Since its release back in 1990, I have alternated between thinking Steve Martin’s turn as a mobster-turned informant living in the witness protection program is one of the funniest movies ever made and that it is creepy and disturbing. Of course, it is both. Based on the life of the same mobster as the much darker film Goodfellas, but this time played for laughs, carrying the deep message that everything will be great provided you just Merengue, funny-creepy probably is inevitable for this film. But there is something so very Hollywood about it that I find repeated viewing inevitable.
My Blue Heaven was doomed, from a box-office perspective, from the start. The original lead actor for this movie about an Italian mobster with limitless charm and a heart of gold was—get this—Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger quit to do Kindergarten Cop and Martin, perhaps the whitest actor on the planet, volunteered to take on the role (he had been cast as Barney Coopersmith, repressed FBI agent, in the event played to perfection by Rick Moranis).
Obviously, Steve Martin could not “work” as an over-the-top, cheery ne’er-do-well Italian gangster. Add to the mix the tallest crew cut/pompadour imaginable and put it all in one of those shiny Italian suits, and you have a cartoon in live action. And Mr. Martin, to his credit, is absolutely hilarious. It is not subtle humor. Then again, Mr. Martin is at his best when putting aside his “I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy” cerebralism for sheer farce, and his decision was pure Hollywood genius. Best evidence: A scene at a supermarket where his character, Vinnie, alias “Tod,” sees a tarted-up Carol Kane. Cue drums. Tod walks up to her and says “It’s dangerous for you to be in the frozen food section.” “Why?” “’Cause your gonna melt all this stuff!” The two walk off together. Cut to next scene, in Reno, having just gotten married (by a fake minister).
This is not subtle stuff. And it certainly did not “work” as a blockbuster movie; it bombed. But the glee with which Mr. Martin plays a gangster with a heart of gold is infectious. He knows everyone’s name after meeting them once, makes friends with everyone, including his jailers, who give him the run of the police station and in one case embroider his jail cell pillow with his name (and end up marrying him in the end—there actually are three wives, that we know of, here).
Much of the plot revolves around Vinnie’s inability to stop being a criminal: He tries to steal wife number one’s credit card (she knows him well enough to put a stop to it); he meets the female lead (Joan Cusack as an assistant district attorney) when he “borrows” a car from “a guy”: starts a crime wave when he meets all his old mob friends who also are in the witness protection program; and the climax of the movie revolves around a scheme to con people into donating money intended for a little league stadium.
The point of this movie (and it is no accident, I think, that Goldie Hawn is an Executive Producer here) is that none of this, morally speaking, seems to touch Vinnie. Mr. Moranis’ character, Bernie, is freed from obsession and loneliness by a forced Merengue with Vinnie and two girls at a club. Ms. Cusack’s character finds love with Bernie in much the same way. And Vinnie saves the day for everyone, after it becomes clear to him that he has to produce the stadium or go to jail (or worse). Everything turns out fine because everyone learns to “lighten up” and have some fun with life. Looser people take things less seriously and so are able to make connections with other people, finding happiness in the dance of life.
The message is Hollywood in a nutshell, and in its less corrupting form. Vinnie really is a “good guy,” an innocent who simply cannot help himself from getting into trouble. He is more a child than a mobster, and always is looking to help out his many friends. It is his environment that has caused him to stray from mischief to crime. The “real” mob murders people. His “sainted” mother insults Bernie after tricking him into letting Vinnie escape, temporarily, and ends the movie by bribing an umpire. But Vinnie just wants everyone to be as happy as he is, saying “hi” to kids by name as he pushes a lawnmower, in his twelve-hundred dollar suit, noting “nice day for a mow.”
So Merengue conquers all, right? This is where the creepiness comes in, of course, for Vinnie DID in fact start a crime wave, complete with truck hijackings. And, while it is quite funny that he attempts to blackmail Ms. Cusack’s character by telling her how sad it would be if her kids were to find out that she accidentally killed their turtle, then tried to pass off a new one as their own, the threat remains creepy.
Our entertainment industry is at its best when it makes light of things. Goodness knows “serious” movies in our era tend to be preachy bits of pseudo-intellectual drivel (e.g., Matt Damon trying to teach us about fracking). But Hollywood cannot help but have messages in its projects. I still love the bit of silliness that is My Blue Heaven. But when I watched it with my teen-aged kids I felt the need to point out the creepy parts. Vinnie may have grown up in a bad environment, but that does not mean he is not responsible for the harm he causes—potentially great harm (ever been through a hijacking? I hope never to have the experience, including the possible gunplay). But those of us who refuse to watch gangster movies, seeing them as, at times despite themselves, glorifications of bestial behavior, can, I think, enjoy the occasional riff on criminal chic. It may be less damaging to laugh at evil than to revel in it. And the Merengue is a beautiful thing, seriously.
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