#19 in my Ranking of Billy Wilder movies.
Billy Wilder occasionally made a movie romance where the underlying logic of the central relationship can raise some eyebrows if you think about it for too long. The budding romance between a military officer and the grown woman he thinks is only fourteen years old in The Major and the Minor is the most obvious example, but Avanti! fits as well. Not thinking too deeply into what brings Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills’ characters together (as well as Jack Lemmon’s own personal life away from Italy) helps the movie though, just getting swept up in the moment with the characters.
Wendell Armbruster Jr. has just received notice that his father died in Italy, and he needs to get from Baltimore to the small Italian island of Ischia in order to claim the body. From the get go, nothing goes well. He received word while he was golfing, so he climbs onto the airplane in red plaid pants and a red cardigan, not exactly appropriate attire for making funeral arrangements. He convinces a fellow passenger to switch clothes with him, but they fail to switch passports causing problems at passport control. He meets a British woman on the train from Rome to Naples who seems to know him pretty well, but he doesn’t know her. Assigning her knowledge to an article written about him in Newsweek, he thinks little of her until he sees her on the ferry to Ischia and she shows up looking for the hotel manager in his hotel room.
Wendell’s father had a secret. He had been coming to this hotel for a month every year for ten years not to simply unwind and find peace away from his busy life as top executive in a very large firm. He was coming to have a long term affair with Katherine Piggott, Pamela’s mother. Faced with mounting challenges from Italian life and bureaucratic reality, Wendell and Pamela find themselves spending a few days together in the same hotel as their parents had. They even end up putting on their parents’ clothes, sitting at their parents’ table, drinking their parents’ drinks, and eating their parents’ food before doing some of the things their parents did together like a skinny dip out to a small rock just off the island.
Essentially, they follow exactly in their parents’ footsteps and end up replicating their romance. Falling for each other like they are taking up the mantle from their parents. It plays rather sweetly in the film with Wendell finding himself actually taking time to take in life and Pamela opening herself up to someone for the first time since her last boyfriend walked out on her and she developed issues with how she views her body.
Around this sweet little romance is a cast of Italian characters, most prominently Carlo Carlucci, the hotel’s manager. He provides a lot of assistance on the particulars of navigating the Italian bureaucracy and greasing the skids of the romance between Wendell and Pamela. He provides a lot of uptight looking Italian suave that contrasts amusingly with his libertine views on love. There’s also a late addition of an American diplomat who deputizes a corpse in order to cut through the red tape and get the appropriate people out of the country and to America.
The plot moves beyond the romance, though. Bodies get stolen and recovered. An extra coffin gets ordered on accident and used when a new body appears. Bodies get switched with other bodies and buried locally in Italy. It’s sweet how it all plays out with Wendell coming to terms with his father’s infidelity and embracing his own.
And that’s where I get just the littlest bit confused. I thought Wendell had called his wife an ex-wife at the beginning, but it becomes obvious later that they’re still married when she calls him later. So, the point of the movie is that Wendell needs to not only accept his father’s infidelity but have an affair himself? Since the wife is never seen and barely mentioned, it’s one of those uncomfortable realities that you’re not really supposed to think about that much, but I get the impression that if asked, Wilder would say, “Yes! Men should be allowed affairs from their wives!” It’s not exactly a message I would embrace, but Wilder’s movies aren’t really message focused in general. It never feels like the point, just the situation of the film.
The central romance is sweet. The Italians provide a lot of nice comedy. The island provides a lot of wonderful imagery. It’s an unchallenging, nice comedy that fits its two and a half hour runtime surprisingly well.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4