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Fire Sale
(1977)
 

Director:Alan Arkin                                       
Cast:
Alan Arkin, Rob Reiner, Vincent Gardenia


From the same demented writer(*) who brought you the cult classic Where's Poppa? comes the overlooked movie Fire Sale, with Reiner and Gardenia also returning, though in bigger parts this time. Comparing the two movies, one is struck by some similar themes, including two conflicting brothers and senile parents. So how is this movie compared to Where's Poppa? Well, the PG rating prevents there being any really serious attempts at raunchy humor. But despite this, it's an absolutely hysterical movie, with absolutely insane characters and situations. I haven't laughed so long and so much at a comedy for ages, and I think it's a shame this movie is not available on video and is rarely given any kind of screening.

One of the great things about Fire Sale is that its storyline can't be properly summarized in a few sentences. The opening of the movie is fairy easy to describe; grumpy and crusty store owner Benny (Gardenia) and his wife Ruthie are preparing to go on a road trip to Florida, with Benny demanding his "putz" of a son Russell (Reiner) to only open and close the dying store while he's gone. On the other side of town, Benny's other son, the disowned Ezra (Arkin), struggles to keep his job as a high school basketball coach (with only two wins in his career) while being frustrated by his wife's constant demands to have a child. ("Why not get a hobby?...You want [a baby] now? Okay, get up on the table! Let's go, take your clothes off!") That's how the situation is at the beginning, but as things progress, the movie gets more special. That's because at no time in the movie can the viewer predict what is going to happen next. The movie boasts several plotlines (all interrelated), each progressing to add additional characters and new problems for the original characters. When a character or new situation is introduced, the subplot in question is suddenly given a new spin, pointing in a direction that isn't familiar to viewers. After each new twist, I was thinking, that the movie couldn't possibly get more demented and complex. Subsequently, I was proven wrong.

The characters introduced later in the movie fit right into the crazy characters. As Benny's brother-in-law Sherman, Sid Caesar is very funny as a World War II veteran who is still trying to fight the war, when he doesn't have the stump of his amputated leg planted in a flower pot in an effort to grow it back. (His best scene is when he tries to pull off the first part of his secret plans while drugged.) Alex Rocco has a few amusing scenes as a sleazy wholesaler who tries to get Russell to replace the store's crappy merchandise with some more modern stuff. Byron Stewart does well as the young basketball playing "Captain HOOONNNKKK" (you'll understand when you watch the movie), who catches the eye of Ezra; his casualness and occasional eye rolling make his straight role generate its own share of laughs. I thought that the character of Virginia (Barbara Dana), Russell's girlfriend, was pretty much a waste, with some poor acting on Dana's part. Otherwise, it's amazing just how good and funny everyone is in this movie.  Kay Medford, playing Benny's wife, pulls a Where's Poppa? in the middle of the movie, becoming hopeless to communicate with. Reiner's wimpy demeanor and constant asthma attacks never stopped being funny. When he and Arkin are finally united onscreen, their scenes just burst with comic energy, with their verbal scraps a joy to listen to.

It's not just the characters and the actors that are funny, but the situations they go through in the movie. It's not just verbal duels and one-liners, but also scenes of pure slapstick, starting with Ezra one morning using the hair dryer to warm the toilet seat, then fighting for his life with the water pik. Bizarre situations about, sometimes not bothering to give us an explanation, though that doesn't stop us for laughing; while Ezra and his wife are at the breakfast table arguing about having a child or not, several rocks thrown from the outside break their windows. They pay no attention to this and keep talking. This by itself is funny, though when we get the eventual explanation for this, it only adds to the hilarity. There are several sight gags to keep your eye out for, one being the name of the store; though it is a somewhat obvious gag, for some reason I thought it unbearably funny each time I saw it. At no time is the movie afraid of doing too much; at one point, Benny is helpless as basketball players practice in his living room while the house painters continue painting and his wife is at his side planning his wake, with the insurance men coming over - and it isn't even near the climax! This is one of those rare movies where it gets better and better as it movies along.

I will say no more about Fire Sale except to say again it's a comic masterpiece, absolutely jam-packed with humor and a cult classic in the making. Yes, in the making, because for some reason, 20th Century-Fox has done almost nothing since its theatrical release to make it better known. You'll be very lucky if you see an authorized screening of it anywhere; it's a movie that you'll probably have to beg, borrow, steal, or even burn down the front doors of the studio to see. And then afterwards, you'll be lucky just to find another person who has seen it. Add fuel to the fire, spread the flames, and let this movie be better known.


* Robert Klane, who also gave us Weekend at Bernie's and Weekend at Bernie's II,  though let's not think about those two movies, okay?

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability of the original Robert Klane novel

See also: The In-Laws, Let It Ride, Real Men

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