We briefly considered placing Judge Mitchell Hattaway's review in the gay-themed films category and let the title speak for itself, but our decorum and desire to be politically correct got the better of us.
He's caught in a pickle and everyone's watching!
Every good filmmaker is capable of creating at least one truly awful film. Paul Mazursky is no exception.
Facts of the Case
Director Harry Stone (Danny Aiello, Hudson Hawk) is a man in desperate need of cash. His last two films were flops, his ex-wives' lawyers are hounding him about back alimony payments, and he owes the IRS $400,000. Harry's dire straits lead him to agree to direct The Pickle, a science fiction epic about a cucumber that turns into a spaceship.
I honestly can't imagine what was going through the mind of writer-director Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson) when he concocted the idea for this film. Did this honestly seem like a good idea? Satirize the mentality of blockbuster-minded Hollywood executives with a story about an intergalactic cucumber? Yeah, that'll work.
For satire to work it has to be at least somewhat grounded in reality, but Mazursky doesn't seem to understand this; The Pickle (both the film and the film-within-a-film) is too far-fetched. Stone doesn't seem to exist in the real world, but rather in a near-idyllic fantasy world built to stroke his ego (or, if you like, Mazursky's ego). He's an aging, overweight jerk, but women throw themselves at him, including a middle-aged fan whose dream is to bed him (too bad Mazursky couldn't have cast a more attractive actress to play this fan). Françoise (Clotilde Courau, Map of the Human Heart), his girlfriend, seems to be with him just to piss off her parents, and I can understand that, but how did he get two women to marry him? Hell, his first wife, Helen (Dyan Cannon, Kangaroo Jack), is apparently still in love with him. I also have a hard time believing the accolades he gets from his fans. Everywhere he goes someone seems to be patting him on the back, telling him that he's the best director in the world and that he should ignore the critics. He gets this from a bellboy, a waiter, and even the clerk who sells him a blood pressure monitor. This fawning doesn't gel with Stone's plight; I don't think a guy this recognizable and revered would be reduced to directing a film about a flying vegetable. Think about it. Spielberg directed two underwhelming films (Always and Hook) and then followed them up with Jurassic Park. No flying cucumbers in that film. Stone's certainly no Spielberg, but come on, do you really think no one would offer Stone anything other than The Pickle? Well, now that I think about it, such a film is probably all he should be allowed to direct. After all, this is the man who wants to cast Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in an epic about Cortés and Montezuma.
Mazursky's script is incredibly unfocused. He keeps introducing characters who have no bearing on the story, and there are far too many purposeless scenes (including some flashbacks to Stone's youth). What's the point of the scene in which Stone returns to his old neighborhood and discovers that the building he grew up in is now a tenement? The scene has no payoff; there's a beginning and middle to the scene, but Mazursky obviously didn't know how to conclude it or segue into the next scene. (The scene is also rather nonsensical. I can't imagine the people living in the building would actually care about the director or his flying pickle movie.) The same can be said of the scene in which Stone has dinner with two studio executives. Stone pitches his Cortéz/Montezuma idea to the men, and they love it, but want to update the story to the present day and locate it in the barrios of California. Stone jumps to his feet and asks the other diners which version of the story they'd rather see, but Mazursky doesn't bother to let us see the results of the poll. The film's ending also contradicts Mazursky's message; it doesn't matter that Stone has sold his artistic soul because his film (improbably) becomes a hit.
Here's another thing. Stone isn't a likeable guy, or even a likeably nasty one. As I stated earlier, he's just a jerk. It's hard to sympathize with him, considering that he's responsible for his lot in life. If he had paid his taxes, he wouldn't have the IRS looking for him. If he had kept his fly zipped, he wouldn't have two ex-wives siccing their attorneys on him. He spends most of the film whining about having artistically whored himself, never really stopping to consider that it's his fault. Sure, he does try to own up to his mistakes during one of the film's last scenes, but you know this moment of clarity will be fleeting. Who wants to spend two hours with this guy?
The real problem with The Pickle is the film-within-a-film. I can't imagine a major studio pouring money into such a project (although somebody did pour money into this project). Hell, I can't even imagine Troma producing such a film. (That's not entirely true. Troma probably would produce such a film, but it would contain enough gratuitous female nudity to make it palatable.) Sure, there are plenty of awful films released every year, but most seem to fall apart because of poor execution (whether it be bad acting, writing, direction, or a combination of all three), not because of a truly awful premise (although the film we're dealing with here falls into both categories). And as much as that original concept sucks, the more we see of Stone's film the worse it gets. The farm kids who climb aboard the pickle are transported to the planet Cleveland, a world that resembles New York's Upper East Side. The inhabitants of this world dress in black spandex, subsist on an all-beef diet, and have elected Little Richard as their president. (The female farm kid just happens to be named Molly, which leads to a scene featuring Little Richard singing…oh, forget it.) See what I mean? Who would greenlight such a film? The sections of the film involving Stone are lackluster enough, but the footage of his movie sends The Pickle completely over the edge.
As far as the acting is concerned, Danny Aiello is actually quite good, and Dyan Cannon adds a bit of spark to the film, but I don't have any kind words for the supporting cast. Jerry Stiller (Serving Sara) is totally out of his element as Phil, Stone's agent; Phil is the most stable character in the film, which doesn't allow Stiller to play to his strengths, nor is he allowed to be funny. Shelley Winters (The Delta Force) turns up briefly as Stone's mother (although she's not old enough for the role), and your tolerance for her performance will probably depend on your tolerance for Winters herself, as she's essentially playing herself. Clotilde Courau is absolutely awful in her role as Stone's girlfriend; I kept hoping someone would strangle her. Chris Penn (Corky Romano) has a few scenes as Stone's fresh-out-of-rehab son, but it's hard to judge his performance as he's given absolutely nothing to do. (I would imagine it was on this film's set that Penn began his infatuation with the craft services table.) There's also an unnecessary and unfunny Donald Trump cameo.
Sony has performed a passable job on the audio/video aspects of this release. The transfer is clean, with decent enough color saturation, and there's only a small hint of grain in a couple of shots, but overall it's a little too soft. The Dolby 3.0 Surround track isn't very dynamic, but that's not a big problem considering this film's dialogue-heavy nature. The only real surround action comes from the film's score, but I had to strain to hear it, as the mono surround channel is smothered by the front soundstage, which is a big problem. The disc's extras consist of a brief interview with Paul Mazursky conducted during a retrospective of his films at the Lee Strasburg Theater, as well as a coma-inducing commentary from the writer-director. (During the commentary, Mazursky states his own desire to direct a Cortés/Montezuma epic. Between you and me, I don't see that happening anytime soon.)
Y'know, there's something quite funny about all of this. Harry Stone is a guy who was afraid of loosing his clout in Hollywood, so he directed a film titled The Pickle and ended up back on top. Paul Mazursky is a guy who used his clout in Hollywood to direct a film titled The Pickle and ended up sending his career into a nosedive. Imagine that.
The Pickle is awful—really, truly awful. If you're in the mood for a satire on Hollywood you're better off sticking with The Big Picture, The Player, or even Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland. Just stay away from this thing.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director Paul Mazursky
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