A pleasurably offbeat picture that manages the rare trick of being both charming and edgy, “Mad Dog and Glory” represents a refreshing, unexpected change of pace for all the major talents concerned. Unusual tone and low-key comedy place this Universal release from Martin Scorsese’s production company rather off-center for a mass-market entry, but distrib appears to be going all out to reap the benefits of following Bill Murray’s current hit, “Groundhog Day.”
Amusing premise of a poor schmo saving a gangster’s life and being given a beautiful woman for a week as thanks, ends up taking on unexpected dramatic and romantic dimensions, and leads are played to the hilt by its stellar toplined trio.
In Richard Price’s terrifically colorful and imaginative script, Murray plays Frank Milo, a dapper hoodlum in the modern mode who likes to quote his analyst, owns a comedy club so that he can do stand-up anytime he wants and is guaranteed laughs there from the goons he packs in down front.
By contrast, Robert De Niro’s Wayne Dobie, ironically nicknamed “Mad Dog,” is a retiring middle-aged loner who photographs crime scenes at night for the Chicago Police Dept.
Nebbishy and rather proper, Wayne would seem to have given up on any further prospects in life, such as a family or promotion, although he shyly dreams of recognition as an art photographer (shades of “The Public Eye”).
Like a Preston Sturges hero, however, Wayne has greatness thrust upon him, after a fashion, when he interrupts an armed robbery in a convenience store and saves Milo from almost certain death. Invited to the club, Wayne doesn’t know what to make of Milo’s insistence, “I’m the expediter of your dreams,” but soon finds out when club bartender Glory (Uma Thurman) turns up at his apartment and announces that she’s staying for a week, courtesy of Milo.
What follows could easily have been cute, contrived, exploitative, crude or any combination of same. Instead, Price deepens his characters at this point and , with the able assistance of the exceptional actors, the story takes on resonance and emotional urgency that aren’t initially indicated.
Wayne, who hasn’t slept with a woman for two years, falls quite in love with the nervous, skittish Glory, who turns out to be repaying a debt of her brother’s by working for Milo. Despite less than overwhelming sexual performances by Wayne, Glory seems to fall for him as well, transforming this curious little comedy into a rather moving tale of two people who need to be saved, he from a life of loneliness and mediocrity, she from the path of being used by men and selling herself.
Genuine drama ensues when Milo wants his woman back after a week, and the climax is both pretty funny and satisfying emotionally.
Most of the comedy stems from the strange, left-field scenes between the two men, and from the interesting tension developed through the against-type casting. One would have expected the actors to appear in opposite roles but, given the choice, De Niro opted to play Wayne, the repressed, somewhat uptight bachelor. After a series of mostly indifferent performances, De Niro delivers some of his best work in years in a part that’s not as weird as Rupert Pupkin, but could well be a cousin to his great role in “The King of Comedy.”
As a heavy who is quite comical as well as threatening, Murray is highly entertaining. Immaculately groomed and concerned with style, his Milo clearly aspires to recognition for his wit, psychological insight and humanity, but underneath it all he’s still a thug.
But the key to the film lies in the intimate scenes involving Wayne and Glory. Few major actors would care to enact one particularly embarrassing sex scene called for here, but De Niro’s performance is crucial to making Wayne appealingly vulnerable.
At the same time, he’s somehow able to make Glory calm down and see straight as the days go by. The interplay of De Niro and Thurman, who seems unusually invigorated here, make this couple, whose lives are so different, a pair one can root for, at least in movie terms.
One might not have expected such a sweet, tonally mixed film from the director of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” but John McNaughton has done a quietly admirable job of walking a stylistic tightrope and meeting the multiple demands of Price’s rich script. Also enormously helpful in maximizing pic’s potential is Elmer Bernstein’s flavorful score, which nicely incorporates some pop standards.
Supporting cast is strong, notably David Caruso as De Niro’s savvy partner and Mike Starr as Murray’s imposing aide de camp.
Technically, film has the look of having been hand-crafted to perfection, thanks in great measure to lenser Robby Muller’s subtle palette and David Chapman’s reality-based production design. Editors Craig McKay and Elena Maganini brought it in at a crisp, just-right running time.