What to eat while watching: Drink some chamomile tea, rumored
to endow patience.
Let's say that a guy named Chuck Wallenstein is the gaffer of an Academy Award winning or critically acclaimed film. You watch The Manchurian Candidate or Bottle Rocket all the way through, including the credits, and there's Chuck's name at the end. Now, I wonder: If Chuck happens to work on some B-film chock full of cameo appearances but with an Al Smithee script, will the video box say somewhere on it, "brought to you by the people who brought you The Manchurian Candidate?" Just a thought.
Not that this notion applies to Picking up the Pieces, which really was directed by the director of Like Water for Cholocate, a fine film. But if a pop-star like Norm Greenbaum can record a #1 hit song ("Spirit in the Sky") and then essentially vanish into obscurity, we know that filmmakers like Alfonso Arau exist, who have a good first film, then suffer a sophomore slump, a junior junk-heap, a senior sag, and an early retirement.
Perhaps it was the merit of Water for Chocolate that drew such luminaries to this film. Then again, what are any of these people really doing these days? Eddie Griffin alone seems to have been caught in this movie on his way to bigger things, and his acting shows it: he is energetic and unshy as the Hendrix-like street performer who frames the story.
Woody Allen, on the other hand, seems to have been cast only for his voice. I always get this sense when watching him in other peoples' movies. He's inconsistent: somewhat funny, but not nearly as bright as he might be performing his own work.
Like Like Water for Chocolate, Picking up the Pieces is a Hollywood take on magical realism, the literary school traced to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and others. The idea is to present miracles and magic occurring in otherwise realistic settings. But this is Hollywood. The setting of this film is an unreal small town where everyone is impoverished. The panhandling street performer (Griffin) proves that the filmmaker has very little idea what poor, small towns are like. Mr. Arau, panhandlers are drifters and they go where the money is. Elecrtic-guitar playing, roller-blading, street-spieling hungry artiste types live in LA, NY, SF, or anywhere with a population well over a million.
So it's not hyper-real: Woody Allen plays Tex, a man who married a highly promiscuous and unfaithful woman. Sick of her two-timing, he may or may not have killed her, but he does bury her dismembered body near the small town. If there is a mystery as to his guilt or innocence, it's similar to the mystery around O. J. Simpson. Then again, he turned out to be innocent. Then again again, he had attorneys worth more than ten times this fictional small town, even after it becomes famous.
Okay, so one body part escapes: Mrs. Tex's hand gets discovered, flipping the bird, by a blind vieja. Wonder of wonders, it restores her sight. She claims to have found the hand of the virgin and takes it to her priest, played by Jewish David Schwimmer. Father David is in love with a prostitute, so his Judaism isn't the only problem with his being a Catholic priest. Schwimmer doesn't believe in miracles, but the bird-flippin' hand starts granting them left and right, restoring legs to an amputee, removing the acne of a teenager, and giving a huge set of breasts to a heretofore flat-chested miss. Those who get into screen nudity will like the protracted view of the latter pair.
Well, with all of this evidence, the miracle must be authenticated by representatives from the Vatican. The three characters who arrive are flat in the extreme and create such a piddling subplot, that I forget exactly what the upshot was. At least I can't spoil the ending. Meanwhile, town mayor Cheech Marin (looking pretty well rested these days) wants to bilk the miracle for some income.
Schwimmer agonizes over the goodness of doing this and also over his own devotions to the church and his gorgeous girlfriend, Maria Grazia Cucinotta. She gives up sex for a while, thinking that the hand is a sign to her (even after she laughs at the Vatican trio). A short man is granted the miracle of an enormous penis. Other characters materialize, execute their gags, and vanish. The hand retracts its miracles and grants them again. It's all highly wacky, frenetic as can be. Whereas Like Water for Chocolate added some finesse to the fantasy, this film reads more like the magical-realist version of Airplane.
Kiefer Sutherland plays the mean trooper who'd been cuckolding Woody Allen. He tries to prove Allen's guilt while Allen rushes to the tiny town to kidnap the hand. His wife returns from heaven for a cameo. How did a woman who continually broke the 8th or 9th commandment wind up in heaven? The reason is a lame punch line: suffering with Woody gave her enough martyr-points to go up the Big Escalator. I don't get it: Woody really loved her. And if he treated her half as well as he treats his canine friend in the film (played very well by a dog), then she didn't suffer much at all. Finally, it's just a big joke.
And that's the moral of the story, out of Allen's mouth: "if you can take a joke, go fuck yourself." Yes, Mr. Arau, I can take a joke. But a two-hour shaggy dog tale with this many fleas? I'd suggest that if you can't tell a joke, please don't bother me with your awful attempt. At a discounted $2 for 5 days, this rental was still a poor value.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.