I used to think that no film by Paul Mazursky was ever totally unrewarding. But after Scenes from the Mall, in 1990, and especially after his new picture, The Pickle, my evaluation might change. The ads for the new movie, for which Columbia Pictures has decided not to have advance press screenings, identify Mazursky as the director of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, arguably his best picture to date. But that was seven years ago!
Mazursky established his reputation with his very first film, the sex farce Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which opened the 1969 New York Film Festival. A “sociological” director, Mazursky has captured the mores of the nouveau riche better than any filmmaker I can think of. What was interesting about Mazursky was that he was a quintessential Jewish, New York director, but, unlike Woody Allen, he didn’t hate Los Angeles and the West Coast. He could understand what attracted people to the city–the weather, the lifestyle, the eccentricities and the fads that it encouraged. And unlike Allen, Mazursky enjoyed L.A. for what it was–at least he didn’t fight it like Allen, who never really gave the city a chance to exert its charm on him.
Mazursky’s best films were light satires, imbued with the kind of universal humanism that was more common in European than American films. Down and Out was, in fact, a loose remake of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning. Mazursky went on to produce a series of elegant comedies, each providing a sharp, often witty, commentary on the mores of the new middle class.
If Mazursky’s films don’t hold up so well, it is because they are too grounded, too reflective of their immediate social contexts. In 1978, An Unmarried Woman, which made Jill Clayburgh a star, was almost a mirror to the problems of young divorced women. Every once in a while, Mazursky would make a sentimental movie, like Moscow on the Hudson, a bitter-sweet portrait of a Soviet defector (Robin Williams) and his adaptation to life in Manhattan.
In The Pickle, possibly his worst endeavor, Mazursky returns to an earlier concern: a semi autobiographical picture about a director’s problems. You may recall Mazursky’s 1970 film, Alex in Wonderland, which was his response to Fellini’s 81/2.
A truly bad film, The Pickle is also embarrassing. Mazursky has nothing new or interesting to say about Hollywood, or “serious” directors who have to compromise their vision and pander to the public’s vulgar taste. The personal dilemmas of a middle-aged man, still attracted to his ex-wife (Dyan Cannon), while mistreating his much younger French girlfriend (Clotilde Coureau) and neglecting his duties toward his mother (Shelley Winters) are too familiar. The entire movie abounds with clichs about the film colony and stereotypical characters and situations.
A flamboyant, eccentric performer, say Richard Dreyfuss, could have rescued the material, and elevated it to the level of farce. But the miscast Danny Aiello, an otherwise solid actor, treats the story as dreary realism and the result is dreary. Mazursky’s film is a tired, sentimental piece of work; it looks and sounds as if it were made a decade ago.
A friendly advice to Hollywood directors and screenwriters: Please put aside for at least several years the movie industry as a subject matter. As Mistress and Matinee, both funnier than The Pickle, demonstrated: It is hard to match the shrewd relevance of Robert Altman’s The Player, which recently won the Spirit Award as l992′s best independent feature.