John Huston, the iconoclastic filmmaker behind such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The Man Who Would Be King (1976), aims to go where few filmmakers have gone before. Not only does he turn the mob into a hotbed for laughs: he also finds a romantic comedy within all the lethal shenanigans. In return are we awarded a very weird, and mostly unsuccessful, black comedy more inherently humorous than unreservedly so.
When the film meshes, it’s mostly because Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar for her supporting performance, is in the room. But when it doesn’t (and that’s often — its 130 minutes drag), we wish it had the zip of Get Shorty (1995), a crime romp that was able to galvanize all the while maintaining a certain terseness.
We admire Huston for making such a categorically risky picture, especially since most directors nearing the end of their career tend to stick with what they know. But Prizzi’s Honor, for all intents and purposes, is gauche, efficient in its performances and sometimes in its writing but never in ways that stir together to ultimately come up with something to which we can take.
In the film, a top-notch Jack Nicholson plays Charley Partanna, a mafia hitman. Having been in the business for nearly the entirety of his adult life, he doesn’t much know what it’s like to be a man outside of his professional life. So when he notices a sightly blonde (Kathleen Turner) at a family wedding, he’s taken aback. For the first time in a long while — and for the first time since the bitter end of his relationship with the Prizzi family’s main bachelorette, Maerose (Huston) — he considers pursuing a woman beyond a one-night stand. Her lavender dress so eye-catching and her face and body so radiant, he cannot bear imagining a life without this catch by his side. At least for the time being.
The blonde leaves the event before Partanna can so much as write down her name. But after enough frenzied phone calls, he discovers that she goes by Irene Walker and that she lives in sunny California in a picturesque suburban home. This doesn’t faze the New York-based him, and before long is he traveling nearly every day to the golden state to partake in sizzling conversation and comically passionate sexual dalliances. What feels like just a few seconds later are Partanna and Walker trading “I love you’s.” After a couple months wining and dining, they hope to get married.
But all turns asymmetric when a duo of grand revelations about Walker make way. One is that she’s the wife of an oaf Partanna’s just killed. The other is that she’s a hitman herself — and that she was actually out offing a guy when she abruptly left the wedding. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Partanna gets over the developments and eventually takes Walker to the courthouse.
When rivals in a dangerous business are bound by love, however, things are poised to sour. And sour they do.
But not a whole lot of that romantic convolution enraptures. In Prizzi’s Honor, Nicholson and Turner are individually good, he a sniveling Humphrey Bogart type and she a statuesque bombshell who’d seem more at home in a post Pillow Talk (1959) ‘60s rom-com. But somehow they never quite go alight when together. There’s a noticeable lacking of chemistry that dampens the sex comedy antics we’re clearly supposed to be lapping up.
The diminished spark isn’t the movie’s only problem, either. Too many characters and too long-winded a final act are enough to blow out the film’s initial flame like a too eager tot ready to eat his birthday cake.
Prizzi’s Honor has one remarkable light that never goes out, though, and that light is Anjelica Huston. As the scheming, intelligent Prizzi girl who wants nothing more than to have Partanna back in her arms, she does everything she possibly can to both win back the favor of her family (her infidelities were the reason she and Partanna broke up) and also get Walker out of the way. Huston maneuvers the part in a subtle, sly way, and we cannot take our eyes off the glamorous her (she often looks like the mob equivalent of Holly Golightly donning a floppy hat).
But Huston doesn’t get as much screen time as we would like, and such causes Prizzi’s Honor to progressively sag under the weight of its length and the forced sexual tension between its leads. We can commend the film for taking the dark comedy to heights not generally seen before 1985. But commendation isn’t as much fun as enjoyment, and unabashedly enjoy Prizzi’s Honor we don’t. C+
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
Prizzi's Honor August 24, 2017
espite so many of its members possessing characteristics easy to lampoon — the drawling speech patterns, the puffy cheeks, the precious hello kisses, the operatic self-righteousness — the mafia is not a crowd one turns their attention toward when pondering good subjects to satirize. The ways the egos of the mafia’s men and women manifest themselves into something comic are there, sure. But are individuals who also lie, cheat, steal, and kill for a living that fun to sit with when looking through the archives for an enjoyable lark?