The Fantasticks

Director: Michael Ritchie                           
Joel Grey, Barnard Hughes, Jean Louisa Kelly

Note: Before I get to actually reviewing this movie, I want to say a few things so I can shut up some of the shrieking freaks that surround us. The first group that I want to quiet are those die-hard fans of the original stage production of The Fantasticks. Namely, those who seem to think it is a kind of sacrilege to change the format of this beloved musical when adapting it to feature film format. To all of these people, I respectfully say: Shut your yap and give me a flippin' break. After Maybe I'm nit-picking...but how come you see stars in the dark part of that moon?all, that well-known plagiarist William Shakespeare stole the idea of Romeo and Juliet from Arthur Brooke's popular poem The Tragicall Hystory of Romeus and Juliet - and look at how popular and acclaimed Billy-boy's interpretation became! (And you don't hear the Arthur Brooke groupies whining about what Shakespeare did.) In short, an interpretation of something by someone else or even by a different medium may be different, but can be good in its own way. Second, I watched this movie on DVD, and I want DVD fanatics to notice that I've managed to control myself so I will never (unlike other DVD reviewers) gush about owning a DVD player in the first place, never be one of those that mention they keep DVDs clean by constant salivating over them, or ever gross out readers by mentioning how fortunate DVDs have holes in them so one can take their love for them to a new level.  (And probably getting D-VD in the process.) Guys, please take a valium before you write another review, okay? Thanks.

Considering the long and hard road the movie The Fantasticks has gone through, it's not only amazing that it ever got made, but that we finally have the chance to see it. Some of you undoubtedly know of the disasters that have fallen on this movie, but the answers as to why many of these things happened - such as the fact it was shelved for five years before finally getting a theatrical release (to about only six theaters) even to this day seem murky. I've spent a lot of my own time trying to research the movie's sad history (even before the movie got released), but I haven't been able to come up with many answers. 

The scenario that probably closest to the actual fact is as follows: When the movie was completed in 1995, United Artists showed it to test audiences, though none of these people were devotees of the stage play. The test results weren't positive, though everyone involved in the making of the movie realized the tough challenge of reintroducing modern audiences to The photography of this movie is - well, fantastick!the movie musical. The movie's release was put on hold until a marketing strategy could be figured out, but during this time the regime at the studio changed. The new regime decided that a theatrical release of the movie would just lose more money for the studio, and wanted to dump the movie on video. But a clause in director Michael Ritchie's contract stated that the movie must have some kind of theatrical release first. Neither side was willing to budge, so the movie stayed on the shelf for the next few years. Then in 2000, Francis Ford Coppola (now a member of the board at UA) took a look at the movie, and reedited it (with Ritchie's blessings) in an attempt to make the movie more attractive to audiences, and it was finally released.

As you may imagine, the end results are quite substantially removed from how everything was in the original stage musical, especially since Coppola chopped out about half an hour from Ritchie's original cut. (The finished results run less than 90 minutes, a somewhat bizarre running time for a musical.) Still, those familiar with the stage musical will still recognize many of the elements. As on the stage, the movie sets things up by bringing us into the middle of a feud between two widowed neighbors, Bellomy (Grey) and Hucklebee (Brad Sullivan). Bellomy has told his young daughter Luisa (Kelly) to stay away from Hucklebee and his son Matt (Joseph McIntyre, former member of New Kids On The Block). Likewise, Hucklebee has told Matt to stay away from the Bellomy's. Despite this divide and their parents' warnings, both Matt and Luisa have secretly fallen in love, though they have no idea on how to advance their relationship under these circumstances.

In fact, Bellomy and Hucklebee are also wondering how their childrens' relationship can advance - it is soon revealed that the feud is a sham, constructed so that Matt and Luisa would get together, knowing that children always do the opposite that you command them. Their savior seems to arrive in the form of El Gallo Having breakfast together - does that mean that the night before they... I don't want to think about it! (Jonathon Morris), the leader of the traveling carnival that has just arrived in the area. They arrange with him to stage a phony abduction of Luisa, which will result in Matt becoming a hero, the families reconciling, and the lovers being given a blessing to go forward. Despite the convoluted sound of it all, the plan actually is a complete success. However, once everything is settled and tidy, everyone starts to see love differently in this new light, and the relationship between Matt and Luisa is troubled. El Gallo, still in the area, is also not calming things down by his presence. Is a happy ending still possible?

