1986 in Film – Wise Guys

Release Date: April 18th
Box Office: $8,475,466

Saturday Night Live has given a lot of good to the world. Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd, some real giants of the comedy field. And then, they’ve had some misses as well.

One of the most infamous periods was after that initial explosion of talent, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, all left the show along with the majority of the writers and producers after the 1979/80 season. Everything that followed was a disaster which ended up with the cast fired and the new show runner axed after 10 months in the role. The only two people to survive this?

Eddie Muprhy and Joe Piscopo.

Now, Murphy we all know about. Over the next few years he became one of the biggest stars in the world with a stunning run of films before he left SNL in 1984.

Piscopo also left SNL that year. Whilst Murphy had been the breakout star, and was credited with saving the show after the disastourus 1980 season, Piscopo was more of a support act. He was popular enough to survive the 1980 cull but never enough to really stand on his own. He had a HBO special and also starred in Johnny Dangerously (1984)both of which failed to set either the box office or critics on fire.

Also appearing in Johnny Dangeroulsy was another TV star looking to move into film, Danny DeVito. He had been a part of the cast of the massively successful Taxi which had ended in 1983. His film choices after this were somewhat better, as at the same time as Dangerously he was also in the hugely successful Romancing The Stone (1984) which was quickly followed by it’s sequel Jewel of The Nile (1985).

Quite why both were brought together for Wise Guys (1986) is an unanswered question. DeVito and Piscopo side by side have a good look, the classic short and tall guy double act. Really, all they needed was the right vehicle and it could work.

Enter Brian DePalma.

Wait, that Brian DePalma?

One of the original member of the New Hollywood wave of directors who changed the industry, he was himself on a run of interesting and challenging films; Dressed to Kill (1980Blow Out (1981)Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984). Each of these films in their own way tested audiences, critics and the film censors as they pushed boundaries in what you could show on film. That last film was particularly rough on DePalma, the critics largely denouncing it and ending up with a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Director.

A change of pace does make sense so on that basis Wise Guys also makes sense. A black comedy should fit DePalma like a glove, after all his greatest influence was Hitchcock and few people could draw a laugh out of blackness like Hitchcock could.

DePalma, however, does not have this skill as proven by Wise Guys. It’s difficult to know where exactly the blame lies though. As an idea the story is solid enough: DeVito and Piscopo are two (very) low level members of the New York mafia. Due to various escapades they end up owing their boss $250,000 and each one is told to kill the other. Mix in Lou Albano was the Mob Boss’ potty mouthed enforcer and it should be a hoot.

It isn’t.

The main problem is that Devito and Piscopo just don’t click properly. Sure, they both know what they’re doing but there’s never a spark between them, it’s not like seeing Crosby and Hope together for the first time. It’s barely Reynolds and Eastwood if we’re honest.

Then you have them being directed by DePalma who just isn’t a comedy director. He’s a thriller director but he doesn’t have the wit to bring out the comedy. Most of the jokes fall flat or are too forced to be properly funny. There’s what would be an interesting shot that he fails to land: Devito gets to open the boss’ car with everyone watching, betting on if a bomb has been hidden in it and when it will go off. As Devito approaches the car everyone in the street sees him and flees, the camera then does a full 360 degree turn watching them all as they go. Great. Only after about a quarter turn it gets massively sped up which undermines the whole joke and looks wrong.

The material isn’t that weak, considering the writer’s next film would be the superb Midnight Run (1988) there’s clearly potential to be had. Problem is that film has De Niro and Grodin and a director who was used to comedy.

Wise Guys then ends up on the scrap heap of vehicle movies, films that were intended to launch a career or a double act or a franchise. It fails to do any of those things, and ends up being a blip on Devito’s filmography and somehow a highlight on Piscopo’s. That should tell you all you need to know of the quality of his film choices.

Maybe it’s just this quality of film was Piscopo’s level. Devito would go to more success, like alongside Arnie in Twins (1988) and DePalma would go back to what he knows best with The Untouchables (1987). Piscopo would disappear into obscurity.

Shame Murphy didn’t follow him after 1986 but that’s another story.

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