A comedy that's not afraid to point the finger.
Movies containing Woody Allen without his writing or directing hand have usually never been successful ventures. Aside of a few films (such as Antz and Scenes From a Mall), Woody has stayed close to the camera and script when acting in films. In 2000, the director of A Walk In The Clouds and Like Water For Chocolate put together a star-studded film with some hefty Hollywood namesake, including Allen, David Schwimmer (Friends), Cheech Marin (Nash Bridges), Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys), and a host of others. Artisan has released a somewhat jam-packed edition of this mystical Mexican comedy of strange proportions.
Facts of the Case
Tex Cowley, a local meat butcher (Allen) has just killed his wife, Candy (an uncredited Sharon Stone), dismembered her into seven pieces and buried her near a tree on the edge of the small town of El Nino. However, along the way Tex's truck hit a few small bumps in the road and some of the body parts fell out (happens every time to me as well). After retrieving most of the pieces, he heads off for the burial…but not before leaving behind his wife's hand!
The next day, a blind woman is walking and stumbles over the hand (which has a certain finger pointing straight at heaven) and picks it up. Suddenly, she can see again! Her sight is restored! Holy tamales, it's a miracle! She rushes to town where we meet a cast of local wackies that all begin to receive miracles as they pray to the hand. Is this a fake? Or is this really the hand of the Virgin Mary come to grant the local town miracles? everyone is about to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Along the way you'll meet wacky priests and monks (David Schwimmer, Elliot Gould, Andy Dick), bitter nuns (Fran Dresher), a prostitute with a heart of gold (Maria Garazia Cucinotta), a corrupt mayor (Cheech Marin), and a local Jewish butcher whose character might seem all too familiar…
After viewing Picking Up The Pieces, I can see why it was pretty much sent straight to video/DVD (at least I don't remember seeing it showing at any of the local multiplexes here in Los Angeles). It's not that it's a particularly bad movie. The trouble is it's very disjointed with a script that lacks any real heart.
The plot does have good things going for it with a few clever one-liners. Some of the situations have great comedic potential. Woody Allen, playing a variation on himself (surprise) does fine in a role that…well, it's basically just Woody being Woody. When he loses the pieces of his wife along the road, it's humorous as he collects them off the ground (and almost disturbing when he throws a very realistic looking head into the back of his pickup truck with a dull "thud").
Once at the town where the dismembered hand is granting miracles, many of the people have funny (if not typical) wishes and miracles they want granted. One girl wants bigger breasts so her boyfriend won't leave her. One man wants his manhood to be the size of a baby elephant's trunk (and at one point we get to see it hidden in a very large sock). Yet another wants his amputated legs back (which leads to a scene so obviously put in the film to show off some CGI work that it's almost laughable). Alone, some of these scenes are funny. As a whole, they don't always mesh.
The cast does what they can to make the most of their individual roles (with this being, technically, an ensemble piece). Woody Allen is funny (then again, I'm a big fan, so I'm biased) as Tex, whining and being the nebbish we've all come to know and love. He spouts typical Woody-isims (when asked if he's ever lied to have sex, he answers "Once, but I was alone at the time"). Cheech Marin is funny as the mayor of El Nino, the type who seems to always have one hand in his pocket and another in yours. There are also very funny performances by Elliot Gould as a priest, Fran Dresher as the embittered nun (I never thought I'd give her high marks for anything, but lo and behold…), and Joseph Gordin-Levitt (from 3rd Rock From The Sun fame) as an acne-ridden youth. All do funny work with what the script hands them.
Picking Up The Pieces is presented in 2.00:1 aspect ratio (which I didn't even know they had…learning new things everyday!). It's presented in anamorphic widescreen, and looks generally good. There were small amounts of grain I spotted at the beginning of the film, but as it continued I didn't notice much along the way. Digital artifacting was also non-present, with blacks being solid and colors being bright and bold (the film has many scenes where color is used effectively). It's basically a nice transfer (it's also a smaller film, so don't look for sharpness in the range of Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
The Dolby 5.1 audio is a nice mix, dialogue and sound effects mixing well with the Spanish music score by composer Ruy Folguera. The music is a very nice touch to the film and helps somewhat to create an atmosphere of culture, magic and comedy. The sound is nothing that will knock your socks off, but it does its purpose well.
