Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rhinoceros (1974)

A movie reteaming actors Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, the stars of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), was not inevitable. Lest we forget, The Producers did poorly during in its original release, although it achieved legendary status later. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to report that the second Wilder-Mostel picture lacks the madcap magic of their first collaborative venture. Based on the absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros was produced for the American Film Theatre, a short-lived program of stage adaptations exhibited on a subscription basis. The problem with this particular adaptation, alas, is that it can’t decide if it’s a broad farce or a cerebral satire. Ionesco’s original play was set in France and filled with dialogue and images that critics interpreted as lampoons of fascism. Transplanted to modern-day America, the film version loses all of its political bite, transforming into an oh-so-’70s treatise on the dangers of joining the Establishment. And yet if the only thing that the picture did was deliver a clear theme by way of a few laughs, it might have been worthwhile. Instead, the piece retains Ionesco’s central comic premise of a world in which people are becoming rhinoceroses. (Again, the key word is “absurdist.”) Given license to depict rampaging animals, screenwriter Julian Barry and director Tom O’Horgan fill much of the picture with loud scenes of chaos and destruction, interspersed with mannered comedy bits like the scene in which Mostel and Wilder pratfall their way through a grooming regimen. It’s all very artificial and pretentious and tiresome, qualities that are exacerbated by Mostel’s intolerably obnoxious performance. Mugging and screaming like he’s playing to an amphitheater, the actor succumbs to all of his worst tendencies here. Wilder, meanwhile, plays to his strengths, shifting between hysteria and sweetness, though the material fails him at every turn. (Offbeat ’70s screen vixen Karen Black appears in a supporting role, though she seems adrift thanks the inanity of the narrative.) Rhinoceros is praiseworthy on some levels, simply for the commitment with which the cast and filmmakers attack the text, but the way this American version omits the play’s original purpose renders the whole exercise futile. Plus, the fact that O’Horgan never actually shows a rhinoceros runs counter to the stupidly literal nature of the overall enterprise—why chintz on the one thing that could never appear in stage versions?

Rhinoceros: LAME

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