Now, I have never seen the original stage production, so while I can't compare what this movie does to how it was done originally, I at least have the advantage of seeing this movie on its own terms. Yet despite all of this, it soon became clear to me several minutes into the movie that the material, for the most part, was not being directed in a fashion that best complemented it. It quickly became clear to me that the original stage adaptation was to be an intimate experience, to be done on a small stage in front of a small audience, unlike stage musicals like "Show Boat" and "The Phantom of the Opera". 

This can be better illustrated by looking at two musical numbers early in the movie. Luisa's singing of her dreams (Much More) reveals to us her secrets to us, so we should feel like we are next to her, and nobody else can hear. But this is ruined by Ritchie (when he's not trying to ape portions of The Wizard Of Oz's Over The Rainbow number) cutting in several shots of Luisa a tiny figure in widescreen photography of the Arizona plains. Sure, it looks gorgeous, but the intimate feeling is shattered. Not long afterwards, Grey and Sullivan sing the duet Never Say No, which is more Ritchie doesn't say it in the director's commentary, but Morris had to be dragged to the set kicking and screaming each day or less a philosophy about how the mind of children work. It starts off well, with the two singing while seated down at the breakfast table. But then the number suddenly transports them to several different rooms of the house (eventually going outdoors), and eventually they dance together. It's hard to immediately to figure just what's wrong with this presentation, but while I was watching it and trying to figure out a better way for it to be staged, it hit me that a simple song like this should be simply presented. With that in mind, I could immediately picture the number working on stage, with the characters unable to jump around place to place, instead keeping the audience's attention by the intimate surroundings.

In fairness, there are some positive things to note about the musical numbers. Unlike past movie musicals, where the actors lip-sync to their previously recorded singing, technology in 1995 was now advanced enough to allow the actors to sing live (while listening to the music by earpieces unseen by the audience.) Though there have certainly been better musicals than The Fantasticks, they still had that unfortunate slight audio and visual distraction coming from the lip-syncing. Not here; it's clear that the actors are singing, and their audio has none of that pre-recording sound it. It's very impressive. Of course, all the best technical tricks can't save a mediocre song or a poorly directed musical number. I've already brought up several examples of the wrong staging for songs, so I think it's time to point out that there are a few songs here that didn't impress me. This Plum Is Too Ripe I thought was labored and overdone. At least Coppola cut out Plant A Radish; included on the DVD as an extra, it would have brought the movie to a standstill if it were left in. 

But getting back to the positive side of the musical numbers, there are two such bits that work both in their staging and in the quality of the song itself. Halfway through the movie we get It Depends On What You Pay, a fast and rousing song, and it's here that Ritchie's tendency to pump up the musical number appropriate this time. Though the movie's low budget ($10 million) does make this number look a little skimpy, the sudden burst of enthusiasm that the song brings out of everyone isWhen a crew member yelled, "It's a bomb!", the performers all looked up at the same time for some reason really evident, and you can't help but get caught up in these few minutes. Too bad the energy fades away quickly once the song ends. It's not until near the end of the movie that the second show-stopping number comes up, Round And Round. Though it also suffers from a somewhat impoverished look, Ritchie does succeeds in creating the appropriate dreamy and magical feel for the number. I also couldn't help but notice that, unlike other moments in the movie, here we feel closer and more intimate with the characters and the action happening before us.

It's probably no coincidence that these two musical numbers (as well as the lovely Try To Remember at the very end of the movie) both showcase Jonathon Morris. Though his physical resemblance to Kevin Bacon is initially a little disconcerting, this is quickly forgotten when he immediately starts stealing the show. He brings an infectious enthusiasm to each and every scene he's in, really strutting his stuff in the musical numbers with his energetic dancing and a singing voice many people would kill for. (I can't deny that the first few words of Round And Round he sang gave me the shivers.) Clearly, he does more for the movie than it does for him, and that includes giving El Gallo that extra dimension the script lacks for him so he come across as an actual character and not a bland stock character. 