In the extras department, we are given a relatively wide selection to choose from. To start out with there is a commentary track by director Alfonso Arau. If you're a really BIG fan of this film, it will be a fun track to listen to. If not, it might get old after a while. At first Arau seems to just plug his films (talking extensively about earning his acting chops in The Wild Bunch, Three Amigos!, and Romancing The Stone instead of commenting on the scene at hand). At one point he says "I worked in Used Cars. See it! You'll like it!" Okay, Alfonso, if you say so. But why don't you just chat about the film we're seeing instead of reminiscing on your life? That's what a commentary track is for, isn't it? In fact, much of the commentary seems as if Arau recorded it in an interview instead of in front of the screen, as he almost never seems to comment on the action taking place. Eventually, it adds up to a very unexciting listen.
There is also a five-minute behind-the scenes featurette on the making of Picking Up The Pieces which is just really a promo reel with the actors talking a bit about their characters and the director saying why he wanted to do the project. A quickie backlight on the making of the film.
Cast interviews come next, each being around two or three minutes in length. David Schwimmer, Elliot Gould, Cheech Marin, Kiefer Sutherland, Andy Dick and more all talk about why they wanted to do the movie and what their characters motivations were. Much like what we see in the featurette, only these are more fleshed out.
A trivia game on Picking Up The Pieces is included where you must answer different questions about the film. If you get one wrong, you may get Woody using a chainsaw in a very psychopathic way. If you answer correctly, you get Sharon Stone saying "Yeah" in a very ditsy way. Either way you lose, as this isn't really the most exciting thing to have on a DVD.
A theatrical trailer is included (full frame) plus a photo gallery, along with biographies and filmographies of the cast and the filmmakers. Break out the champagne and get the massage oil out, the excitement has just come to an end.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although there were very funny moments in Picking Up The Pieces, as a complete film this somehow goes wrong. There is no real center to the film, with plot and character adding little to help. I guess you could say that the hand of Candy is the main focus, but that's a weak way to structure a film. There are often plot holes gaping wide open. I realize that there is supposed to be some mystery to all the mystical events going on, and suspension of belief is part of the fun. Yet there is no real revelation as to why all the miracles are taking place. The hand is obviously not that of the Virgin Mary (as we know it is Tex's wife's), so why the miracles? And why do they stop when the hand leaves town? I guess some people will be okay with a non-explanation of these events. I, however, was baffled and ultimately disappointed.
And let's talk about a few of the performances. David Schwimmer as a priest is woefully miscast. He is a fine actor when playing Ross of Friends, but take him out of that element and often he looks like a gaping fish out of water. Here, playing a priest who has lost his faith, he comes off as amateurish and unlikable, a second rate Woody Allen character that is not very funny.
Kiefer Sutherland's portrayal of Bobo, a crooked cop on the trail of Woody's wife, is also an example of how not to flesh out a character. Bobo comes off as a snarling, mean, one-dimensional villain that seems to have no purpose but to be snarling and mean. With his tinted glasses and toothpick grin, the character is neither likable nor interesting. Adam Sandler could have pulled it off better than Sutherland does (and I don't even LIKE Adam Sandler).
Finally, Maria Grazia Cucinotta plays the warm-hearted prostitute (and Schwimmer's love interest). She seems to have taken acting lessons from "Look At My Boobs" University. She has no real personality, her speech is jaded and broken, and I could swear that all her lines were looped in. Apparently someone likes her, as she was in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough before this.
Sure, Picking Up The Pieces was not as painful to watch as other films I have seen lately (i.e. Mission: Impossible 2 and Mission to Mars). In fact, this seemed to go pretty quickly during the viewing. However, that still doesn't make up for many of the mistakes therein. Some performances are enjoyable, while others are not. The plot lags and is heavy on suspension of disbelief, with small comedic moments throughout. In the reviewer's opinion, not worth the purchase, but could make for a fun evening as a rental.
This judge says it's guilty, but you other judges might think differently…
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