Wise Guys (1986)

wiseguys

Ah, what a pleasant film! This is the type of movie that was singularly unique to the 1980s: and R-rated comedy with good characters, acting, and a decent amount of heart. Even more unique about this particular movie was its ability to provide legitimate thrills. Those kinds of feelings aren’t alien to director Brian De Palma, who injects some of his style into what would otherwise be a decent screwball comedy.

Harry and Moe (Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo) are two everyday schmucks who happen to work for the mob. They’re frustrated by their lack of upward mobility. While they’d rather be extorting old ladies for protection money, like many of their counterparts, they are instead relegated to picking up laundry or grocery shopping. The main narrative thrust comes when Harry and Moe make the mistake of betting big boss Tony Castelo’s (Dan Hedaya) on the wrong horse, quite literally, in an ill fated attempt to embezzle the boss’s money and open the first ever Italian-Judeo delicatessen. In a slightly contrived act of sniffing out loyalty issues the boss tells each of our schmucks that the only way to dig their way out of their graves is by killing the other.

Some comedy is conjured out of this set up, but most of the laughs come from the terrific parodies of the numerous gangster movies that are had become commonplace by the mid 1980s, some even directed by De Palma himself. One of my favorite moments comes when Harry is asked to start the car, which everyone sees as a dire task. Apparently car bombs have become routine for this group of people, so much so that they bet on whether the bomb is rigged to the door or the ignition. And after their jig is up, Harry is comedically tortured by being tossed into a lobster tank. “I truly believe there may be another way out of this than the usual violent approach,” Harry says in between dunkings.

The film knows its audience is very familiar with mob movies, and who isn’t? The cliches of those types of films are spoofed quite effectively, and the films leading characters are charming and likable enough that they keep the jokes from getting too stale. The characters are even so likable that the climactic end of the film, taking place as Harry and Moe believe they are about to be whisked back to New York inside a stretch limo, is actually very thrilling. And Harry’s (fake) death elicits actual emotion (although we all know there’s no way the film could possibly end there).

This is made possible by the pair of excellent performances from Devito and Piscopo. Their camraderies is totally believable. The way Piscopo acts downwards to his little buddy seems totally natural, and Devito is utterly charming in even the most dire of circumstances. He always looks like he’s got a plan, some kind of scheme to get them out of whatever mess he just got them into. He’s immensely lovable.

Also enjoyable was the cast of side characters, ranging from Harvey Keitel (who is so, so natural as the Italian mobster type) as the casino owner Bobby D to Lou Albano as Frank “The Fixer” Acavano. The former plays the role totally straight, which becomes humorous when matched up with the rambunctiousness of the rest of the cast. The latter plays his role as the intensely aggressive yet morbidly obese mobster with just the right amount of excessiveness that the role calls for. The scenes with him are some of the funniest in the entire film, especially when he gets agitated, which is basically all the time. In one scene his mob buddy is clipping his toenails and wonders why he has to do this. The Fixer growls “You know damn well I can’t do it myself!” with such rage that we forget how sad it is that he’s so overweight he can’t even clip his own toenails.

This is not the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot. But what it is is a charming, mostly lighthearted romp with some very likable characters and appropriate, restrained direction from Brian De Palma.

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