Monday, June 01, 2009

5/25/09: The Frisco Kid (1979)

I happen to love Gene Wilder movies. I also happen to hate Gene Wilder movies. Let me resolve this apparent contradiction by saying that while many of his early 1970s comedies are pure gold, he stopped being funny sometime after 1976's The Silver Streak. I have seen only a handful of his output after this time, when he started to collaborate full time with his wife, Gilda Radner, and comedian Richard Pryor. Today's turd, released the year I graduated from high school, only confirms for me that whatever greatness Wilder films once had completely evaporated shortly after his efforts with Mel Brooks ended.

Even though Merf raved about this period comedy Western (the second in a row, following yesterday's John Wayne picture), my expectations were relatively low, given how I feel about Wilder's post-Brooksian output. In The Frisco Kid, Wilder is cast as Avram Belinski, an orthodox rabbi from Poland, sporting a full beard, talking in a thick accent and behaving alternately like an innocent naif and a total schlemiel. Arriving in Philadelphia in the mid 1800s, he must trek across the U.S. to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to lead a new congregation. Right off the bat, evil men start to beat him up, rob him and take advantage of his innocence. Eventually, he befriends a bank robber (Harrison Ford), and together they make the journey to Frisco on horseback together. Along the way, they encounter some Indians and, inevitably, the original bad guys who threatened Belinski.

Everything falls flat in this slow-moving and completely uninteresting saga. Wilder himself isn't bad as the beleaguered rabbi—he makes full use of his wide-eyed innocence and amusing accent—but the script is abysmally weak, and all of the characters are unforgivably cartoonish and one-dimensional. One running joke involves Belinski learning and then uttering the word "shit," and the so-called comedy never rises much above that level. Another dumb scene trades on contrived homoerotic humor as Ford must hug Wilder to keep warm as they sleep outside in the snow. Har har.

Admittedly, I have always had an extremely difficult time with movies that ask me to sympathize with crooks, hit men and other bad guys. Ford—who inexplicably took this job between his first two Star Wars hits—is an unapologetic thief who regularly frisks train passengers and banks of their cash. And he's one of the heroes of the film! We're supposed to lose our heart to this ruffian because he acts as Wilder's protector; sorry, I couldn't go there—and it's hard to like a movie where you're praying for the hero to take a bullet. (Ironically, Ford's role was originally supposed to have been played by John Wayne, the star of yesterday's cowboy comedy.)

There are so many aspects of this movie that I found repellent, but the absolute nadir was the moronic miscasting of perennial TV actor Val Bisoglio (an Italian-American) as an Indian chief. Merf, you may consider us even for my forcing The Contender on you. This was just yecccch. Rating: 2/5.

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