Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pretty Goodfellas: "Wise Guys" (1986)

Brian De Palma is not the first director you would think of to helm a slapstick-laden comedy about the mob, but he gives George Gallo's first produced screenplay a try, and succeeds for the most part.

Best friends Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) are two low level Mafia operatives working for Tony Castelo (Dan Hedaya). How low level are they? They run around Newark taking care of his grocery lists and dry cleaning, and Castelo's other henchmen take bets on whether they will survive starting the Don's luxury car. The duo is entrusted to place a twenty-five thousand dollar bet at a horse track, but decide to put it on another horse and lose, costing Castelo a quarter of a million dollar windfall. Castelo decides to teach them a lesson, and takes out a contract on the men- but with Moe hired to kill Harry, and Harry hired to kill Moe. Normally, the laughs would start there, but Gallo throws in a trip to Atlantic City and a few scenes with Bobby (Harvey Keitel), one of Harry and Moe's friends from the past. Harry works hard trying to come up with the money to get things right with Castelo, and Bobby sees an opportunity as well.

De Palma's direction has always been a little intense, so his take on the comedy genre is interesting. The humor can be dark, and De Palma handles it well. Ira Newborn's musical score is awesome (when not drifting into 1980's synthesizer territory), and the grimy New Jersey locale works. Gallo does telegraph a lot of jokes (I could see the punchline in the men's room scene from a mile away), and he doesn't seem to trust his original plot enough to stick with two dumb guys trying to kill each other.

The funniest performance comes from the unlikeliest actor. Captain Lou Albano was best known for his professional wrestling appearances, and roles in Cyndi Lauper music videos. Here, he is unrecognizable as the Fixer, a foul-mouthed killer, and he should have scored an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. The screen lights up every time he is on, and he had me laughing. DeVito does try to get the film going, since Piscopo can't rely on the "Saturday Night Live" impressions that made him famous. He mostly squeals after DeVito, and gets lost in the cinematic shuffle. Ray Sharkey is given a thankless role as a bartender, his scene in the church goes on way too long.

I remember this came and went back in the day, and I never got the chance to watch "Wise Guys" until I found it in a thrift store on VHS. It's not a perfect comedy, but it does the job. (* * * *) out of five stars.