Here's to 2014! "Happy New Year" Movie Review

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

Here's to 2014! "Happy New Year" Movie Review

Rating: R (sexual content, nudity, profanity, alcohol/drugs/smoking, and some violence)
Length: 85 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 1987
Directed by: John G. Avildson
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Romance

It is not difficult to imagine a director's glee at having two of the lesser-heralded premier American actors of the twentieth century slated to star in an intimate comedy in which they have most of the lines and appear in almost every scene. On paper at least, "Happy New Year" must have had the makings of a classic. Even if the film does not fully live up to that promise, it is not the fault of director John G. Avildson, best known as the director of many of the inspirational films in the successful "Rocky" and "Karate Kid" series.

"Happy New Year" is a remake of a French crime heist comedy, and both the original and the remake are simple in structure and execution. It should, however, remain of interest to audiences and film buffs because of the magnificent performances—despite the rather unremarkable script—by Charles Durning and Peter Falk, two actors who often worked in the shadows of their better-known colleagues. Durning and Falk were always considered character actors, and their greatest successes in film were always in supporting roles. When they did take on leading roles, it was outside of film, Durning in the theater and Falk in television, during an era when prominent film actors rarely did anything but films.

It would be difficult to find a serious critic who does not recognize the work of these two actors as formidable contributions to the art of American acting in the twentieth century, however. Falk's fame came from the subtle comedy of his successful TV detective series "Columbo," a show that seemed to thrive on bending the genre by adhering to the conventions of the detective story while unabashedly portraying the frailty and vulnerability of its protagonist, whom suspects consider too bumbling and inept to solve any crime mystery. Durning is best known for his theater work and his Tony Award as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' classic "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but his hilarious bad guy performances in the film comedies "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "To Be or Not to Be" earned him Oscar nominations.

In "Happy New Year," Falk and Durning play Nick and Charlie, a couple of old-time crooks who are tired of the game and want to make one last big score before retiring to South America for the new year. They move to Palm Beach, Florida, where they have their eye on one of the most exclusive jewelry stores in one of the premier playgrounds of the country's old money clans. Nick, as meticulous in his robberies as Columbo is in setting traps for his suspects, has to scope the store before they move in. He visits twice to check out the place, once dressed as a prominent aging Palm Beach heiress and once as her more haggard socialite sister. It is a masterly comedic performance that's as accomplished, convincing, and hilarious as Dustin Hoffman's in "Tootsie" and Robin Williams's in "Mrs. Doubtfire." The film was deservedly nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar. However, Falk's commitment to the role and his willingness to let the comedy arise organically from the reality of the situation are the most impressive things about the performance.

Of course, complications arise, mostly because Nick falls for the elegant owner of the antique shop next door, who wants to join in when she finds out about their plans. The deeper complication, however, is that Nick and Charlie are more than a few years beyond their prime, and they don't quite trust each other or themselves to pull off the heist. The two men represent a type of American crook desperately after the American dream that has always evaded them, and it shows in their bickering, particularly after Nick's love interest gets involved. These are exactly the types of crooks that in the "Columbo" series were always tripped up by the savvy detective because he knew how to play up to their sense of self-indulgence and grandiosity.

Although at times audiences might wish that these great actors had been given a meatier script to sink their teeth into, they don't disappoint. They bring a sense of desperation and bitterness to their wild scheme, fueling the comedy in a script that may have fallen flat with other actors.

Rating: 3 out of 5