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Film Review: ‘Lucky Stiff’

A diverting if effortful film translation of a 1988 Off Broadway musical farce.

With:
Dominic Marsh, Nikki M. James, Pamela Shaw, Jason Alexander, Dennis Farina, Don Amendolia, Kate Shindle, Mary Birdsong, Anthony Skordi, Jayne Houdyshell, Maggie Carney, Kent Avenido, Herschel Sparber, Steve West, Mary Jo Catlett, Noah Weisberg, Cheyenne Jackson, Jennifer Cody, Jim Piddock, Juliet Mills, Paul Tigue, Kevin Chamberlin, Heather Ayers, Chryssie Whitehead.

A breathlessly silly musical farce, “Lucky Stiff” stars Brit legit star Dominic Marsh as a hitherto luckless schmoe forced into a “Weekend at Bernie’s”-type caper in order to gain a large inheritance. Broadway director Christopher Ashley’s first feature since filming Paul Rudnick’s comedy “Jeffrey” two decades ago is another theater adaptation that remains stuck to the boards, despite the considerable talent and energy on tap. Results are equal parts diverting and strained, most likely to please the same niche audiences who have given the material a modest stage shelf life for the last quarter-century. Home-format sales should quickly surpass bigscreen prospects; a theatrical release is tentatively planned for next year.

Premiered Off Broadway in 1988, “Lucky Stiff” was the first professionally produced collaboration between Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who would go on to create such higher-profile musical hits as “Once on This Island,” “Ragtime,” and “Seussical.” It’s based on an obscure 1983 crime novel, “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” by normally sci-fi-focused Brit author Michael Butterworth. (For the record, the unrelated “Weekend at Bernie’s” didn’t appear until 1989.)

West End and Royal Shakespeare Co. star Marsh is Harry Witherspoon, a British bachelor and shoe salesman no luckier at love than he is at anything else. Receiving a lawyer’s summons, he’s stunned to learn he’s inherited $6 million from an American uncle he never knew. But there’s one big condition: To get the money, he must first trundle the very dead Uncle Tony (Don Amendolia) in a wheelchair to a posthumous final fling in Monte Carlo, where he’d always dreamed of going. The late relative even made all the necessary bookings and provided a detailed itinerary of their cavortings before kicking the bucket.

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As if keeping inquisitive eyes and flies off a sunglasses-wearing corpse weren’t worrisome enough, Harry soon realizes the duo are being trailed by others intent seizing on the dead man’s fortune. Most harmless is Annabel (Nikki M. James), a wallflowerish ingenue whose Brooklyn canine shelter is next in line for the millions should Harry fail to observe every letter of the will’s demands.

More dangerous is aging Atlantic City bombshell Rita (Pamela Shaw), who was Tony’s mistress. She needs the money because it was, in fact, originally stolen from her casino-owning mobster husband (Anthony Skordi). She’s dragged along her hapless optometrist brother, Vinnie (Jason Alexander), as a reluctant co-conspirator. Then there’s the mysterious Italian playboy Luigi (the late Dennis Farina), who keeps turning up to push his joie de vivre on Harry and Tony. Other figures involved in the farcical intrigue include a statuesque showgirl (Kate Shindle) and the inevitable saucy French maid (Mary Birdsong).

With sets and costumes aiming for a vaguely ’60s/’70s feel, “Lucky Stiff” onscreen is very light black comedy in a broad, campy tenor. The cast of stage-honed thesps (including an array of familiar faces, from Cheyenne Jackson to Juliet Mills in cameos) is expert, though some of them seem to be pitching their performances to the second balcony. Given Hollywood’s current penchant for marquee value over song-and-dance ability in casting bigscreen musicals, it’s refreshing to hear so many first-rate voices (little dancing is required), even if composer Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens’ score too often feels like an arch pastiche. Similarly too cute by half is the frequent presence of animation elements, which are pleasant enough in brief standalone segments, but feel gratuitous when sprinkled atop live-action scenes as an over-sweet accent — like whipped cream on a cake that’s already 90% icing.

Partly shot in Monte Carlo, the pic nonetheless makes occasional use of deliberately obvious back projection to heighten its retro air. Tech and design contributions are fine, even if they often unintentionally reinforce the sense that “Stiff’s” eager-to-please showmanship would play best in live performance.

Film Review: 'Lucky Stiff'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 13, 2014. (In Montreal World Film Festival; Mill Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 78 MIN.

Production: An Arclight Films presentation of a New Oz and Branded Pictures Entertainment production. Produced by Victor Syrmis, J. Todd Harris. Executive producer, Mark Moran. Co-producer, Emily Hubley.

Crew: Directed by Christopher Ashley. Screenplay, Lynn Ahrens, adapted from the stage musical by Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, based on the novel “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” by Michael Butterworth. Camera (color, HD), Greg Gardiner; editors, Trudy Ship, Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Annette Davey; music, Flaherty; music supervisor, Eric Stern; production designer, Stephen Marsh; art director, T.K. Kirkpatrick, set decorator, Beth Wooke; costume designer, Durinda Wood; animation, Emily Hubley, Mark Phillips; choreography, Joey Pizzi; sound, Clark King; supervising sound editor, Terry Rodman; re-recording mixers, Tom Ozanich, Rodman; assistant director, Drew Ann Rosenberg; casting, Tara Rubin, Stephanie Yankwitt.

With: Dominic Marsh, Nikki M. James, Pamela Shaw, Jason Alexander, Dennis Farina, Don Amendolia, Kate Shindle, Mary Birdsong, Anthony Skordi, Jayne Houdyshell, Maggie Carney, Kent Avenido, Herschel Sparber, Steve West, Mary Jo Catlett, Noah Weisberg, Cheyenne Jackson, Jennifer Cody, Jim Piddock, Juliet Mills, Paul Tigue, Kevin Chamberlin, Heather Ayers, Chryssie Whitehead.

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