The Twelve Chairs

There’s funny and there’s funny. First is the belly-laugh kind (Caddyshack, Airplane!), replete with clever one-liners and sight gags, pleasant diversions of little substance. Then there are the kind in which the comic aspects are grounded in broader, often poignant situations (Annie HallMr. Saturday NightParenthood). Such is the case with The Twelve Chairs.

This least known of Mel Brooks’ films is based on a traditional Russian folk tale and takes place just after that country's revolution. At his mother’s deathbed, Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns that she hid the family jewels inside one of twelve dining room chairs to keep them from falling into the hands of the revolutionaries. The rest of the movie revolves around his attempt to retrieve the chair. Unfortunately, mother never marked the chair and Vorobyaninov has no way to know which one it is. Furthermore, in the chaos of the revolution the chairs got scattered to the four winds. To compound the problem, mother also confessed the secreting of the jewels to an unscrupulous priest (Dom DeLuise, in his best – no, make that his only good – role), who races Vorobyaninov to the treasure.

Joining in the fray is Vorobyaninov’s old servant, Tikon (Brooks), and a con-man played by Frank Langella. Brooks is brilliant as the reactionary peasant who still worships his old master, bringing forth an uncannily en pointe accent and set of mannerisms.

Underlying the physical comedy is a touching evocation of how the revolution affected the lives of the former bourgeoisie who, no matter what you might think of their pre-uprising excesses and callousness, suffered mightily at the hands of their socialist successors. Also well-portrayed is the deadening cultural brutality of the massive bureaucracy that quickly arose to administer the brave new country.

The film is marred, and not trivially, by the presence of Langella’s wholly mean-spirited character devoid of any humor or hint of redemption. The darkest notes in the movie are his, such as when he punches Vorobyaninov in the stomach, and one wonders if such an unsympathetic portrayal is his own invention or was intended in the screenplay. As Brooks himself directed, we can only assume that the character came out the way he wanted it to, which is surprising and disappointing. It's the only explanation of why he'd put such a relentlessly cold and affectless actor in this role.

Nevertheless, The Twelve Chairs is a film worth seeing although I must warn you: if you have little or no background in appreciating the humor inherent in works based in eastern Europe ethnicity, you probably won’t get this movie.

Raising Arizona is still, with the possible exception of Fargo, the best of the Coen brothers' work, a weirdly riotous romp dense with characters of surpassing craziness who nevertheless possess a kind of sensible internal consistency:  They may be nuts but they're predictably nuts, a set of circumstances rife with comic possibilities.

What astonished me the most about this movie, and it still does after many viewings, is how all of the actors involved captured so perfectly a specific brand of insanity, the kind in which, no matter how bent someone gets, it all seems perfectly natural to everybody else.  Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter play an unlikely couple, a two-bit petty criminal (Cage) and a cop (Hunter) who inexplicably fall in love.  Unable to conceive a child, Hunter browbeats Cage into stealing one for her from one Nathan (the "Raw Furniture King") Arizona, played to perfection by Trey Wilson.  More than that I cannot say without sounding deranged myself.  Full of quietly hysterical moments and the kind of demented poignancy only the Coens could concoct, this film only gets better with each subsequent viewing.

My Blue Heaven is an hilarious, quasi-musical utilization of the extraordinary skills of Steve Martin, one of the most intelligent comedians ever to grace the screen. Here he plays an Italian mobster in the supposedly sweet bosom of the federal Witness Protection Program, suddenly finding himself in enforced, southern California suburban hell where he and his equally New York-centric wife have been set up as the ordinary couple next door, which is roughly analogous to passing off Dennis Rodman as a florist. Watching over them is FBI agent Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis), a nebbish of the first water whose wife just left him for a baseball player.

Martin’s Vinny Antonelli – oops, sorry: "Todd" – is the beautifully played classic fish out of water who nevertheless comes to have great influence over everyone he meets. Among them are Joan Cusack’s public prosecutor (can’t tell you how happy I was to see her with an Oscar nomination for In and Out) and Moranis’ FBI agent. Watching Vinny/Todd and Moranis gradually humanize each other is both funny and touching, starting with the scene where the hood tries to tip the agent. (Moranis: "You don’t tip FBI agents!" Martin, perplexed: "Sure you do!")

And then there’s The In-Laws. I’m not sure where to begin to describe this film to you, except to say that it’s one of those that is pretty funny on first viewing, and gets progressively more so with each re-seeing. Only over time can you truly appreciate how deftly Alan Arkin and Peter Falk create two screwball characters with such skill that they both seem born to the parts. Or maybe they really were.

Arkin plays Sheldon Kornpett, a bland, mild-mannered New York dentist whose daughter is engaged to be married. The future father-in-law is Falk’s Vince Ricardo, who claims to be a CIA agent but at their first get-together regales Sheldon and his wife with incredible stories told with such sincerity Vince bursts into tears at the mere memory ("I tell you, the sight of those tsetse flies carrying off little babies…"). Sheldon’s antennae are on full alert, and matters aren’t helped when he returns home one day to find his house surrounded by federal law enforcement officials because his wife found a set of counterfeiting plates in his basement where Vince had stashed them without bothering to tell anybody.

Soon Sheldon is on a private jet with Vince bound for South America. I can make myself laugh at a moment’s notice just by recalling the scene where one of the crew (the incomparable James Hong) instructs Sheldon on how to use the life vest…in Chinese.

As the story progresses, Sheldon actually starts getting used to Vince’s shenanigans…or so he thinks. But he’s constantly surprised by the escalation of Vince’s creative insanity, even while achieving some kind of acceptance in order to stop himself from going mad trying to figure it out. Sheldon’s is the prime point of view here, because we the audience sympathize with his confusion even as we are amazed at Vince’s bizarre nonchalance in the face of one lethal threat after another. In one scene, he earnestly instructs Sheldon on how to use Saltines to absorb the grease in his split pea soup, which wouldn’t normally be worth commenting on except that it takes place within minutes of Sheldon’s having been chased and shot at because Vince didn’t quite give him the whole story on a "little favor" he asked of him.

The film is one treat after another, with a surprisingly warm and satisfying ending, the whole mish-mash accompanied by an apt and memorable John Morris score reminiscent of The Odd Couple, which this film resembles, except on acid.