Director: Paul Mazursky
Writer: Paul Mazursky
Stars: Lenny Baker, Shelly Winters, Ellen Greene, Lois Smith, Chris Walken
The Story: A jokey would-be actor leaves his smothering mother behind in Brooklyn and makes a life for himself in the burgeoning bohemia of 1953 Greenwich Village. (His rent? $25 a month.)
How it Came to be Underrated: I have no idea why Mazursky is no longer a household name, or how his half-dozen masterpieces have come to be forgotten. Discovering his work is like finding a lost treasure trove of collaborations between Woody Allen and Robert Altman.
Why It’s Great:
- Mazursky is lovingly recreating his own coming-of-age here. People are wary of autobiographical films with good reason. Most filmmakers can’t resist the temptation to settle old scores and/or live out their fantasies of what should have happened. Mazursky does nothing of the sort. Baker-as-Mazursky is portrayed neither as a heroic martyr nor a misunderstood genius, just a sympathetic schmuck learning his lessons in the school of hard knocks.
- The movie is fueled by a star-making lead performance from the great Lenny Baker. Unfortunately, he died a few years later from cancer without ever reaping the benefits. Every performance is great, including a very young-looking Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum.
- The period art direction is all-enveloping and sumptuous. This is a very believable lost world of coffeehouses, rent parties, and method-acting workshops. Adding to the hundreds of period details is a great jazz score largely lifted from Dave Brubeck records.
- Mazursky’s comedy is so sly that it almost slips by you. He quietly gets away with some outrageous things, like when Baker, at his deli job, finds out his girlfriend is pregnant while he’s cramming a carrot into a juicer.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Mazursky wrote and directed a lot of great movies during this period. You can’t go wrong with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice or Harry and Tonto.
How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to Watch Instantly, though the instant version seems slightly distorted.
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