Mixed Nuts

1994, Movie, PG-13, 97 mins


Director Nora Ephron, who scored a surprise smash with 1993's SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, misses resoundingly with this frenzied Christmas farce, starring a semi-hysterical Steve Martin and a high-profile ensemble that fails to rise to the occasion. Based on LE PERE NOEL EST UNE ORDURE, a 1982 French comedy virtually unknown in the US, MIXED NUTS is scripted by sisters Nora and Delia as a hellzapoppin laff riot, with Martin expected to ride in and clean up the carnage.

Philip (Martin) is the administrator of the Lifesavers crisis hotline, a beleaguered non-profit community group in Venice Beach, which is facing foreclosure at the hands of a venal landlord (Garry Shandling). Meanwhile, it's getting harder and harder to distinguish the staff from the patients. Philip's fiancee announces that she is leaving him and quitting analysis to go out with her psychiatrist. Co-worker Catherine (Rita Wilson) lives with her mother and cries while lying fully-dressed in the bathtub. Acerbic widow Mrs. Munchnick (Madeline Kahn) takes perverse pride in handling obscene phone calls. Also wandering the halls are Robert Klein as a hostile dog-owner and Adam Sandler as the building's infantile super.

Meanwhile, Catherine's friend Gracie (Juliette Lewis) and her loser boyfriend Felix (Anthony LaPaglia) are expecting a baby, but have no money for a hospital stay, despite running a successful used clothing store. On the periphery, a mysterious Seaside Strangler is haunting the neighborhood. As Philip tries to hold things together, it becomes clear that his fondness for humanity does not really extend to individuals. On top of all this, he breaks one of his cardinal rules, and allows a depressed woman to come to the offices to spend Christmas Eve. This turns out to be a hefty transvestite in black chiffon (Liev Schreiber), who immediately falls for Philip.

All these complications are resolved hastily. Munchnick finally lets her hair down and drags the dog-lover off for a romp in the surf. A despondent Felix returns with a gun, only to be disarmed by Gracie, who discharges the gun into the walls and ceiling, accidentally killing the landlord. They disguise the body in the Christmas tree to unload it on the boardwalk, and finally amidst these traumatic circumstances, Philip and Catherine find true love. When the cops finally discover the landlord's body, they ID him as the Seaside Strangler, and the $250,000 reward is enough to pay for Gracie's maternity and keep the hotline's doors open for another year.

Nora Ephron, once known as an expert script doctor, could have used a little doctoring herself: MIXED NUTS is a relentlessly hectic, poorly structured farce that falls embarrassingly flat. All the comedy here comes at the expense of the characters, reflecting a pronounced cruel streak in Ephron's work for the screen. When this tendency is tempered with a healthy dose of humanism, as in her script for the derivative yet solidly entertaining WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, the problem is less pronounced. But when it involves turning an ex-husband into a philandering ogre, as in HEARTBURN, or making a character unsympathetic just by giving her a laugh like a pig rooting for truffles, as in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, it's simply mean. Here we have a fat transvestite, blue-collar imbeciles, grating homebodies, frenetic losers, and not one, but two women urinating, supposedly for comic effect. Clearly, whatever it was that made the French original work has been lost in the translation. This holiday release did very little business at the box office, rounding off a disastrous year for Martin, whose 1994 vanity project, A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE, also stiffed. (Profanity.) leave a comment

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