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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movies You Never Heard Of 2: Oscar

So this is number two in an ongoing series of movies you’ve probably never heard of, but are worth your time. At least, if you like the kind of movies I like, and if you didn’t you probably wouldn’t be reading this (Hi Dad!).

Oscar is a farcical comedy (remember: 2010’s theme is the Farce) that is similar to Waiting For Godot, in the sense that the titular character features prominently only by reference. Oscar is the chauffer for a notorious crime family during the prohibition era. Sylvester Stallone plays the head of that family, Angelo “Snaps” Provolone.

Yes, they named an Italian mobster after a cheese. It’s that kind of movie.

Provolone’s father is played by Kirk Douglas, who exhorts his son to give up his disgraceful gangster life and restore the family name. Being as how Grandpa Provolone is on his deathbed at the time, Snaps can hardly refuse. So, bootlegging is out, and banking is in. Snaps uses his considerable fortune to secure a seat on the board at a prominent bank.

The movie chronicles his first day as a legitimate businessman. And nothing is easy.

Snaps is married to the woman who played Emporer Ming’s daughter in Flash Gordon. The couple have a daughter played by Marisa Tomei, who is bound and determined to get out of her father’s stifling shadow and see the world. On this, the first day of Snaps’ legitimate career, she hatches a plot to escape: claim to have been impregnated by Oscar, the chauffer, who is conveniently away fighting the Huns in the Great War. (I’m allowed to say “Hun” because my great-grandparents; maternal and paternal; all came over from Germany in the early 1900s, just in time to be put right back on another boat back to Germany to fight the Kaiser.)

Meanwhile, the Provolone family accountant presents himself to Snaps with evidence that he had embezzled a sizeable sum of money during his tenure, and wishes to ransom it for the hand of Snaps’ daughter in marriage.

And, across town, a rival family gets suspicious of how quiet it’s been on Provolone’s side of town, and decides that now is the time to make a power play for control of the Provolone territory.

And thus begins a whirlwind of miscommunications, misunderstandings and misreadings that grow more frenetic and more confusing right to the very end of the picture, when everything gets tied up in a nice pink frilly bow.

The writing is excellent and snappy, and it’s probably one of the better farces to come out of Hollywood in the past twenty years, but what’s really notable are the cameo performances. Don Ameche plays a priest. Tim Curry plays an elocution coach brought in by Snaps to help him sound respectable. Harry Shearer (of Spinal Tap fame, as well as every Christopher Guest movie ever made) does a hilarious turn as one half of a pair of bickering tailors who beam with pride when their work is featured in a grisly newspaper photograph of a gangster’s demise. Finally, Red from That Seventies Show gives his all as a gruff Eliot Ness wannabe that is bent on exposing Snaps for the gangster he was.

And unlike most cameo-rich films, every single character is important to the plot. Like a butterfly in the Amazon that makes it rain in New York, the simplest actions of a humble servant can unleash a thunderstorm of antics. Especially Oscar, who appears at the last possible second and has exactly one line of dialogue in the entire movie.

Sylvester Stallone is wildly underappreciated as a writer, and as an actor. His performance in Oscar should have been Oscar worthy, but the academy doesn’t seem to realize how hard comedy is and too often mistakes aggressive mugging for talent. Seeing him, as Snaps, dealing with the ever mounting pile of things that threaten his death-bed promise to his father is a legitimate treat, and it’s definitely in my top ten funniest movies that I’ve ever seen list.

I won’t write anymore on the subject, because anything else I add will only ruin the fun. While Oscar does stand up to multiple viewings, nothing quite compares to seeing it for the first time and finding out what’s going to go wrong next.

So go borrow, rent or buy a copy of Oscar on DVD. You will not regret the expense.