Following five years on the shelf and substantial recutting under the supervision of Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Ritchie’s beleaguered film version of Off Broadway staple “The Fantasticks” finally emerges as little more than a curio, notable more for its lavish, labored efforts to revive the old-fashioned movie musical than for its success at reimagining the intimate tuner for the bigscreen. At best, pic’s anachronism may ensure it some life as a “Rocky Horror”-esque midnight attraction, but unlike its legit inspiration (which recently celebrated its 40th year of continuous perfs), this “Fantasticks” seems unlikely to make it past the first week in most venues. Even with the extensive retooling, this second release for MGM’s new specialty label is being handled with kid gloves, preeming Sept. 22 in just four cities.
Lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt’s show is traditionally performed on a bare stage with four-piece-orchestra accompaniment. Ritchie’s film version (scripted and supervised by Jones and Schmidt) transposes the action to the farm country of the American West and affects a look, with the aid of lenser Fred Murphy’s luminescent widescreen compositions, that is closer to “Oklahoma!” than to, say, the stripped-down minimalism of “Cabaret.” The sound of the film has been made bigger too, with most of the songs reorchestrated for something closer to 40 pieces rather than four — no matter that the self-conscious slightness that frequently characterizes the lyrics is all but lost beneath such thunderous treatment.
What remains relatively intact is the play’s archetypal adolescent romance between next-door neighbors Matt (Joe McIntyre) and Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly), whose conniving widower fathers (Joel Grey, Brad Sullivan) are intent on pairing them off into marital bliss. They have even staged an elaborate family feud, forbidding each child to so much as speak to the other, in the hope that this illusion of danger and disapproval will prove irresistible to the teens’ youthful sense of defiance (a situation recounted with comic flair in the song “Never Say No”). When the plan succeeds, however, the dads are faced with the new dilemma of resolving their “feud” in a way that doesn’t reveal its disingenuous origins.
Enter the mysterious bandit-ringleader-magician El Gallo (Jonathon Morris), whose traveling carnival (called the Fantasticks) has just rolled into town and for whom the resolution of family feuds, real or imagined, is an advertised specialty.
But in spite of an inspired premise, “The Fantasticks” is hampered almost from the start by the distinct lack of chemistry between McIntyre and Kelly as well as by McIntyre’s seeming inability to alter his expression from that of perpetual, wide-eyed bewilderment.
Kelly acquits herself more adequately as a singer than does McIntyre. But neither performer ever seems truly in thrall of the various fanciful goings-on — despite Ritchie’s effort to bring greater tension and immediacy to the vocal performances by having much of the film’s singing performed by the actors live on the set. The technique works, but it also underscores the fact that most of the cast lacks the pipes to do justice to Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations. Only Morris, with booming tenor voice and swashbuckling charisma, really gets the half-sentimental, half-cynical tone of the piece, responding with a memorably larger-than-life El Gallo.
The second half of the film, considerably darker than the first, is also more compelling. Matt and Luisa settle into a domestic routine, but a hitch develops — a straightforward relationship isn’t as thrilling as illicit abductions, swordplay and other derring-do (a sentiment summed up in “This Plum is Too Ripe,” the film’s most sophisticated, verbally playful tune).
As adapted for the screen, Jones and Schmidt’s text remains a self-reflexive valentine to the romantic pull of the theater and of “putting on a show.” More subtly, it’s a deceptively simple parable for the arc of human experience, beginning with early aspirations to independence and ideal happiness, through to acceptance of our mortality. And Ritchie has made an ambitious stab at extending this intricate juxtaposition of reality, theatrical experience and the coming-of-age process into a series of sensuous visual metaphors, incorporating such musical hallmarks as moonlit serenades and reflections rippling in pools of water into his desolate tableaux and carnival atmosphere.
During the extended set pieces known as “The Rape Ballet” and “Round & Round,” Ritchie seems to achieve a near-perfect harmony of the show’s many disparate elements, creating an assured, all-singing, all-dancing surrealism part Norman Rockwell, part Lewis Carroll and part Hieronymus Bosch. But most of the time, while the film is inarguably Ritchie’s most visually adventuresome since “Downhill Racer” 30 years ago, the songs and performers seem overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the visual design. The relative claustrophobia of the carnival set is the film’s greatest aesthetic strength, the big skies of big-sky country its greatest weakness, wherein the private dreaminess of the text seems to evaporate.
The attempt to make a film of “The Fantasticks” that would function as the same playful homage to movie musicals that the play itself is to musical theater is admirable, but the resulting film is one of too much reverence and not enough satire.
At 86 minutes, however, pic is a tightly paced package, which may owe something to the pruning of MGM board member Coppola and credited additional editor Melissa Kent (the team previously responsible for the dumbing-down of Walter Hill’s “Supernova”).