Review: “Oscar” (1991)
Produced by: Leslie Belzberg
Written by: Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, Claude Magnier (original play)
Edited by: Dale Beldin
Cinematography by: Mac Ahlberg
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Marisa Tomei, Vincent Spano, Ornella Muti, Tim Curry, Chazz Palminteri, Peter Riegert, Elizabeth Barondes, Linda Gray, Joycelyn O’Brien, Martin Ferrero, Harry Shearer, Kurtwood Smith, Eddie Bracken, Richard Romanus, Kirk Douglas, Don Ameche, Jim Mulholland, Yvonne De Carlo
Based on the play by Claude Magnier
Sometimes it’s nice to rely on friends to make suggestions for you when you’re in the mood for something different that you might have overlooked previously. The last time I did a review at the suggestion of a friend, his out of left field suggestion (after Macross, which, he had forgotten, wasn’t just a single movie but a whole series) was K-PAX, a movie I had always been somewhat curious about but never really interested enough to ever actually pursue – or even remember, for that matter. I ultimately didn’t end up liking it that much, but I enjoyed the suggestion, nonetheless. So, as Guy Movie Month was coming to a close, I asked another friend of mine what movie I should review next that I hadn’t seen. He came up with the answer pretty quickly: Oscar.
Having never heard of it, I asked why he made the suggestion. “I dunno, I just like it,” he admitted. Good enough for me. He had taken my suggestion to watch the amazing Moon, and though he didn’t ultimately like it nearly as much as I love it, I was happy to try out one of his own suggestions. That’s ultimately the goal of outsourcing your movie choices, right? So I looked it up. And I saw the smug look of Sylvester Stallone looking back at me from the DVD cover with a sort of duck-lips look on his face that suggested that the filmmakers thought their character was totally entertaining… but it probably wasn’t.
“Dude…” I said, pausing to make sure I wasn’t going to come off sounding equally as smug, “I’m just going to warn you right now: I’m not sure I’m going to like this movie.”
He laughed, having liked several movies that I haven’t liked before (we’ve agreed he’s easily entertained – and more power to him for it). “That’s okay,” he assured me.
Which is a big load off my mind, ‘cause, sure enough, I didn’t like Oscar…
Now, I must qualify that by saying that I didn’t hate it. I didn’t even dislike it nearly as much as I had feared, given the star and the pose he struck for the artwork on the cover. I actually went into this movie not even knowing what the plot was, having zero familiarity with it, the play it was based on, the 1967 French film, nor the subsequent TV movies that were adapted from Claude Magnier’s play. I figured my unfamiliarity would avoid any preconceived notions, though, again, that artwork really didn’t help matters.
Oscar is the story about a mobster on the day of his attempt to go straight and become a banker, which was his dying father’s last request. Oddly enough, Oscar is not the name of this gangster. His name’s Angelo “Snaps” Provelone, played by Sylvester Stallone, and the film can essentially be boiled down to Snaps’ attempt to make it to his meeting with the bankers who will assist him in his transition without knocking off one last man. Wouldn’t you know it, however, that today’s the day that crisis after crisis will test his patience and his willpower to squelch the mobster mentality in him and the men on his staff.
The film takes place primarily within Snaps’ opulent home in Chicago in the 1930s, with small sidetrips outside where an eager detective is determined to catch Snaps lapsing into mobster dealings and a formal rival gangster who similarly thinks something is up at the Provelone household. Of course, though Snaps is genuine in his attempt to fulfill his father’s last wish, the goings on in his life are far from being anything other than hectic. He’s dealing with an accountant who has not only embezzled money from him, but who also intends to use his embezzlement to marry his daughter (it makes some sense in context, I suppose). Meanwhile, his daughter is attempting to find any excuse to get out of her father’s control, even if it means lying and marrying her way out. There’s also the small matters of Snaps’ men having a hard time adjusting to their new lives, the linguistics expert who was to teach them to speak like respectable members of society who has instead also taken an interest in his daughter, a wife who doesn’t seem to trust him, and, among other things, a former lover who turns up at the last minute.
It’s all a bit hectic and too populated with twists, turns, and broad, familiar character types (you better believe you’re going to hear one of the gangsters say, “Why I oughta—“ with their hand ready for the backswing), though it’s admittedly easy to keep tabs on what’s going on, despite the craziness – though some of it doesn’t make too much sense, even within the sort of screwball comedy universe that the film takes place in. (How the heck does a big black bag of jewels feel the same as the same type of black bag filled with lingerie?)
As I kept watching, I was reminded a bit of a few other, better works – Arsenic and Old Lace being the primary one that came to mind. Both are set mostly within the confines of a single space, and the main characters both have a tendency to glance knowingly through the fourth wall at the audience. Both have the whole screwball comedy of errors thing the going on, too. This movie is clearly attempting to recreate the same sort of spark, but it’s entirely too slow paced and filled with mostly dull acting (shockingly from some famous names who have done much better elsewhere) to really capture the manic, macabre charms of what seems to be its inspiration. Sly Stallone is no Cary Grant. (I have no idea if this is inherent in the original Magnier play, so I’m addressing the movie on its own merits.)
There’s also a lot of offhand mention of Oscar, a character who lends his name to the title, but never shows up until the movie’s already almost over. That kind of reminded me of The Importance of Being Earnest, in that both off-screen characters have a great deal of influence on the stories but are essentially non-physical presences throughout the stories that bear their name. It’s admittedly pretty superficial and not even 100% accurate in its comparison, but, you know – close enough, I guess.
Ultimately, Oscar was an inoffensive film that I guess I can sort of understand the charms of, even though I did not fully appreciating it myself. It’s not horrible, which is to say that I didn’t feel like clawing my eyes out at how dumb it was, but it’s not very clever or especially funny, either, so what’s the point in watching it? I chuckled a few times, though I couldn’t really tell you at what points. I think my biggest joy in watching the movie was when I recognized Arleen Sorkin in her bit role performing a manicure on the rival gangster. She’s the original voice of Batman villain Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series and beyond, and I was so delighted to see her essentially using the same voice in live action, I kind of wished that the rival gangster character could’ve been named something beginning with a J, if only because I wanted to hear her call him, “Mr. J” like Harley. If only the character wasn’t created two years after this movie was made.
Oh well. Consider this payback for not liking Moon that much, dude!
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5