Down and Out in Beverly Hills May 18, 2016
Movies that deal with the disillusion of middle age are generally somber in tone, so Down and Out in Beverly Hills, an exceptional jabbing at the bourgeoisie, is a black comedy we welcome. It's a nice change of pace. Unlike its most notable peers, 1998’s Happiness and 1999’s American Beauty, Down and Out in Beverly Hills isn’t cursed by a twisted sense of humor or off-putting poignancy. Instead, we’re greeted with farce of the screwball kind, dissatisfaction a component but not a mood killer.
The film is adapted from Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved By Drowning, material I’m unfamiliar with and therefore cannot use as comparison. But a winning romp Down and Out in Beverly Hills is; it’s a comedy that wholeheartedly believes in a Life Is Funny atmosphere, the laughs humanistic rather than incidental.
Set in Beverly Hills, it focuses on the Whiteman family, a wild bunch that lives dysfunctionally in a big, brassy mansion. The man of the house, Dave (Richard Dreyfuss), is a hanger manufacturer who perhaps didn’t set out to be a rich man, but has unwittingly ended up as one. His wife, Barbara (Bette Midler), is a bored housewife who likes to pass the time meditating, cleansing — really participating in any New Age self-help activity that will give her something to do. Their son (Evan Richards) is a wannabe filmmaker in the midst of an identity crisis; their daughter (Tracy Nelson), barely nineteen and barely having moved out of the house, is unlucky with men and has an eating disorder.
None of this home’s patrons are very happy. Feeling lost in his career and his responsibilities, Dave is having an affair with the maid (Elizabeth Peña). Barbara is sexually and intellectually unsatisfied. The kids, always privileged, are having a difficult time seeing themselves away from their background. These people have grown accustomed to the idea that they might as well be living like this for the rest of their respective years — so it serves as a surprise when a bizarre encounter changes their lives for the better.
The bizarre encounter is with Jerry (Nick Nolte), a dirty hobo who stumbles upon the Whiteman home with suicidal intent. Having no friends and no prospects besides his relationship with his dog, the disappearance of the mutt prompts him to emotionally break down, hence the reason why he stuff his pockets with rocks and jumps into the Whiteman’s pool. The incident would cause most to immediately rid themselves of such an unstable man — but, following rescue, Dave decides to take Jerry under his wing and make him a temporary part of the family. As breaking out of his usual routine is mostly unheard of, it’s not so much an action of spontaneity as it is a desperate attempt to add a little zest to his surroundings.
Predictably, Jerry does a lot of good for the Whitemans. A man of many talents and a man who bears a great deal of everyday wisdom, he provides each and every one of the family’s members with the guidance they need to get out of their individual ruts (though things do eventually get out of hand). He and Dave become fast friends. He and Barbara become one-night lovers. He charms their children, especially Max (the son), whose confusion revolving around his sexuality is a frightening thing in the presence of such overbearing parents.
We can hardly imagine what the Whitemans will do if Jerry leaves, but that’s half the fun of Down and Out in Beverly Hills — it’s a classic fish-out-of-water scenario combined with scathing commentary aimed at the upper class, and the results are farcical and pleasurable. Paul Mazursky, the film’s director and co-writer, never mocks his characters, proving the age old theory that even money can’t buy you happiness, and that problems of the privileged are still problems all the same. The movie is a great comedy, but it’s also a terrific character study; no matter their screen time, these characters prove to be more than just figments of our comedic imaginations. They’re dispirited people in search of purpose, and the actors, along with Mazursky, find a delicate balance between bright humor and a melancholic output. And I think comedies with a hint of sadness to them are always a bit more substantial — like a pop song, vulnerability is often the very thing that makes a hit.
On paper, Down and Out in Beverly Hills sounds like a bleak drama with touches of humor. But it is, in truth, the other way around: it's a bang-up comedy kept at ground level. It’s more linguistically, situationally funny than it is haha funny, but that’s not what we’d want here — it’s easier to laugh at another’s misery, but what a strange case it is when you actually care about that person and when their misery might have more than just a little bit in common with your own. B+