Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

          Having secured his small-screen reputation by co-creating two beloved franchises (Get Smart and The 2000-Year-Old Man), comedy auteur Mel Brooks made a bold move into features by writing and directing The Producers (1968). Despite a fractious production process and a disappointing run at the box office, the picture netted Brooks an Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay. Yet instead of following up The Producers with another original work, which would have seemed like the logical move, Brooks made The Twelve Chairs, a new adaptation of an oft-filed Russian novel that was originally published in 1926. The movie engendered some goodwill, but it didn’t play to Brooks’ strengths of frenetic pacing and goofy slapstick. Quite to the contrary, The Twelve Chairs is melancholy, and much of the picture is devoted to dramatic storytelling as opposed to comedy. Mel Brooks is many things, but a tragedian is not one of them. Furthermore, because the picture is generally played “straight,” the occasional lowbrow moments—think actors mugging for the camera and/or wild physical-comedy scenes—feel out of place. Partially as a result of this tonal dissonance, The Twelve Chairs is the dullest of Brooks’ features, even though it’s also the most thematically ambitious.
          The story is very simple. In the Soviet Union a decade after the communist revolution, former aristocrat Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns that his mother hid the family’s jewelry stash inside one chair that’s part of a set of twelve. Dazzled by notions of reclaiming his lost wealth, the greedy Vorobyaninov begins to search for the chairs. He’s aided in his quest by a dashing con man, Bender (Frank Langella), but these two must compete with a corrupt priest, Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who hears about the jewels and tries to beat Vorobyaninov to them. Also thrown into the mix is Vorobyaninov’s former manservant, amiable idiot Tikon (Brooks). Virtually every character in The Twelve Chairs is repulsive, and, unfortunately, the leads are the least appealing in the batch: Vorobyaninov is a hot-tempered elitist willing to steamroller over anyone in his way, and Bender is a silver-tongued swindler.
          Moody’s angry, charmless performance doesn’t help matters, and neither does Langella’s overly theatrical suaveness. (This was one of the stage-trained actor’s first films.) As for supporting players Brooks and DeLuise, who perform in the broad manner one normally associates with Brooks’ work, they’re funny, after a fashion, but they’re out of sync with the rest of the picture. Similarly, Brooks’ periodic attempts to juice the movie’s comedy by resorting to the old-time camera gimmick of sped-up action seem desperate. So while it’s true that The Twelve Chairs is the closest thing in Brooks’ directorial filmography to a serious story, there’s a reason he found success with outrageous comedy—he’s a master of screen comedy, and merely a dilettante in the realm of thoughtful cinema. Therefore, if curiosity about Brooks’ oeuvre compels you to check out The Twelve Chairs, follow the advice of the song Brooks wrote for the film: “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

The Twelve Chairs: FUNKY

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