Friday, July 10, 2020

Exit Laughing: A Farewell Tribute to Carl Reiner

I never met Carl Reiner, but I’ve been near-by. After a big-deal screening at the Motion Picture Academy, I sat in a restaurant booth adjoining the booth occupied by Reiner, his wife Estelle (famous for “I’ll have what she’s having”), his pal Mel Brooks, and Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft. The hearty merriment at that table spilled over to where I sat, to the point where I wanted to tell the waiter, “I’ll have what they’re having!” (So sad that now, in the wake of Reiner’s recent death, Mel Brooks is --at 94–the last survivor of that jolly foursome.)

Reiner did it all: he was a comic actor, a writer, a director, a producer, a husband, a father, an all-around mensch. In his honor, I’ve just watched three films he directed, starting with the earliest, Enter Laughing. This 1967 flick, based on a Reiner novel that became a Broadway play, features the sweetness, the goofiness, and the Borscht Belt yucks that have marked Reiner’s work ever since. Young Reni Santoni’s role (played by Alan Arkin in the stage version) is that of a nice Bronx kid who pines to be an actor, like his idol Ronald Colman. Though his parents have decreed he should go to pharmacy school, he sneaks away from his machine-shop job to meet a shyster thespian (Jose Ferrer, dripping with pomposity). There’s an hilarious audition scene (see below) in which he triumphs over two other loser-candidates (the young Rob Reiner is one) simply because the impresario’s actress-daughter (Elaine May) finds him cute. The film’s working-class Jewish elements, including the memorable appearance of old vaudevillian Jack Gilford and a lot of schtik about a prayer shawl, seem to tie in to Reiner’s own Bronx upbringing. His debut as a movie director is hardly a polished one, but there’s a real sense of personal investment in this light-hearted trifle. 

 Reiner’s directorial career was undeniably lifted by his collaboration on four films with Steve Martin. Martin’s comic stock-in-trade has always been his WASP roots. He pokes fun at himself in The Jerk (1979) as Navin, the son of poor but lovable Black sharecroppers. Though too dense to figure out he’s adopted, he’s the one family member with no sense of rhythm, and his favorite birthday treat is a bologna sandwich on white bread with a cellophane-wrapped Twinkie for dessert. Remarkably, when he goes out into the world, his innocent invention of a device for glasses-wearers called Opti-Grab, earns him a fortune. But it all goes down the tubes when his invention turns out to make users crossed-eyed. Carl Reiner has an hilarious cameo as a cross-eyed version of himself, hauling Navin into court as part of a class-action lawsuit.

The Jerk ends with Martin’s character happily dancing up a storm with his down-home family. A ballroom pas de deux also ends perhaps my favorite Martin/Reiner collaboration, the hilarious All of Me. The inspired 1984 pairing of Martin with Lily Tomlin posits that he is a lawyer who’d rather be a musician and she is a dying heiress who plans to come back from the dead via a mystic transmigration of her soul, as arranged by a charming but pixilated Tibetan guru (Richard Libertini). Somehow, Tomlin’s spirit ends up in Martin’s body, with hilarious results. I suspect if these two Steve Martin films were released today, the political-correctness police might come down hard on them, accusing them of cultural appropriation as well as racial insensitivity. But they’re good-natured fun, something we truly need now. Thank you, Carl Reiner, for making me laugh.

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