Hired killers by day. Devoted lovers by night. Until they found their next assignment was each other.
Prizzi's Honor is directed by Academy darling John Huston, who has been collecting Oscar nominations since 1941. Some of his notable films include The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge (not that one, the 1953 one), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (winning Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay). Prizzi's Honor features Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, William Hickey, and Robert Loggia (all of whom can list Oscar nominations/victories on their résumés).
It is perhaps no wonder that Prizzi's Honor collected eight Oscar Nominations in 1985, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. (The only one to walk away with a statue was Anjelica Huston for Best Supporting Actress.) Sadly, Prizzi's Honor is billed as a comedy, though it isn't funny. When your brain finally switches to drama gear, Prizzi's Honor isn't compelling or weighty enough to entertain. Anchorless, Prizzi's Honor floats around without making much impact.
Facts of the Case
Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) grows up in the ranks of the Prizzi Family. He becomes their best hitman and garners much respect. Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey) is his sworn godfather (although they never use the word…wouldn't want Prizzi's Honor confused with some other mafia film). With such influence, Charley quickly becomes a favorite captain within the family.
But problems are simmering on the woman front. Charley spurned Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston), the Don's granddaughter, and neither she nor her father is pleased at the dishonor. Old tensions resurface when Charley falls for a new woman, Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), who turns out to be a mob hitwoman. Charley views Irene as his ticket to romantic bliss. Maerose views her as a ticket back into the family…
As the film crawls on and on, the truth eventually dawns: Prizzi's Honor takes itself seriously. This is a grand mistake. Prizzi's Honor invites—nay, begs—comparison to The Godfather, and fares miserably in such comparisons.
I can't decide whether Prizzi's Honor is billed as a comedy because Huston tried to make a romantic tragedy and failed, or if he set out to make a comedy from the start. I did laugh out loud once, and certain scenes might contain enough situational irony to fall into the intellectual realm of humor. On the other hand, you could point to the cigarette smugglers, racial themes, and strip clubs in Beverly Hills Cop and call it an urban drama. But most people would say you were off base. After a half hour of ponderous, laugh-free, heavy dialogue, I reclassified Prizzi's Honor as a serious mob movie. Then I was simply irritated.
William Hickey's exaggerated makeup job and indecipherable croaking detract from the gravity of his Don. With his protruding yellow teeth, powdered white hair, over-the-top affected accent, and piercingly shrewd gaze, Hickey's Don Corrado reminded me of no one so much as Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride. (Now there was a funny guy playing an old crank.) As a mob boss, Don Corrado is as intimidating as Pee Wee Herman (who, again, is funnier). There are some charismatic moments where the unconvincing accent fails to detract from his performance, but overall this Don is weak. Don Corleone would ice this guy and use his yellow teeth for tiddlywinks.
Jack Nicholson is supposed to play a dumb Brooklyn heavy who falls in love. I love Jack. Jack is a superior actor who has played some of the most memorable, compelling (and non-dumb) characters in modern cinema. He has made entire films single handedly. Not this one. When cupid struck Charley, he stammered and bumbled with middleschoolish immaturity. I think it was supposed to be funny, but it was so one-dimensional and unlikely that the whole thing fell flat. The accent contributed. Why not try the natural approach like Al Pacino did with Michael Corleone? Dare I accuse Jack of overacting?
No, I blame the direction. Prizzi's Honor has all of the tools to succeed: stellar cast, exquisite photography, decent music, crafty plot…the list goes on. Everyone showed up ready to play. But Prizzi's Honor is shapeless and dull, with too many near misses strung together. Poor decision-making is at fault.
A good example is the beginning of the film. Two middle-aged guys stand with their backs to us looking at a 14-month old (who is supposed to be a newborn). We can't really see their faces, so the shot isn't very interesting. The gist of it is that Don Corrado is going to treat baby Charley as his own. Nothing funny or dramatic yet. Cut to the credits. Then we see a boy scout (from the chest down) pounding brass knuckles into his hand (kind of funny), followed by a drawn-out ritual with a young man (back turned). In this ritual, Don Corrado swears the man to a blood oath and the two swap platelets. Are we to assume this man is Jack Nicholson's character? If so, why not show Jack's face? This ritual is unfunny, with a lifeless crowd of mob guys standing rigidly in the background. Were they supposed to be intimidating? Next, we are "treated" to an excruciating zoom out through a church with a tacky wedding ceremony being held. The man getting married looks just like the man in the mob ceremony, but we only see his back. Is this man important? His bride? Who are we supposed to focus on? Another long pan around the audience, lingering on a dead-looking Don Corrado. Ahh, so that's the hook, the Don died. Nope, he opens his eyes. So what was up with that extended pan to him? We're now several minutes into the film and we've seen a bunch of backs, but have no clear focus. Eventually the camera lands on Jack Nicholson and we are finally granted a focal point. This muddled, unengaging opening has little in the way of either drama or humor.