Except for Morris, nobody else manages to have their character individually stand out. Though McIntyre aggravates things with his acting resembling the dumb jock at your high school thrust upon the stage during drama class, I can't blame the other actors for their characters being so unmemorable. There is hardly any stab made at character development; the first twenty minutes, in fact, are almost totally devoted to the characters singing. How, for example, are we supposed to understand and sympathize with Luisa's dreams as she sings Much More when she's hardly said a spoken "Duuuuh... Look, Maw! I'm ACTING!" word beforehand? If we knew more about her before the song, maybe her desires wouldn't sound somewhat selfish as they do here. If Bellomy and Hucklebee had more of a chance to talk, maybe we would see they have their kids' best interests at heart, instead of coming across here as conniving sneaks. And as for the young lovers...why are they in love? Sure, Romeo and Juliet were just in love with each others' looks (read the play again if you don't believe me), though they weren't alive long enough to start heading to the divorce courts. The lovers here have no excuse; they just seem to have been in love for so long because the story demands it of them.

This certainly isn't a good movie, but despite all its problems, there is something that almost makes it strangely likeable all the same. Certainly, every so often there is something - a good song, some impressive cinematography, a pleasing nostalgic feel not seen in the movies for years, etc. - that does help break the tedium for an instant. Though when you take a closer look at the movie as a whole, you sense a sweet center to it. At times, this center seems to say that this is the true Fantasticks, what reportedly made it so magical on the stage. I can't be sure, but I can say for certain that the movie has made me curious enough about the original stage production that I'll be sure to watch it should it ever come to my city again.

Note: Those who watch the movie on DVD (DVD, oh DVD DVD DVDVDVDVDVD - *SLAP!* - thank you) will have the opportunity to access a special section which contains the footage Coppola removed from Ritchie's original cut. The deleted footage consists of (among other things) longer cuts of songs, entire songs that were removed, snippets of dialogue, and an entire subplot involving a motorcycle cop played by the late Charles Hallahan. Would Ritchie's cut have been better? Though Coppola's cut did quicken the pace and get rid of inconsequential material (like the aforementioned Plant A Radish number), the removed dialogue actually contains some of that missing character development. And why on earth did Coppola remove the opening rendition of Try To Remember, which really would have started things off on a better tone? All in all, I would give both cuts essentially the same rating.

UPDATE: I received the following letter from a reader:

"While reading your review of the film I thought I might be able to add a little information regarding the infinite curse that film carried with it. No injuries or anything like that, but it simply appeared the production was in some trouble from the start. The script was constantly being rewritten on set...minutes before a scene was to be shot. The DP took forever to light. Hurry up and wait. And the Art Department was always rushing to finish a set before they were told it would be needed. That's fine when you are on a 40 million dollar budget and you can pay overtime and hire additional crew, but when producers are forced to shut down production after a 12 hour day because they cannot afford anymore overtime...scenes eventually get chopped and the film ultimately is suffers for it.

"None of the actors were difficult and the crew fully supported Michael's vision and all worked very hard and long, tedious hours. Each day he... would walk around the set and prepare for his days' shoot...all the time knowing he probably wouldn't complete the days' schedule for various reasons. It was a vicious cycle he constantly attempted to repair and avoid. He would plan the day by picking and choosing what would ultimately have to be taken out.

"He did the best he could and has proven he's talented, but he was cornered in this situation with an unstable distributor, little money, an unrealistic production schedule, and a location that was so far away from civilization, where if anyone forgot anything, or scenes needed to be shuffled for whatever reason, The department(s) necessary wouldn't have time to pull it all together quickly enough. Not to mention the Southern Arizona monsoons ruined the last two days of the shoot in AZ and the transportation department got 3 cherry pickers stuck in the mud. It was a disaster. However, when all is said and done, no one cares what hurdles a movie must jump. It only matters if it's a good film.

"I would appreciate it if you would leave my name anonymous and where you received any of this information if you do in fact choose to reference any of it. Thank you and it was an enjoyable read. I will be back. And may Michael Ritchie's soul rest in peace. He was a very endearing and sincere man - trying his best."

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See also: The Apple, Shock Treatment, Voyage Of The Rock Aliens