Director Blake Edwards had a long career in the movies beginning in the late 40’s and extending all the way into the 90’s. But even before he was writing and directing films, he spent a lot of time around film sets. His step-father had been a studio production manager and his step-grandfather had been a director of silent films. Edwards’ appreciation of silent film comedians can be seen reflected in many of his films. In 1986, Edwards attempted to bring a more slapstick style back to the big screen with a comedy that was even named for a famous Laurel & Hardy catchphrase…A Fine Mess.
The film begins with an actor named Spence Holden (Ted Danson) who is appearing in a movie being filmed at a racetrack. While taking a break between scenes, Spence overhears a couple of second rate gangsters, Binky (Stuart Margolin) and Turnip (Richard Mulligan) doping a horse named Sorry Sue so it will pay off big for their boss in the next day’s race. When the two crooks notice Spence, a wild chase ensues. Spence ends up escaping, however, and teaming up with his pal Dennis (Howie Mandel) to try and profit from big race themselves. They take what little money they have and bet it all on Sorry Sue…winning $10,000 in the process. Oh, and they’re chased by the two crooks at the racetrack again.
Spence and Dennis end up ducking into an auction house to get away and accidentally end up bidding on an antique piano…which ends up costing them the whole $10,000. All is not lost, however. A woman from the auction house named Ellen (Jennifer Edwards) informs Dennis that there is another party interested in the piano…the lovely Claudia (Maria Conchita Alonso). Of course, the womanizing Spence quickly starts making the moves on Claudia, meanwhile Dennis and Ellen are getting cozy, as well. It turns out, though, the Claudia is the wife of gangster Tony Pazzo (Paul Sorvino), the mastermind of the horseracing scheme.
Supposedly A Fine Mess was inspired by the classic Laurel & Hardy short film The Music Box. There is a piano in this film and at one point Danson and Mandel have to take it up stairs, but there’s not much else the two films have in common. Edwards had intended much of the film to be improvised, but it didn’t end up that way. It seems that even the director was not pleased with the end result.
Much of the film is devoted to goofy chase sequences that get old pretty quick. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good madcap chase, but these sequences are totally lacking in creativity. In the sequence where Danson and Mandel are chased through the racetrack, they keep going up and down the same flight of stairs over and over and over again. There’s also an awful lot of the two bumbling gangsters, Margolin and Mulligan, bumping into each other. I understand doing that bit a few times, but it seems to be the go to gag.
The big problem really boils down to the fact that the two leads just aren’t a good match for each other. Mandel actually does a pretty decent job. His character is a bit of a lovable goofball. When we first meet him he’s working as a rollerskating waiter at a 50’s style drive-in diner. He’s even modified a pair of bunny slippers to be roller skates, to the dismay of his boss (Rick Ducommun). I admit, I kind of liked Mandel’s character…but I didn’t believe for a second that he’d be best friends with Danson’s womanizing struggling actor. Danson is essentially playing Sam, the character he became famous for playing on Cheers. I guess when seen on a weekly series a character like that can grow on you, but here he just comes across as a slimeball. I mean it just doesn’t bode well when you’re actually rooting for the bumbling crooks instead of the film’s leading man.
I have a special place in my heart for both slapstick comedies and for the films of the 80’s. Unfortunately, this attempt at bringing the two together just doesn’t work. At least there is some degree of accuracy to the film’s title…A Fine Mess is most definitely a “mess.”