Another good example of poor direction is the middle of the film. Charley's leadership and street smarts are alluded to, but he acts like a buffoon. His actions in trying to track down his mystery woman are clumsy at best, boring to boot. This guy is the family's best hitter? Kathleen Turner is woefully misused throughout. She is never given a clear angle, so we can never identify with her. The romance between Charley and Irene is implausible, rushed, and unsatisfying. In their love scene, the two roll around like a human rolling pin. There isn't enough action, violence, or edginess to make Prizzi's Honor a drama, but the music, dialogue, sets, costumes, and camerawork strive ardently to convince us of just that. The whole affair seems like a failed attempt to upstage The Godfather.
A third example of poor direction is the end of the film. After an hour and a half of investment, I'd finally reached a sort of equilibrium with the plot. I'd made peace with the completely unfunny nature of the film and its misguided attempts to be a grave mob story. I'd mentally adjusted to the slow pace. Jack and Kathleen had somehow scraped together a believable romance, and I was pulling for them to outwit the conniving, stingy mob. A series of absurd plot twists had established a puzzling conundrum for the duo to escape. The whole film to this point had painted an us-against-them story, and I'd finally become interested in how Charley and Irene were going to pull it off. That is when Huston decided to pull out the rug, switch gears yet again, abandon all subtext, and pursue a straight-ahead tragedy about the mob's viselike grip on a man's soul. Not only does this decision alienate the audience, it trashes a perfectly viable and more convincing ending. The plot gets more and more involved, less and less believable. The twists and turns were intricate, and a great movie should have come out of them.
The image quality isn't downright atrocious, but it isn't flattering either. I noticed something wrong right away, but the problem didn't fit neatly into my mental video quality checklist. Contrast is relatively low, but within acceptable territory given the age of the print. Desaturated colors give skin tones an unhealthy, pasty complexion. Digital noise reduction artifacts immediately assert themselves (for instance, watch the intricate stained glass and carvings shimmer during the extended introductory zoom through the church). Though present, the DNR artifacts are not significant enough to detract much from the viewing. The grain is pronounced, but still within acceptable limits. The problem, I finally decided, is a general lack of detail. The image looks blurry, and the image jitters unnaturally sometimes as though pan and scan is in effect. But it couldn't be pan and scan, this is a widescreen DVD…
Ahh. Once I'd caught the pan and scan vibe, the truth emerged. Prizzi's Honor was shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but this DVD is in either 1.85:1 or 1.33:1 (depending on which side of the disc you view). The blowup of the image and subsequent 23% image loss explains the poor video quality. This decision is inexplicable. There is already a gutted version of the movie on one side of the disc. Why not provide the original aspect ratio if you're going through the trouble of a dual-sided disc?
In addition to the issues above, Prizzi's Honor is rife with minor annoyances that pile up. For example, the tagline ("Hired killers by day. Devoted lovers by night. Until they found their next assignment was each other.") is a complete spoiler. The extended setup before Turner's hitwoman identity is revealed is meaningless because we already know. Another example is the L.A. Times quote on the cover: "A resoundingly comic love story." Since the story is decidedly non-comic, and any vestiges of love get their throats cut on the stiletto of the plot, all this quote does is set the wrong expectation. What's up with the planes every three minutes? DVD mastering pitches in by starting the film in the middle of a scene, forcing you to rewind to catch the beginning (This happens on both sides, though the DVD puts you in different places on the two sides). There are no extras. The devil is in the details.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Prizzi's Honor garnered much acclaim, so there has to be something going for it. Technically, there's a lot to like. The costumes are fantastic. The music is catchy when Huston isn't trying to exaggerate the importance of weddings or receptions by interminably drawing them out. Certain moments of lighting and shot composition are clever. If the whole affair wasn't so stupefying and lacking a dramatic thrust, these effective components would have worked well.
The one person to unequivocally succeed is Anjelica Huston. She deserved her Oscar and she damn near made the movie work. Her Maerose is disarmingly malevolent, seeming genuine but plotting mayhem. She summoned complex emotional range and breathed life into her character's tragic backstory. She commanded the screen and upstaged Nicholson, which is nearly impossible to pull off. Once you catch on to her desperate and shrewd plan, it is great fun to watch her work.
With no extras, so-so video quality, and a choice between severely chopped or moderately hacked aspect ratios, there is nothing to recommend this DVD. If you love Prizzi's Honor you don't have a choice, but this effort is not the best foot forward by any means.
Prizzi's Honor, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you, or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels, I don't want you near my house. When you come to visit our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there.
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