08 September 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: Greedy

Released 1994 by Universal pictures, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

This movie blows. The script's poorly conceived, and impossible to execute well.

The scenario goes that, at the behest of his corrupt relatives, Danny (Michael J. Fox) has to stop his estranged Uncle Joe McTeague (Kirk Douglas) from willing his fortune to the attractive sexpot, Molly (Olivia d'Abo), who lives with him.
But the story lacks stakes.

Let's talk about Star Wars!

When Princess Leia was taken prisoner by Grand Moff Tarkin, she refused to give up the location for the rebel base? Why? Why didn't she just hand over the info, pay the fine in court and go home? Just as the audience is about to ask this, Tarkin orders his space station to blow up her home planet, Alderaan.

Now let's talk about When Harry Met Sally

Both Harry Burns and Sally Albright want to find a romance so true and long lasting they can give interviews in a tacky livingroom about it, but finding love it tough. Okay, but if it's so rough why doesn't Harry stop dating and start reading books from the beginning for a change? Why doesn't Sally just get a nice pith helmet with a fan on it? Before the audience even asks these questions, Harry tells Sally about "dying one of those New York deaths nobody hears about..."when they drive to the city at the start of the movie.

In his book "On Directing Film" David Mamet said the keys to drama lay in answering three questions : "What does the hero (or protagonist) want?" , "What's stopping him from getting it?" And "What happens if he doesn't get it?" .

If Luke Skywalker doesn't save the Princess, other planets will blow up, like Alderaan. If Harry and Sally don't find love, they will die alone, in worse states they are now. Even in the third act of "The Distinguished Gentleman"(which I slammed for sloppy writing) If Thomas doesn't indite Congressman Dick Dodge, thousands of photogenic little children will die of power-line cancer!

What happens if Danny doesn't get Uncle Joe's money? Nothing. Danny gets supported by his successful girlfriend rather than being able to open his own business, which... doesn't sound that bad. What happens if Uncle Joe just gives all his money to Molly? Nothing. In the very first scene, it's established all of the McTeagues are Upper-Middle Class. Without an inheritance, they all still have careers and equity There's no consequences. Like how poker's only fun with gains and losses riding on the outcome, dramatic narrative is only interesting if there's something at stake. It's basic fiction 101 and a writer-director with two major TV shows and four feature films under his belt should have known better.

I'll concede, though, the casting kicks ass. Austin Pendelton (the stuttering lawyer form "My Cousin Vinny") shows up again in a one-scene wonder. Coleen Camp (Yvette from "Clue") shows up as one of the cluster of relatives. Ed Begley Jr. sells a lot of otherwise lackluster scenes just through reactions (sincere, too, not a "take". One suspects the film should have been about him). And Phil Harris chews up every scene he's in, which is welcome in an otherwise very dull movie. Hell, Jonathan Lynn himself even plays the Butler, Douglas. But none of them have anything to work with.

This material just isn't funny. The setpieces are built from classic hack material and premises. Who likes celebrity impressions? At best a novelty. But the movie's big mid-point climax is Michael J. Fox doing an impersonation of Jimmy Durante, song and all. They had to put Jimmy Durante footage over the opening credits to explain who the guy was. This also kills any opportunity for an decent opening gag. The first thing on the screen is 40 year old re-run. The end routine is a fistfight between Danny and cousin Frank, not slapstick with odd props and silly noises, but... a real fistfight, where someone could break a jawbone. Jeez, man.

Personally, I find Greedy an increadible weak film, poorly structured with little in the way of defined characters. The script gives little in the way for anyone; costumer set designer, editor or the ensemble cast to work from. But, box office mojo says it opened at #2, which in absence of either a production cost or advertising budget implied the movie made money. Even the acknowledged great directors made an awful movie or two, and I'm glad that enough 1994 moviegoers didn't see things the way I do now, and that "Greedy" didn't turn out to be a career-killer for Jonathan Lynn as a director.

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