Destined to be known forever in industry circles as the musical that wasn't, James L. Brooks' showbiz comedy hits occasional high notes on the laugh scale but suffers from a choppiness that betrays its history. While reasonably entertaining and sharply written, "I'll Do Anything" never appears certain what it aims to do and may be best suited to the arthouse circuit, making its $ 40 million production tab a major liability.

Destined to be known forever in industry circles as the musical that wasn’t, James L. Brooks’ showbiz comedy hits occasional high notes on the laugh scale but suffers from a choppiness that betrays its history. While reasonably entertaining and sharply written, “I’ll Do Anything” never appears certain what it aims to do and may be best suited to the arthouse circuit, making its $ 40 million production tab a major liability.

Given its origins, the movie is better than one might have anticipated, yet has to be viewed as a disappointment relative to Brooks’ earlier features.

For those who have been living in a cave or, worse, not reading the trades, Brooks — having raised eyebrows initially by casting such dubious crooners as Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks — finally junked the musical numbers after test audiences voted thumbs down, shooting new material and turning “Anything” back into a multi-tiered romantic comedy.

While what survived the editing room is watchable, there’s an inescapable sense that something’s missing, as the movie lacks smoothness in making transitions from scene to scene and relationship to relationship.

Nolte plays a rarely employed actor, Matt Hobbs, who’s saddled with his 6 -year-old daughter (Whittni Wright) after his ex (Tracey Ullman) is shipped off to prison.

Desperate to make a living, and uncomfortable tending to the fit-prone moppet, Matt settles for work chauffeuring around Burke Adler (Albert Brooks) — a self-obsessed, hyperkinetic producer of schlocky blockbusters — in the process becoming entangled with comely, if insecure, development executive Cathy (Joely Richardson).

Producing, writing and directing his first feature since “Broadcast News” in 1987, Brooks displays his characteristic ear for dialogue, particularly in lines spouted by the other Brooks, who inexplicably becomes involved with a divorced test-marketing researcher, Nan (Julie Kavner).

The story, however, flits awkwardly between Matt’s relationship with his daughter, his budding ties to Cathy and the Burke-Nan pairing, often with little to connect those strands.

While the father-daughter reunion serves as the film’s core, the child is so unpleasant at first it’s hard to root for things to work out. In addition, that premise — out-of-work actor raising smart-alecky daughter — at times feels like a wacky sitcom struggling to get out, even if the material operates on a higher plane.

Brooks fares better milking laughs from his depiction of Hollywood eccentricities, thoughsome of those keenly observed moments may not play well east of Hollywood.

Nolte solidly conveys Matt’s acting fervor, but his character, in particular, seems to have suffered from the editing process. Wright, discovered via a monthlong talent search, looks adorable but says little to make her seem that way, and her ultimate conversion feels too quick and hollow.

On the plus side, almost every moment with Brooks’ Burke provides a terrific howl, and Richardson is extremely appealing as the wide-eyed and confused Cathy — a character, again, who demonstrates the artistic bankruptcy of the biz, lacking the courage to support convictions and ideas.

Though both are gifted comic actresses, Kavner and Ullman (who, along with Harry Shearer, have been players in Brooks’ TV empire) each seem a bit miscast. Rosie O’Donnell, Woody Harrelson and Ian McKellen turn up in cameos.

Tech credits are top-notch, capturing such discrepancies as Burke’s posh abode and Matt’s grungy apartment. Hans Zimmer provides an effective score, albeit one that works too hard in places at turning up the emotional volume.

Although the pic at one point included tunes penned by Prince and Sinead O’Connor, the only song remaining of any note –“You Are the Best,” written by Carole King and sung by Wright — sounds like a Sesame Street ditty, providing jaunty accompaniment to the closing credits but hardly reason to pine for the missing soundtrack.

I'll Do Anything

Production

A Columbia Pictures release of a Gracie Films production. Produced by James L. Brooks, Polly Platt. Executive producer, Penney Finkelman Cox. Directed, written by Brooks.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor color), Michael Ballhaus; editor, Richard Marks; music, Hans Zimmer; production design, Stephen J. Lineweaver; art direction, Bill Brzeski; set decoration, Cheryl Carasik; costume design, Marlene Stewart; sound (Dolby), David M. Kelson; associate producer, Marks; assistant director, Ned Dowd; unit production manager, John D. Schofield; casting, Paula Herold. Reviewed at the Cary Grant Theatre, Culver City, Jan. 14, 1994. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 min.

With

Matt Hobbs - Nick Nolte
Jeannie Hobbs - Whittni Wright
Burke Adler - Albert Brooks
Nan Mulhanney - Julie Kavner
Cathy Breslow - Joely Richardson
Beth Hobbs - Tracey Ullman
Male D Person - Jeb Brown
Female D Person - Joely Fisher
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