erik lundegaard

Friday July 08, 2022

Movie Review: My Favorite Year (1982)


Every once in a while I give this movie another shot because I want it to to work, it feels like it should work, and everyone else seems to think it works. It’s got a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.3 on IMDb, and in 2006 Premiere magazine voted it one of the 50 greatest comedies of all time.

So we watched it again the other night.

It doesn’t work.

Welcome back, Palumbo
It’s a great idea. In 1954, comedy writer Mel Brooks tries to keep fallen movie star Errol Flynn in line and away from booze and women so he can appear on the hit weekly series “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar. Look at that. How fun should that be? And it was Brooks himself who suggested the story—Brooks at or near his comedic heights.

It's a roman a clef, of course: Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) tries to keep fallen movie idol Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) away from women and booze so he can appear on the hit weekly series “Comedy Cavalcade” with King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna).

And it’s not funny enough. Linn-Baker isn’t funny enough for someone playing Brooks, Bologna isn’t funny enough for someone playing Caesar, and the movie, from first-time director Richard Benjamin, often goes too big to make up for its lack. 

Is the script not funny enough? It’s written by Norman Steinberg, whose name is on “Blazing Saddles” but not much else—a crapfest of ’80s comedies that didn’t work: “Wise Guys,” “Johnny Dangerously,” “Funny About Love.” His co-writer is Dennis Palumbo, who did ’70s sitcoms that didn’t work: “The McLean Stevenson Show,” “Flying High,” “Flatbush.” At one point, the showrunner Sy Benson (Bill Macy) tells his writers “Up your hole with a Mello Roll,” and I was like, “What’s that a riff off again? Oh right, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter.’ Nose/rubber hose.” Palumbo wrote for that, too.

OK, the screenplay is definitely lacking. The cute girl, K.C. (Jessica Harper), asks Benjy if there are funny and not-funny people, and he says definitely, and divides the world thus:

On the funny side there are the Marx Brothers, except Zeppo; the Ritz Brothers, no exceptions; both Laurel and Hardy; and Woody Woodpecker. On the unfunny side, there’s anybody who has ever played the accordion professionally.

I wait for the payoff and get the accordion line. And the first part is just a laundry list. And no exceptions on the Ritz Brothers? Please. Benjy’s response is like the movie in microcosm: a wasted opportunity.

Even so, give those lines to funny people and it sometimes works. The scene where Benjy takes the gentile matinee idol to visit his very Jewish family in Brooklyn isn’t bad. Lainie Kazan as his mom makes me laugh. Lou Jacobi as Uncle Morty really makes me laugh. They also do a nice bit with one of the show's writers, Herb Lee (Basil Hoffman), supposedly based on Neil Simon, who merely whispers his devastating ripostes to fellow scribe Alice (Anne De Salvo), who says them aloud. I just wish they were more devastating.

We do get this nice exchange when a very drunk Swann stumbles into the bathroom only to be met by Lil (Selma Diamond):

Lil: This is for ladies only.
Swann: [unzips fly] So is this, ma’am, but every now and then I have to run a little water through it.

But even this didn’t come from Steinberg/Palumbo. It’s a well-known Hollywood tale about John Barrymore and a wardrobe girl in 1939. Barrymore gets no writing credit.

Lundy’s complaint
O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his role and deservedly. He’s great. You get a sense of the sad soul trapped within the fame and addiction, not strong enough to shed either, relying on both. You also get a sense of his inner swashbuckler even before he displays it at the 11th hour.

There’s a subplot about a Jimmy Hoffa-like figure, Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), taking exception to Kaiser lampooning him as Boss Hijack, and sending mob/union guys to take care of him, which they attempt to do on live national television. This is the 11th-hour thing. Swann has already run away, panicked by the prospect of a live audience. He says he’s not the hero he so often played and Benjy buoys him by telling him he is; he had to have that in him to be able to portray it so convincingly. So Swann comes to the rescue. He swoops in like Captain Blood (or “Captain from Tortuga”), and together he and Kaiser vanquish the baddies and everyone in the live studio audience stands up and applauds wildly.

And it’s just stupid. What did the people in that studio audience watch? A Boss Hijack sketch in which Kaiser fights some guys and then Swann swoops in and fights some guys, and they win. It's nonsensical. No one says a line—funny or not. But somehow it gets this roar of approval. And it's the movie’s great climax. And it gives Swann the courage to visit his estranged daughter in Connecticut.

You know what I don’t get? Richard Benjamin’s career. They kept casting him as the lead in movies based on bestselling Philip Roth novels that wound up bombing at the box office; and after a decade of that, and his own forgettable ’70s sitcom (“Quark”), he began his directing career. This was his first feature film. It’s also his highest rated. I look at his CV and wonder how he kept making movies. He kept getting big stars and he kept making bad movies. Here’s his Rotten Tomatoes numbers:

  • 22%: “City Heat”
  • 60%: “Racing with the Moon”
  • 50%: “The Money Pit”
  • 20%: “My Stepmother is an Alien”
  • 57%: “Little Nikita”
  • 74%: “Mermaids”
  • 31%: “Made in America”
  • 12%: “Milk Money”
  • 15%: “Mrs. Winterbourne”

And then scene. Mercifully.

Anyway, I keep wanting to be wrong about this movie.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Friday July 08, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s  
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