Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fire Sale

There's a moment late in 1977's understandably obscure FIRE SALE that for some will represent a pinnacle and for others the lowest possible point of comedy. Two men, a father, Benny (Vincent Gardenia) and one of his sons, Russel (Rob Reiner) are overcome with asthma attacks. Wheeze. Wheeze. Wheeeeeze. The scene goes on.  And on. And on. Did director Alan Arkin (who plays the other son) go for a coffee break while shooting this scene?  I think instead he was going for some sort of Pantheon for Neurotic Jewish Humor. To maybe outdo Felix Unger in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

We can also credit/blame Robert Klane, who earlier had penned the uproarious WHERE'S POPPA, a real bad taste classic. He loves to mine life's ills for the sake of a gag.  Dark humor seems to course through the writer's veins, to be as natural for him as breathing, but in FIRE SALE it only works in fits. The film works very hard to make you laugh, but only succeeds occasionally.  I did smile at lot. Like when the high school basketball fans hurl rocks through the windows of Ezra Fikus' (Arkin) apartment in a nonstop torrent because the team he coaches is winless.  Or when we're introduced to the wunderkind Ezra recruits, a very tall boy known as Booker T, but sometimes called "Captain F--K" (we hear a honking sound every time someone says his name).

Benny owns an old department store whose merchandise is, politely stated, out of date. The only solution to a failing business of course must be to burn it down and collect the insurance. But when you hire an arsonist, it's probably wiser to find someone who doesn't live in a mental ward and thinks WW 2 is still being fought. Sherman (Sid Caesar) probably gets the biggest laughs in FIRE SALE, especially in a lengthy scene as he prepares to go off and do the deed (he believes that Benny's store is actually a headquarters for the Nazi party). He readies his gear, then falls asleep, then awakens.  Over and over. It goes beyond absurdity.

That goes for the entire picture.  Reiner's character, by the time of the big asthma scene, has already wheezed through multiple attacks, brought on whenever receives bad news, which is about every 10 minutes. The ne'er do well Russel, unaware of his father's plans, attempts to revitalize the store when his parents take a vacation. Then papa has a heart attack after a huge meal while en route. Everyone thinks Benny's dead, even when he sits up and talks. Klane would later take this idea much further with his WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S films.  This ongoing joke will carry much of FIRE SALE, perhaps at its funniest moment when a rep from a casket company measures the old man's dimensions and informs him that if he dies before Saturday he'll get the Bicentenniel special!

You get the idea.  I was reminded of Seinfeld several times as I watched FIRE SALE,  a movie I had not seen before. Perhaps many later comedies owe a big debt to this movie, which was not a box office draw and has never gotten a home video release. It is an achingly funny movie at times, but just as often just plain painful.

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