Pickle, The (1993): Mazursky’s Own Pickle (Worst Film?)

the_pickle_posterI 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 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 in 1986, 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.

the_pickle_3_mazurskyMazursky’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.

the_pickle_2_mazurskyThe Pickle tells the story of a formerly powerful film director whose recent string of flops has forced him to make a commercial piece that is artistically uninspired.

The absurdity of the film within the film satirizes big-budget Hollywood pictures, while the rest of the story serves as a character study of fictitious film director Harry Stone.

Danny Aiello stars as Harry Stone, a New York film director who has been living in Paris for the past ten years. Though he still has loyal fans, his last three films were flops, and he returns to New York to hear a pitch from a studio executive. The movie turns out to be The Pickle, a sci-fi with an absurd storyline, but when the exec offers him “a ton of money,” Harry immediately sells out hand agrees to direct the picture.

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_pickle_1_mazurskyThe 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 two recent features, Mistress and Matinee, both funnier than The Pickle, had 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.

 

Cast

Danny Aiello  Harry Stone

Dyan Cannon as Ellen Stone

Clotilde Courau as Francoise

Barry Miller as Ronnie

Shelley Winters as Yetta

Jerry Stiller as Phil Hirsch

Chris Penn as Gegory Stone

Little Richard as Pres

Stephen Tobolowsky as Mike Krakower

Ally Sheedy as Molly girl

Spalding Gray as Doctor