21 August 2009 | thustlebird
One of my favorite films of all time!
I made a list on my blog of Hidden Gems, more obscure films that shouldn't fallen between the cracks. Dear Mr. Wonderful was #1 on that list. A rather unpredictable #1 pick, ay? Why does it occupy such an esteemed place on this list? Simple...because every time I see it, I am profoundly affected in every way: emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually, and without even a single sign of manipulation or pandering from the creators. Peter Lilienthal, one of the more low-key directors of the New German Cinema movement who helmed the highly regarded Holocaust film David (1979), is one of many mid-to-high profile European directors who came to the United States to direct a film about the American experience from an "outsider's perspective". Others who have attempted this include Wenders (with Paris, Texas), Herzog (with Stroszek), Antonioni (with Zabriskie Point) and Renoir (with The Southerner). What distinguishes this one from most of the others? Lilienthal, it would seem, is more of a humanist than a pedagogue or a weary romanticist, which were both traps many of the other directors had succumbed to. In effect, many of these "outsider films" ultimately become ponderous novelties and/or analytically specious.
Dear Mr. Wonderful is an exquisitely simple film, deliberately paced, more generous with thorough character development than most any other element, although Michael Ballhaus' camera-work, even in its shoddy video pan-and-scan, is certainly handsome. Pesci, in his first starring role after his success in Raging Bull, stars as Ruby Dennis, a Jewish working-class dreamer who owns a bowling alley where he croons Rat Pack-style songs in a lounge area adjacent to where people bowl. He writes and composes his own songs, then belts out old Sammy Cahn tunes with a drink in one hand and a cigarette he doesn't smoke in the other, and dreams of hitting the big-time as a Las Vegas headliner, which he seems to know down deep is a major pipe dream. Pesci's singing voice leaves something to be desired (that is certainly the point of it, however, although his songs are catchy and some like New York Times critic Janet Maslin have actually complemented Pesci's singing voice, so maybe I am the one who is off). It should be noted that Pesci, in real life, was a child singing star who released an album called "Little Joey Sings" (you can't make this stuff up). Ruby lives with his sister Paula (Karen Ludwig, who played Meryl Streep's partner in Manhattan) and her son Raymond (Evan Handler). He spends a great deal of screen time wooing a promising aspiring singer named Sharon (Ivy Ray Browning, who has a lovely voice). His bowling alley is in danger of closing. Credit is being withdrawn and equipment is being slowly taken away by loan sharks (led by Scorsese regular Frank Vincent) who have a very apparent distaste for the "singing kike" Ruby who is more consumed with his lounge-singing than concerned with running a business ("Tell them not to bowl in the outer lanes when I'm singing. Just tell them nicely, 'The man is singing.'") This is something else worthy of mention. Dear Mr. Wonderful has an unabashedly Jewish flavor, which is something to notice because of how refreshingly anomalous it seems, particularly in a day when explicitly Jewish voices were customarily being downplayed or downright eliminated in cinema here and abroad, lest there was a megastar involved or the Jewishness was the driving force or the subject of the given film. Here, in this film, it is part of a much broader canvas, a richer and more encompassing one. The film opens with a simultaneously good-humored and tense Passover seder sequence which rather immediately immerses and absorbs the viewer in the world of the movie. A fish swims around in a shallow bathtub and Pesci kills it with a baseball bat (offscreen) for dinner. In keeping with the alleged Jewish subtext, ultimately the film is also, unequivocally, a thoughtful, complex meditation on a Talmudic precept which states, "A rich man is he who is content with what he has" (which makes sense considering director Lilienthal's Orthodox Jewish background). This meditation is not simply on Ruby's character, but also on the character of Ruby's sister, who leaves her family behind to "save the world" through an underprivileged co-worker of hers, and through Ruby's nephew, who turns to snatching gold necklaces right off of the necks of ladies in the street. The film possesses that quiet kitchen-sink flavor, and the humor of the scenes always keeps you rooting for everyone, despite themselves. The New York City of the film, which I discuss in the respective blog entry, is one that is lost today (it should be noted that while there are plenty of NYC exteriors, a great deal of the interiors were shot in Germany).
One of the most heartbreaking movie scenes of the 1980's, in my opinion, and one where you can almost physically feel the character's humiliation, comes in Tony Martin's cameo. Real-life singer/actor Tony Martin comes to visit Ruby's Palace to listen to him sing, after his nephew Ray invites him via a letter earlier in the movie. I won't spoil the scene, but it's almost gut-wrenching, and the character's arc comes at such a moment of profound humiliation, followed by insult, followed by the most naked vulnerability. Every critic who reviewed the film mentions this scene as being among the most memorable of its era. And the film's ending...perfect understatement and a perfect open ending! I am not going to say any more about this film other than to see it and get back to me when you do. I have been dying to talk to someone about this one!