Nothing particularly innovative distinguishes John Landis’ documentary on Don Rickles — no digital bells and whistles, revelations of untold tragedies or self-destructive demons. Rather, interviews edited with fine comic timing, judiciously selected clips and extended stretches of a routine with its own inimitable internal rhythms make for an unheard-of curio: a hilarious movie about a surprisingly funny man. Airing on HBO on Dec. 2, “Mr. Warmth” qualifies as must-see viewing, even for those who have never particularly liked either Landis’ films or Rickles’ shtick.
As Landis sees it, Rickles’ insult comedy is best considered “performance art” and cannot be fully appreciated outside his act, excerpts from which are interspersed throughout the docu. At 80, though he totters shakily onstage, he has still stayed spry enough to goose-step when an audience member admits German heritage, and later work the full length of the runway for an equal-opportunity slurfest.
Since Rickles has never before allowed anyone to record his routine, which has evolved over a half-century, relatively few have experienced the interactive chemistry that has drawn general audiences — and, especially, celebrities and high rollers — to the fabled Vegas venues he helped popularize.
A raconteur par excellence, Rickles tells tales of his relationship with Frank Sinatra and his ability to diss the “made” superstar with impunity. These stories compete with uproarious, gruesome anecdotes of the good old “mob rule” days of Vegas, when entertainers were treated with respect. Though Martin Scorsese, who directed Rickles in “Casino,” cannot talk about him without cracking up, Rickles’ career and unique position as the last man standing oddly reflect the changing face of Vegas — gesturing to framed photographs on the wall, he sardonically points out the dead, dying and moribund.
Meanwhile, clips of Rickles’ infamously unscripted appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” vie with archival snippets of Dean Martin roasts for most egregious insults and highest laff quotient.
The first hint that “Mr. Warmth” might not rep the usual empty, star-toadying tribute is that it opens with scruffy veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton singing “Old Blue” to his own improvised harmonica accompaniment. It turns out that Landis, at age 18, worked as gofer on “Kelly’s Heroes” (cut to a clip of Stanton feeding ammunition into Rickles’ machine gun).
A laconically laid-back Clint Eastwood, soon follows, bemused about having seen Rickles perform more times than he cares to recall, while an excerpt from the selfsame “Kelly’s Heroes” reveals a far younger Eastwood tempting greedy Sgt. Rickles with a gold ingot.
Landis springs these movie clips on auds when they least expect it. Thus, Debbie Reynolds extols the comedian’s extraordinary kindness several times before a trailer for “Rat Race” unexpectedly unspools, in which Rickles brutally slaps a curvaceous Reynolds across the room.
Landis proves less concerned with his interviewees’ fame than with good one-liners and a desire to show how Rickles can get away with material no one else dares to touch (asking Ronald Reagan if he’s “going too fast for him” earns a presidential guffaw).
Forever getting people to enjoy being insulted, Rickles endlessly fascinates his fellow comedians, from best bud Bob Newhart to a mystified but admiring Chris Rock. His female heir apparent in socially unacceptable utterance, Sarah Silverman, chimes in to thank him for teaching the sheltered Jewish girl from New Hampshire how to deal with ethnic diversity. Having spotted a Japanese-American in the audience, Rickles complains, “I spent three years in the jungle looking for your father.”
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