiveable. We figure out it’s not Scorcese, after all.

But the other problem is that the repeated marriages idea quickly wears the viewer out – once we ascertain the pattern of the movie, it’s predictable, and not necessarily worth it, either. That’s because the characters don’t really change – the design of the film is that they don’t change, remaining resolutely faithful to each other amid a chorus of disapproval and environmental dissuasions. Fine, but as Neil Simon himself once said, his films work because of the “stakes”; the character have to shoot for, or be threatened with, big things, to make their actions justifiable, giving a reason for the audience to care about them. I’m not so sure that’s demonstrated here, as Charley and Vicki should be able to settle amicably the cause for at least one of their separations – how big a problem is it really? So it’s sort of a case where the film’s design is its own saboteur, despite that design being one of the film’s assets.

Far simpler to analyze are some of the performances here. Basinger and Baldwin clearly have marvelous chemistry together (and off screen too, apparently; they would go on to make The Getaway together). Basinger, especially, sets the screen on fire, particularly with her singing numbers. I also love the way she can play both desperately vulnerable (as in her first scene with Baldwin) and commandingly firm, as she is later on in the picture. And all of it so believable to boot, as if she were talking to us, intimately somewhere, not reading lines or faking emotions. It’s easily one of her best performances, but too often people mistake her simplicity for bad; she inexplicably got a Razzie nomination for this, something the film absolutely did not need in any way, shape or form.

Simon has spent the last few direct-to-screen writings toning his dialogue down – making it less jokey, less intellectual, and far less dialogue-driven – and I can’t help but wonder why. I can only deduce one of two reasons. He may think, perhaps, that audiences want just that: that modern movie attendees are image/action driven and don’t want the talk-talk. If so, he is misjudging he masses; after all, Woody Allen has kept his films as intellectual as ever and maintained a small but devout following for almost 50 years. Reason number two may be more likely – as his power started to wane from a few box-office duds, Hollywood started to second guess him, and even worse, rewrite him. Could there be tamperings of his work between pen and screen?
Quite possibly, but either scenario has yielded the same result: the once masterful scribe entered the 90s as a shadow of his former self.

The reviews for The Marrying Man were merciless – the film currently holds a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes (an inaccurate critical gauge for films released before 2000, but that’s another story – it’s close enough). In addition to the aforementioned Razzies, many critics specifically singled out Simon’s script as the reason for its failure. The box office was even worse: the 26 million dollar budget evaporated after a gross of only about 12 million. In a way, this was a worse Simon failure than even The Slugger’s Wife (oddly enough, both films have in common the story of an female singer whose career is compromised by the demands of her husband’s work). People felt that Man’s failure indicated that Slugger’s Wife’s was not a fluke. The guy was out of touch, kaput, finito. Sadly, Simon himself must’ve agreed: his last direct to screen work would be The Odd Couple II, eight years later and based on, and featuring the stars of, an already successful film. It would also be his last film, period. 

But fortunately the playwright was having better luck on Broadway, as his Lost In Yonkers was a critical and commercial success. His stage work, and its movie and TV adaptations, was still alive and well. So let’s all just remember that during this troubling time.

Stage in Simon’s life: his three marriages, and their attendant ridiculousness.

Rating:  **1/2

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