Thursday, July 21, 2011

Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)


          Despite a fantastic cast, the would-be farce Harry and Walter Go to New York falls flat because only a handful of the movie’s myriad one-liners, sight gags, and slapstick routines actually elicit laughter. A failed attempt to blend the Vaudevillian style of silent-era comedy with the elaborate con-man plotting of The Sting (1973), the ineptly written but lavishly produced picture follows a pair of nincompoop 19th-century crooks who fall into the orbit of a world-famous master criminal, then try to rob a bank before the criminal gets there first.
          James Caan and Elliot Gould play Harry and Walter, small-time robbers who get caught picking pockets during one of their low-rent song-and-dance routines. Meanwhile, gentleman thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine) gets tossed into the same jail as our heroes, but Adam’s so rich that he gets a private cell appointed with velvet curtains and silver table settings. Harry and Walter discover—and accidentally destroy—Adam’s prized blueprints for an ambitious bank job, then escape and get enmeshed with activist reporter Lissa Chestnut (Diane Keaton). Through convoluted circumstances, Harry, Walter, and Lissa end up trying to rob the bank the same night as Adam’s gang, leading to silliness like Harry and Walter stalling for time with an improvised musical number.
          As photographed in a nostalgic glow by Laszlo Kovacs, Harry and Walter looks great, and the leads are complemented by a gaggle of ace supporting players, including Val Avery, Ted Cassidy, Charles Durning, Jack Gilford, Carol Kane, Lesley Ann Warren, and Burt Young. Unfortunately, the material just isn’t there. The characters are underdeveloped, the comedic situations don’t percolate, the dialogue doesn’t sparkle, and the narrative conceit that the idiotic Harry and Walter keep stumbling into good fortune feels like a cheat. Still, it’s impossible not to find commendable elements with this much talent involved, and those high points range from the intentionally awful musical passages featuring Caan and Gould to Caine’s peerless delivery of sardonic dialogue. Providing one of the movie’s few real laughs, he dismisses the heroes by explaining that “They’re not oafs—they would require practice to become oafs.”

Harry and Walter Go to New York: FUNKY

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