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Brian De Palma
Robert De Niro,
Harry Valentini and Moe Dickstein are goons for the Newark mob boss Castelo. They are sent to the race track to place a bet on a horse but screw it up by betting on the wrong horse. Now they owe $250,000 but they separately get an offer to work it off; by killing the other one. Together they go off to Atlantic City where Harry's mobster uncle Mike may be able to bail them out. Written by
within its narrow ambitions, it's does alright, but only for what it is
Let's just say it up front: Brian De Palma doesn't direct comedies, at least not as a major part of his career. When he's done so it's usually in the realm of black comedies or satires, like his early films (Greetings/Hi Mom) or the rightfully maligned Bonfire of the Vanities. His sense of comedy is BIG (note the caps) and broad, but his farce is nowhere near the kind of genius of Mel Brooks. His slapstick is so large and spread out in scenes that it makes Looney Tunes look subtle (having Captain Lou Albino as one of the main bad-guys, the "Fixer" as he's called, is part of it). And the story is fairly idiotic too.
Yet I found myself enjoying Wise Guys, but for the little it aimed for. This isn't a grand vision like De Palma would immediately after go for in The Untouchables and Casualties of War. It was a trifle, a way to test himself in a low budget with actors he hadn't worked with before- chiefly stars Danny De Vito and (yes, star) Joe Piscapo. They play grunts whose job is to serve at the behest of mob boss Castelo (Dan Hedaya, hamming it up like it's nobody's business). When the two dopes lay a bet on a horse that isn't the one Castelo bet on and loses, they're each given a charge: each must kill the other to prove loyalty.
This, of course, is another set-up for a series of missteps in the two knuckleheads running away from the Castelo bosses, all the way down in Atlantic City as Harry tries to find his Uncle Mike, very much dead. The subtitle for the film could be called 'Wackiness Ensues', and De Palma doesn't let anything go past as being unnoticeable. Particularly is one scene, perhaps De Palma's most daring (or just recognizably 'De Palma) cinematographic-ally when Harry has to go turn on 'the car' that might explode any moment (the shot speeds up and does a 360 as everyone runs away from the scene, a hoot-take on his usual style). And in the script, some lines of dialog and set-ups are so blunt you can feel the force at the back of your head.
But somehow, against all of the odds of the 'ho-hum' quality of the set-up, it's fun because of the acting. Joe Piscapo is mentioned today, just his name, as a punch-line, but there was a time when he was at least halfway amusing (mostly in skits with Eddie Murphy on SNL), and here he's let loose with the a character like Moe who, I guess compared to Harry, is the straight guy depending on the scene. Harry, meanwhile, gives Danny De Vito a real chance to chomp at the bit: he's so over the top, but he's also a believable luck-believer (he goes for it the way Bible-thumpers go for God), and in those moments when Piscapo falls totally flat, somehow De Vito comes back in to make things fun in the delirious way. Others like Lou Albino and, on a more subtle-menacing scale, Harvey Keitel, do a competent job in their roles.
So, going in and expecting a really great comedy or just an interesting piece of art will mean some disappointment. As a juicy diversion that ask for nothing except a few chuckles by way of the New Jersey Turnpike, it does its job reasonably well; De Palma fans who find themselves going through his thrillers and blockbusters first will come across this, possibly, last in his catalog. But it's far from his worst.
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