Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Don't Drink the Water

Don't Drink the Water is a detour in the 90s filmography of Woody Allen, who with this film takes a rare opportunity to revisit his past, to take a look back at the material that he ironically dubbed, in Stardust Memories, "the early, funny ones." This film, made for television in 1994, at a time when Allen was perhaps at his most prolific, was originally based on a play he wrote in the late 60s, which was both produced for the theater and made into a film by Howard Morris, with Jackie Gleason starring. Allen had long disowned these earlier versions, in which he had no hand, declaring the film version in particular to be "a disaster." Thus, Allen's production of this story can be seen as a chance to finally do it right, to knock off a quick, fun project (it was shot in just two weeks) made for a different medium, a change of pace for the endlessly restless director. Allen himself plays the part that formerly went to Gleason, as an American tourist in Soviet Russia, mistaken for a spy when he innocently snaps a picture that turns out to contain some potentially damaging information. He and his family, including his wife (Julie Kavner) and his daughter (Mayim Bialik of Blossom), flee to a nearby American embassy seeking sanctuary. Unfortunately, they're thrust into the hands of the ambassador's incompetent son (Michael J. Fox), who is in charge while his father is in Washington.

The result clearly shows the signs of its hasty production and its humble origins. It's a much simpler film than anything else Allen was making by this point in his career, composed mostly in very long, unshowy takes that allow the actors the time and space to simply perform, to develop each scene's humor organically through the dialogue and their interaction as they deliver it. The camera is mostly utilitarian, often static or following the actors when it needs to keep them in frame, as it does most noticeably in a nice shot where Allen and Kavner are walking and arguing, the camera in front of them gently tracking along as the two actors gesticulate wildly. This inconspicuous style, born of necessity to keep the production flowing, gives each scene a refreshing, spontaneous feeling, sometimes even verging into improvisation. In one scene, Fox clearly flubs a line and simply rolls with it, treating it as a spontaneous mistake by his character; this far into a very long, dialogue-heavy take, Woody probably felt it worked fine. This kind of stuttering, doubling-back way of speaking is of course the natural way to spit out Woody's fast-paced dialogue anyway. These are lines that seem to invite stutters, awkward pauses, and digressions into unrelated subjects in the middle of a sentence. Given this distinctive dialogue, Fox occasionally falls into the familiar trap of becoming just another Woody imitator, especially in his first few scenes, but he resists it admirably. In fact, with Fox the usual Woody neuroses and insecurity are rendered in a new light, made more poignant. When he delivers the kind of self-deprecating line that Woody might've just as easily written for himself, there's a sadness to it that's not there with Woody — Fox seems genuinely disappointed in himself for failing his father again and again. It's always interesting to see a younger, more conventionally handsome actor take on a Woody-esque persona, as Fox does here and John Cusack did in Bullets Over Broadway. The result is that lines that might have seemed simply funny from Woody, part of his nonstop pattering, take on more weight coming from an earnest younger actor, even in the context of a total farce like this.

Even though the film's visual style is relatively simple, befitting a TV production, this isn't to suggest that the aesthetics are uninteresting. The frame is frequently quite active even if the camera isn't, and the actors' frantic rushing about and hilarious conversations more than make up for the long takes. This could easily seem like a much more briskly edited film than it is, purely because of the energy in the performances. In a hilarious scene where Allen and Kavner disguise themselves in burkas — a gag I was waiting for from the very moment an Arabian emir and his harem were introduced — the frame comes alive with the entire cast flailing around, alternately revealed and obscured by Woody's waving black-clad arms. This is just one of many wonderful scenes here, and though there's plenty of Woody's trademark verbal wit, there are also some delightfully frantic bits of madcap physical comedy cropping up here and there. A few of these are too predictable, especially nearly every gag involving the emir who Allen continually insults and soon begins to injure grievously over and over again. There are one too many unfunny jokes on the injuries sustained by this visiting prince. But Dom DeLuise is a real treat as the Russian priest who's been hiding in sanctuary within the embassy for over six years, locked in his room and, as it turns out, practicing his magic tricks. The scene where he puts on his startlingly inept magic act for Woody and his family, while the embassy's gourmet chef makes off with his rabbit, is a classic bit of comedy leading into another delirious madcap explosion.

What this film demonstrates, coming at this point in Woody's career, is the sharpness and endurance of the director's comedic talents. This film is unmistakably of a piece with the films Woody started making in the early 70s, not long after this play was originally written, although it is missing the visual surrealism and disregard for realism that those early features were often based around. The film also looks backward in the way it contextualizes these events very much in the Cold War setting in which it was originally written. There is no attempt to update the story in any way, and in fact the opening minutes of the film consist of a deadpan montage of documentary images from this time period, accompanied by a serious narrator who is describing the taut situation between East and West. There's an expectation here that at any moment, the narrator's seriousness will be undermined, that the straight-faced Cold War images will transition into some utterly ridiculous scenario, but it doesn't happen. The old Woody might've gone for just that kind of cheap joke — there are plenty of similar ones in Bananas — but instead the narrator is allowed to simply set the time, the place, and the broad outlines of the historical situation, with no hint of irony undermining his objective commentary. The humor is allowed to develop naturally then only after this contextualization is complete, organically bubbling up in Fox's first conversation with his ambassador father, before the introduction of Woody and his family truly throws the film off its rails into steadily escalating comic insanity.

The film's earnest commitment to its Cold War milieu, as well as the broad strokes of the humor, definitely brand this as one of the "early, funny ones." And yet, Don't Drink the Water doesn't necessarily seem out of place when set against more recent films like Bullets Over Broadway or Manhattan Murder Mystery, which are undeniably more sophisticated, more visually sumptuous, and more complex, but which have in common with this film a real verbal acuity and an eye for drawing out character detail through an excess of dialogue. It's not a perfect film, and there are subplots, like the romance between Fox and Bialik, that seem both unnecessary and insufficiently developed, even if it does result in some fun and uncharacteristically "cute" moments from Woody. The film has plenty to recommend it, though. Most importantly, it's just a very funny movie, which should certainly be enough sometimes. This isn't peak Woody, but it's an entertaining diversion, a curious leftover from his early period resurrected in the middle of the most controversial phase in his career.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've only seen the original, but I remember liking it much more than I thought. You can hear a lot of the Woody Allen rhythms in this script, but they are covered over by the kitchy deliveries of Gleason and cast. It's still worth watching.

I should check the remake out. It's maybe the only Allen film from the 90s that I haven't seen.