Not even Brian De Palma’s most ardent champions came to claim Wise Guys: Pauline Kael deemed it fit for Three Stooges fans only, while Armond White assumed its creator was as embarrassed as he was. A mid-career faux pas, or the director’s equivalent of the coruscating, laugh-stuck-in-your-throat dissonance of The King of Comedy? One way or the other, De Palma points to Scorsese from the start, with Danny De Vito doing a Travis Bickle oration in front of the mirror while being mimicked by his young son in the next room, the wall between them providing a parody of De Palma’s own trademark split-screen. Working from a wonky screenplay by George Gallo and Norman Steinberg, the filmmaker modulates the feeble gags through sheer visual elegance: a slow, 360-degree circular pan in the middle of a New Jersey street is sped up for full Mack Sennett effect; and the local capo di tutti (Dan Hedaya) puts a cigarette into a holder in huge close-up, then the camera pulls back so that half a dozen lighters can spring into the frame to vie for the honor of lighting it. Harry (DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) are best pals and lowly mob flunkies whose to-do list routinely includes such items as doing laundry and trying on bulletproof jackets. A chronic gambler and dreamer, Harry longs to open “the first Italo-Judeo combination restaurant-deli” and convinces Moe to take a chance at the horse races with their boss’s money; a fortune goes down the drain, of course, and, as punishment, Hedaya assigns one friend to kill the other. Following the rich avant-gardism of Body Double, Wise Guys is a frenetic step toward mainstream filmmaking, a course duly completed the next year with The Untouchables. The macho bluster taken seriously in De Palma’s gorgeous but uninterestingly pumped-up Elliott Ness saga is here intriguingly skewered, with the two guys off to Atlantic City in a pink Cadillac belonging to vein-popping assassin Captain Lou Albano, who digs into a mountain of lobsters with his bare hands to illustrate the director’s bold, nearly Eisensteinian gift for caricature. Such subversive touches show how, though toiling in a manic studio assignment, De Palma understands that “the issue here is loyalty,” as one of the characters puts it—the loyalty of Harry and Moe to their friendship and unashamed comic mugging, and also of the auteur to his artistic instincts in the hack-infested grounds of ‘80s commercial Hollywood.
- 100 min
- Brian De Palma
- George Gallo, Norman Steinberg
- Danny DeVito, Joe Piscopo, Harvey Keitel, Ray Sharkey, Dan Hedaya, Captain Lou Albano, Julie Bovasso, Patti LuPone, Antonia Rey, Mimi Cecchini
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