Sunday, February 23, 2014

Milk and Cookies and a Divorce

     Sandwiched in between the controversial Cruising (1980) and pop culture classic Scarface (1983), Al Pacino made the warm and gooey, family-friendly comedy about marital infidelity and deadbeat parenting Author! Author! (1982) directed by Arthur Hiller.

Pacino plays a New York City playwright juggling the impending premiere of his new Broadway production with a weak second act, an overbearing producer (Alan King), a new director (Bob Dishy), a lusty leading lady (Dyan Cannon), an unfaithful wife (Tuesday Weld) and a brood of five precocious kids, only one of which is his own biologically.

The scenario feels more like the set-up of a Woody Allen movie with Pacino taking on the lead neurotic crossed with the Lucille Ball comedy Yours, Mine and Ours (1968). At several points in the film, Pacino places his hands on his head and declares: "I'm so depressed". Apparently a lot of critics were by this film too. It was not well received. The word "dud" often springs to mind whenever it comes up.

The fact is, the film is not bad. Pacino very clearly enjoyed playing the part of the surrogate father to his wife's pack of abandoned cubs. The arguments in the film between husband and wife, offspring and parents, have a true ring to them. It's palpable the way his wife gets furious at him for sleeping with the new leading lady in his play, after she herself has admitted her own presently ongoing infidelity (he is after all her fourth husband, I believe?). Of course, it's hypocritical; but real.

It's also real the way the film looks at how kids approaching puberty look at the adults in their lives as examples for what they are soon to become. No wonder our world is in the state it's in today. Pacino's character Ivan tries to be a good parent to his kids, and for the most part, he is a stellar one. Maybe too good. The main problem with the film is the way it handles the absent mother, played by Weld.

Her character, Gloria, is a one-dimensional nut-job (who absentmindedly puts silverware in the fridge) who sails into bitchy waters on one too many occasions. She reminds me of an adulterous version of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980), except she actually loves her kids, or so she claims. For what it's worth, Weld tries to make the most of it. The other problem with the film is the way in which the play within the film is presented. We are never told what the play is about, what the problem with the second act is, or even what the title "English With Tears" is supposed to mean.

Yet, all of these issues are brought up in nearly every scene. It would be like having all the characters in the movie Lincoln (2012) working to resolve the issue of slavery, but without mentioning what the amendment they were debating was for or about; only that it was important. The only thing we learn in Author! Author! is that the play is a comedy.

Apparently, that's all we're really supposed to learn about the film too. It's a serious story presented in comic mode, just like the Pacino character says about his play in the film. Fortunately, the comedy is so toned down, as is Pacino's performance, that a great deal of subtlety and nuance really does manage to shine through. I enjoyed the recurring joke about how Ivan can't tie a necktie, and the way he fumbles with a telephone while trying to work at his typewriter.

above: Pacino with Elva Josephson, Eric Gurry, Ari Meyers, B.J. Barrie and Benjamin H. Carlin

Although Gloria's motivations remain mostly unknown (all we really learn about her is that she likes to get married and have lots of kids; this is actually said by her in the film) the Pacino character is truly devoted to his kids, and wants his play to be a success so that he can provide for them. He even forsakes his own happiness with another woman for his convictions. It's a noble, if not transparent characterization.

The bottom line is, none of the kids biological parents want anything to do with them. There is a minor subplot involving Gloria's two young girls whose father only agrees to let them come stay with him so he can avoid paying child support. Pacino's character knows that if he doesn't step in, they will have no other place to go, especially since their mother is up in Gloucester working on husband number five. But it's what any good person with a three bedroom brownstone would do, isn't it?

By far, the most embarrassing thing about Hiller's film, is the original song: Comin' Home to You (Is Like Comin' Home to Milk and Cookies) with music by Dave Grusin (On Golden Pond) and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (Never Say Never Again). The quicker we move on from that, the better.

Pacino allegedly did not get along well with director Arthur Hiller (The Hospital, 1971; Silver Streak, 1976; The In-Laws, 1979) and stated as much publicly. He did however enjoy working with the child actors in the film, who range from mildly annoying on occasion to genuinely sincere. The autobiographical screenplay was written by dramatist Israel Horovitz, who Pacino had worked with before in 1968's The Indian Wants the Bronx, for which both men won Obie awards.

Dyan Cannon was originally cast as the bitchy wife Gloria but eventually accepted the role of the loony actress Alice Detroit who almost steals Pacino's heart; if it didn't already belong exclusively to those darn kids. Above all else, Author! Author! is a great New York story. The city itself plays a very strong supporting part in the film, much like it did in the similarly styled but more satisfying Dudley Moore film Arthur (1981) and virtually all of Woody Allen's films up to the 2000s.

Perhaps it's a guilty pleasure for this movie watcher, or maybe I just have a soft spot for any film in which Al Pacino doesn't play a caricature of himself. I like the movie, warts and all, but it's no Picasso.

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