Character/Actor: Steve Martin In MY BLUE HEAVEN (1990)
Hey, Austin: you can get tickets for My Blue Heaven (and the rest of the films screening as part of the Alamo Drafthouse's Wild & Crazy: The Films Of Steve Martin series) right here.
At the end of Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas (’90), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) laments his recent federal relocation, viewing his new suburban digs as a prison:
“Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
This grumpy Italian mensch is a real downer when compared to Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli (Steve Martin) – a low level made guy set to testify against a gaggle of mafia kingpins. Like Henry, Vinnie finds himself sticking out like a sore thumb in suburbia (not to mention bored as all hell). Only the walking stereotype never really makes an honest attempt to blend in. Always the life of the party, Vinnie engages in various hijinks, much to the chagrin of the straight FBI agent, Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis), whose life is turned upside down by the goombah’s loudmouth presence.
Written by Nora Ephron (coming off the success of When Harry Met Sally [‘89]), and directed by Herbert Ross (Footloose [‘84]), My Blue Heaven is a dose of double-barreled shtick, as Martin and Moranis lean into their respective cartoonish roles with enthusiasm for caricature. Whether or not that makes for great jokes is debatable, but watching the two bounce off each other while evading mafia-employed hitmen is a treat for comedy nerds. Certainly nowhere near the top of either’s output, the dynamic duo milk every scene for roguish laughs, as Barney awkwardly tries to woo Hannah Stubbs (Joan Cusack, playing another frowny, frumpy cliché), the District Attorney who’s none too amused by Vinnie’s shenanigans.
Steve Martin is not Italian. You probably don’t need this writer to point that out, as the pasty silver fox even capitalized on his WASP-iness in his own classic The Jerk (’79). So Vinnie Antonelli fits into his garish body of work quite well. Where Martin has always been a serviceable actor (see the tonal whiplash he concocts in Pennies From Heaven [‘81]* for a prime example), he’s an expert at creating broadly drawn characters. This skill’s been honed since his days working on variety shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. In My Blue Heaven, he’s mugging his way through every scene, bulldozing over all oncoming challengers (not to mention butchering the world “arugula”) in a fashion that caused Owen Gleiberman (in his review of the picture) to label the performance “a comedy sketch mutant – a WASP soaked in garlic.” While that criticism seems unusually harsh, it’s not necessarily untrue. You’re either going to embrace Martin’s wanton abrasiveness, or reject the movie outright. Accepting it seems like the more fun choice, but you do you.
The same can be said of Rick Moranis’ spiel, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. By the end of the ‘80s, Moranis had the “straight nerdy guy” down so hard he could practically do the routine in his sleep. With My Blue Heaven, he’s playing a variation on his classic that distinguishes itself whenever Barney’s puppy dog affection for Hannah Stubbs raises its floppy-eared head. There’s an innate sweetness to Moranis that’s impossible to deny; his oversized glasses and boyish smile winning you over, even as the audience despairs for his wellbeing once Vinnie starts pricing steaks down to fractions of pennies on the dollar at a local supermarket. Suburbia isn’t going to hold this freewheeling con man back, and Vinnie’s going to teach Barney how to grab life by the brajole, as well. It’s not that Moranis can’t do assertive (just look to his turn as snarky club owner Billy Fish in Walter Hill’s immortal Streets of Fire [‘84] for the best illustration). It’s just that Moranis is burying Barney’s ability to take control of life under a pencil pusher veneer. It’s a wonderfully shabby portrait added to his already impressive gallery of nebbish nice guys.
Nevertheless, My Blue Heaven is all about Martin. His zany, electrocuted pompadour and full-blown Brooklyn carnival barker accent are enough to warrant the price of admission alone. It’s almost impossible to find any of the funny man’s performances utterly unlikable, and Vinnie Antonelli seems to be the comedian transforming that line of thought into a legitimate litmus test. By the time Vinnie becomes something like a suburban celebrity in the neighborhood, you can’t help but fault any of these Ikea-shopping dolts for taking a liking to his outlandish bravura. Boredom is in the eye of the beholder, and Vinnie is never going to be held down by a green lawn or a Volvo in the driveway. He’s the anti-Henry Hill; unwilling to leave the life, because he brings so much of it to every scenario he enters.
*Which Ross also directed.
Once again: Austinites can get tickets for My Blue Heaven (and the rest of the films screening as part of the Alamo Drafthouse's Wild & Crazy: The Films Of Steve Martin series) right here.