#11 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
Is this an earnest entry in the subgenre of “the homeless are magic” that Hollywood cranked out from the late 80s to the early 90s, or is this a satire of that genre? On the one hand, there’s a certain feel similar to Mel Brooks’ earliest films, The Producers and The Twelve Chairs. On the other hand, the film goes so far into weird, misplaced comedy like Three Stooges routines, and ends so far over the line of what these movies do in the end that it feels like a satire of the entire idea of these films. It’s helped none at all by the fact that the film is played in largely subdued terms, including barely any musical score whatsoever, making intent a bit harder to decipher. I don’t think this is the complete disaster of Mel Brooks’ career that many seem to make it out to be. However, I am open to the idea that it’s actually a brilliant piece of satire. Maybe it doesn’t actually work, though, undermining the assertion a bit.
The billionaire Goddard Bolt (Brooks) is angling to purchase a rundown part of town in order to build a massive improvement on top of it. He’s up against Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor) who bought the other half of the land, and the two enter into a wager to see who gets the whole thing. If Bolt can survive for thirty days in the area without use of his money or connections, he gets the whole plot. If he leaves the area or otherwise fails, Crasswell gets the whole plot. It’s a dumb set up to a dumb movie, something that doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be taken seriously. Satire? Or Genuine effort? I honestly don’t know.
Bolt takes this bet with high spirits, his lawyers drawing up contracts around the wager to ensure propriety as well as Bolt giving them power of attorney. And, as soon as he’s on the streets, the man who turned five million dollars as his inheritance from his father into $6.8 billion is shuffling around begging for help. No man who makes that kind of money, even with a starting point of five million dollars, is a passive insect waiting for money to fall in his lap. He’s a hustler, through and through. He plays tough games in order to win tough prizes. And yet, here’s Bolt, meekly begging for a bed or food with no idea how to make any headway. I mean…there’s misunderstanding how really rich people operate, and then there’s this. They may not be moral. They may not have the best interests of other people at heart. They may be callus tyrants, but one thing they do know is how to get other people to do what they want. That is not always just flashing money around either. The misunderstanding feels intentional, like this is a satire. And yet, I’m still not sure.
He finds some help in the form of Molly (Lesley Ann Warren), a mentally handicapped woman living off the streets who has a history of being left by her husband and descending into this form of madness that keeps her on the streets. So, of course she becomes Bolt’s love interest. How is this not satirical in nature?! I don’t know!
Bolt finds a way to survive his thirty days, but Crasswell, faced with a defeat he did not see, bribes Bolt’s lawyers to abuse their power of attorney and sell off all of Bolt’s assets, asserting that Bolt has gone crazy. How would a judge accept this? I don’t know! Bolt then immediately goes back to the slums where he descends into ranting with himself, getting into an argument about who’s richer with another bum who thinks he’s John Paul Getty (Rudy De Luca) before he’s taken away to a hospital where he’s overdosed on drugs from an inattentive doctor. He’s released and ends up at the unveiling ceremony of Crasswell’s attempt to rebuild the slums where Bolt and Molly lead the homeless in an attack on the ceremony that ends with Bolt and Crasswell fighting in opposing construction cranes. It’s one of the most obvious bits of comedy in the film, and it’s two rich men fighting over a slum…I don’t know what this movie is trying to do!
The movie ends with a newscast telling the audience of Bolt’s judicial victory over Crasswell, his plans to build a cost-free housing center for the homeless, and his secret plans to marry Molly. The two get married at the run down little church in the slums with Molly pulling the cans off the back of the stretch limo and throwing them into the back seat because they’re valuable before they drive off. I mean…is this meant to be taken seriously? I really have no idea.
If this movie is meant as an earnest example of the subgenre of “homeless people are magic”, then I don’t think it works. It’s too lacking in self-awareness of the absurdities at play for it to be that kind of good. If this movie is meant as a satirical example of the same subgenre, I’m much more open to it, but I am simply not convinced that it is. It’s too earnest at the wrong points. I also don’t want to recommend a more obvious soundtrack that makes it clear that the events being played on screen are comedic in nature, but it would be both in line with how Brooks had made comedies before and helpful in figuring out what on earth is going on at the same time.
Essentially, I want this to be a satire of a genre I find irritating, but I’m not sure if it actually is.