Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Fortune (1975)

          If not for its stellar pedigree, The Fortune might have passed muster as a silly homage to old-school cinematic farce—but given the monumental talent involved, it’s incomprehensible that the movie is so charmless. The names on the marquee are impressive: Mike Nichols directs Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing, and Jack Nicholson in a script written by Five Easy Pieces scribe Carole Eastman (working under the alias Adrien Joyce). Playing against a backdrop of lavish early 20th-century costumes and production design, Beatty delivers an uninspired spin on his usual flummoxed-lothario routine, Nicholson does a gruesome caricature of his wild-and-crazy shtick (complete with Bozo the Clown hair), and Channing grates in a thankless role as the heiress both men try to swindle. This ensemble’s idea of hysterical farce is having Beatty sweet-talk Channing on a plane while Nicholson climbs onto the wing and mugs through the window like a lunatic peering into someone’s living room. According to movie lore, Beatty put the movie together as an audience-friendly complement to his risky pet project Shampoo (1975), then stipulated that Columbia Pictures could only have The Fortune if the studio financed Shampoo as well. Nichols said yes because the project seemed like it could be the box-office hit he needed after two major flops, and Channing was hired when Nichols nixed first-choice leading lady Bette Midler. As for Beatty’s offscreen buddy Nicholson, he slid the picture into his schedule while waiting to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
          Befitting its calculated genesis, The Fortune is soulless product that emanates contempt for the audience—it’s as if viewers are expected to laugh out of gratitude for seeing this much star power assembled in one place. Even the plot is tired. The story hinges on the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of women across state lines for immoral reasons, so of course the filmmakers contrive feeble reasons for Beatty and Nicholson to ferry Channing from one state to the next, thus making them fugitives in addition to scoundrels. It’s been widely reported that filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are fond of this picture, which makes sense given their affection for screwball comedy, but like some of the Coens’ weak screwball flicks (such as Intolerable Cruelty), The Fortune is an hour and a half of unpleasant people doing stupid things for vile reasons. Some might regard this approach as sophisticated because it doesn’t pander to the audience, and, indeed, The Fortune is quite tart—but aren’t comedies supposed to be fun? If that’s the benchmark, then The Fortune is a bust.

The Fortune: LAME

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