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Lucky Stiff
(1988)

Director: Anthony Perkins   
Cast:
Joe Alaskey, Donna Dixon, Jeff Kober


The acting role that actor Anthony Perkins will always be immediately associated with is the role of Eben Cabot in the 1958 film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play Desire Under The Elms, no doubt due to the hot and steamy feeling he brings to the love scenes his character engages with with his stepmother (played by Sophia Loren.) Just kidding. That was one time when Perkins was really miscast. Of course, the role that comes immediately to mind when thinking of Perkins is that of Norman Bates in Psycho (and to a lesser extent, the three sequels to the movie.) Although he had been in some leading roles before this movie (such as the baseball movie Fear Strikes Out), Psycho was without doubt his breakthrough role that made him a cult star. But some say that his acting in that movie was a curse on his career, that it subsequently made it hard for him to get work, and that the little work he got were roles that were similar to his character in Psycho. I know that's what I thought when I was younger. But a careful look at his career proves that wasn't exactly true. First, it's true that Perkins went to Europe for several years after Psycho, just like a number of other Hollywood stars did in the '60s when they found work drying up for them for one reason or another. But he worked steadily without interruption during these years, and the roles Perkins played in these European movies were not psycho killers. For example, he played comedy with Brigttte Bardot in the spy spoof The Ravishing Idiot, and he did Fraz Kafka in the Orson Welles movie The Trial.

Even after Perkins returned to the United States, he did not fall into that depressing pit that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is true that from this point up to his death in 1992, he acted in a number of movies where he played oddballs with something seriously wrong with their minds. There are the cult movies Pretty Poison and Crimes Of Passion, and less well-known movies like Mahogany and Edge Of Sanity. But he also appeared in a number of roles in this period where his character was not so crazy, and in different genres. Among these films are the black comedy Catch-22, the space epic The Black Hole, and the action movie ffolks. And looking at his entire resume, one will see that he was never inactive for long between movies. He even got to work behind the camera several times. The first time was when he wrote, along with his friend composer Stephen Sondheim, the murder mystery The Last Of Sheila (an excellent movie that I highly recommend.) And he directed movies twice, the first time with Psycho III, the second time with the movie being reviewed here, Lucky Stiff, working with a script written by comedy screenwriter Pat Proft (The Naked Gun, Scary Movie 3 and 4.)

Lucky Stiff is a black comedy, something that probably greatly appealed to Perkins after playing so many serious roles for years, especially those roles that had him playing someone with something seriously wrong with their minds. And it is a pretty original premise, even though it contains certain elements that have been done in other movies (comedies and other kinds of movies) before. The events of the movie center around the character of Ron Douglas (Alaskey, presently the voice actor for many of the classic Looney Tunes cartoon characters), a fat glasses-wearing man who is not only a definite nerd, but a nerd who is a loser. After just a few minutes in the movie, we see him at his wedding, but it doesn't go well; his fiancÚ dumps him at the altar just as they are about to say their vows. It's just the latest in a long line of failed relationships for the poor Ron. Crushed, he takes his friends' advice and he decides to take a trip to get away from it all, deciding to go to Lake Tahoe for the Christmas holidays. At the ski lodge, he meets Cynthia Mitchell (Dixon, Bosom Buddies). On one of their first meetings, she astonishes Ron by telling him she was attracted to him the first moment they met. Ron is attracted to her as well. So when Cynthia asks him to join her and her family for Christmas dinner, he is thrilled. What Ron doesn't know is that Cynthia and her family are cannibals - and he has been selected by Cynthia and her family to be the main dish for their Christmas feast.

You might be thinking that I have just committed one of the most unpardonable sins a movie critic can make - spoiling a movie's big twist. But that's not the case with this review. The movie makes no attempt to hide this twist; we learn that the Mitchell clan are cannibals just a few seconds after the opening credits end, and that they are looking for someone to be their Christmas feast. This is not the only problem to be found in the script. Pat Proft is sometimes a good comedy screenwriter, but more often than not his attempts at this genre fall as flat as this movie does. The early revealing of the twist in Lucky Stiff might have been forgiven if the movie had been funny, but for the most part it isn't. There are a few mildly amusing sequences in the movie, such as when Ron has breakfast at the hotel restaurant, where he encounters waiters that unintentionally jab at his loneliness, as well as a rude little boy who eventually gets a punishment that will please anyone who has ever had an experience with a bratty child. There's also a giggle later in the movie at the Mitchell residence, where Ron has a pre-Christmas dinner with the family. One of the Mitchell clan believes he is a ghost, and at the dinner table starts acting up in front of a bewildered Ron, and head of the family "Pa" Mitchell (William Morgan Sheppard, Transformers) eases the situation for Ron in a quick and unexpected way that I admit made me laugh - though I was so dying for a laugh at this point that most anything could have made me laugh.

Aside from those isolated moments, I did not laugh at all, finding the screenplay pretty unbearable for a number of different reasons. First of all, there is a lot of wasted potential for humor, one example being the scene when extended members of the Mitchell family arrive at the home and are introduced to Ron. This could have been a classic scene, introducing us to new characters that reveal their individual craziness to an increasingly uneasy Ron in their individual introductions. But what does the movie do instead? Within a few seconds of their introduction to Ron, someone throws a record on the record machine and everyone starts dancing (and dancing normally, not in a humorous fashion.) No attempt is made subsequently to develop any of these newly introduced characters. There are things in the movie that are supposed to be funny but go by with no explanation for them. Near the beginning of the movie Ron is at church with his fiancÚ to get married, but just before they say their vows, she turns around and walks out forever. She doesn't say why, and the movie offers no subsequent explanation (funny or otherwise) for her action. There are moments when the movie forgets it is supposed to be a black comedy, and just goes for the black. One scene has one of the Mitchell clan tell a story about a family of foxes. When the foxes didn't have any food to feed their pups, the mother fox let the pups chew her paws off. This isn't funny, it is just tasteless.

Most of the time, the movie just piles on one gag after another that aren't funny for one reason or another. There are a lot of jokes that the audience will have seen hundreds of times before in other places (on a ski slope a skier blocks from the beginner skier Ron a sign pointing the way to an expert downhill run, and the Mitchell family property is built on a former toxic waste dump.) There is attempted humor that will have viewers wondering why Proft thought they were funny, such as when Ron tells the story of a past girlfriend dumping him for a Harlem Globetrotter ("I should have known when a couple of times making love she'd whistle 'Sweet Georgia Brown'.") Faced with such bad material, it's a wonder that the actors in the movie still make an effort. Alaskey has some charm and generates some sympathy for his character when the scene is serious, but most of the movie has him cracking unfunny wisecracks that don't endear him to the audience. Dixon makes an effort as well, but her character has been directed to come across as cold, sometimes not even looking into the eyes of Ron, making us wonder why anyone would be attracted to her. In fact, the rest of Perkins' direction is just as off. Though he proved he could direct in the somewhat underrated Psycho III, he seems unable to salvage anything here. Maybe it was the combination of a lousy script and an obviously low budget that makes the movie at times look like it was shot in someone's back yard. Whatever the case might have been, the movie ended up being pretty much a total stiff.

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See also: Destroyer, Fire Sale, Sonny Boy

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