It seems fair to call Avanti! not only the best of Billy Wilder’s four ’70s features, but also his last truly satisfying movie—although such remarks may strike readers as damning with faint praise, since Wilder’s late-career output is unquestionably inferior to the classics he made in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Indeed, Avanti! pales next to, say, Some Like It Hot (1959), but, quite frankly, what comedy doesn’t? That said, Avanti! compensates for significant shortcomings with copious amounts of charm, cleverness, and wit. Although the picture never scales comic heights, instead generating mild amusement from start to finish, it puts across a farcical love story with credibility and sensitivity. Just as importantly, Avanti! reteams Wilder with his most frequent leading man, Jack Lemmon, the perfect interpreter for Wilder’s brand of male angst.
The story takes place in Italy, where American businessman Wendell Armbruster Jr. (Lemmon) travels to collect the remains of his father, recently killed in a car crash. Before long, Wendell realizes that his father died alongside a female companion, whose daughter, Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), travels to Italy to claim her mother’s body. Myriad complications prevent Wendell from achieving his simple goal. Pamela agitates to have the bodies buried in Italy, because that’s where her mother and Wendell Sr. met for annual trysts over the course of a decade. Italian bureaucrats smother Wendell with paperwork. Gangsters steal the corpses in order to extort money. Meanwhile, Wendell slowly evolves from being a fussbudget preoccupied with propriety into an emotional being vulnerable to Pamela’s appeal, echoing the way Wendell Sr. changed during his visits to Italy. Everything in the story is contrived and schematic, of course, but it works. Or, to place a finer point on the matter, it works well enough.
Adapting a play by Samuel A. Taylor, Wilder and frequent writing partner I.A.L. Diamond expertly coordinate a slew of running gags, weaving comedy and romance together with grace and style. What their adaptation sorely lacks, however, is economy—Avanti! runs a preposterous 140 minutes, with myriad scenes that could easily have been omitted or at least trimmed. The movie is never boring for more than a moment or two, but the narrative bloat diminishes the overall impact. So, too, does the fixation on Pamela’s weight, which, to modern sensibilities, seems as Neanderthal as the film’s overt statements to the effect that all successful men are entitled to mistresses. As always in Wilder’s films, adultery is a joke instead of a cruel betrayal. Still, Lemmon and Mills come off remarkably well, as does Clive Revill, an Englishman dubiously cast as an Italian hotel manager; for a film suffused with authentic local flavor, thanks to alluring location photography and lovely Italian music, Revill’s casting is a false note, albeit an inoffensive one.