One of my favorite comedies is Waiting for Guffman, the first of those Christopher Guest-directed ensemble mockumentaries. It plays well with the goofiness of amateur theater and really embraces the hokey vibe of stage musicals. The reason Waiting for Guffman works so well, I think, is that the material strikes the right note and the right tone, and the performances complement the whole.
How Sweet It Is sometimes gets those notes right, and there’s potential there to make the cheesy musical theater set-up worthwhile. So, let me emphasize the positive where I can. At least Joe Piscopo and the rest of the cast do an amicable enough job.
As for the material the cast has to work with, well… that’s another story.
How Sweet It Is
Director: Brian Herzlinger
Release Date: May 10, 2013 (limited)
Piscopo plays Jack Cosmo, a down-on-his-luck playwright and theater producer. Ten years ago, he was the hottest thing on Broadway, but now he’s going through hard times. Like any golden-boy-turned-schlub, he dresses like he’s from the 1940s, leaves Chinese leftovers out on the table, and owes money to the mob. All he’s missing is a Murphy bed and hard-boiled voiceover, maybe a feeble pet of some kind to engender sympathy.
When we first meet Jack, he’s soliciting gay men for a chance to touch one of his theater awards, and the scenario plays out just as broadly as the description suggests. Many of the other jokes in the film follow suit, like a musical number about buying crack. It’s so cheesy I cringed, but somehow as the gag continued, I began to giggle a little because of the unabashed cheesiness. Being cornball and running with it is its own kind of audacity, which is sort of funny. Sort of.
The mob wants to collect on Jack’s $130,000 debt, so the goons bring him in to meet the boss, Big Mike (Paul Sorvino). Turns out that Big Mike is a fan of Jack’s from back in the day. To show his appreciation and fandom, Big Mike wipes all of Jack’s debt in exchange for writing and producing a musical on candy addiction/alcoholism called How Sweet It Is. Jack’s got three weeks to do it, and his cast is comprised of trannies, deadbeats, and an undercover FBI agent with a musical theater background (Erich Bergen).
While watching How Sweet It Is, I wondered how I’d feel about the movie if it was staged as a musical theater piece. The fact it’s about a stage musical had something to do with it, but I think it’s much more an issue of tone. For some reason I’ve associated musical theater with cheesiness and broad comedy, though that may speak more to the handful of stage musicals I’ve seen than the medium as a whole. In addition, most of the performances in the film have the bigness of stage acting, like Jonathan Slavin as the kooky junkie or Victoria Summer as a prim woman with extreme anger issues.
But the cheesiness of How Sweet It Is winds up being one of its many undoings. In small doses, a cheesy joke can turn my cringing into (slightly embarrassed) giggling. Yet when the cheesiness keeps coming and coming, it winds up being overwhelming and overpowering. The giggles turn into groans, the groans turn into sighs, the sighs turn into silence. Anything earnest in How Sweet It Is just drowns in this sea of cheese by the halfway point.
Amid all the cornball humor, there’s a subplot about Jack reconciling with his estranged daughter Sarah (Erika Christensen), and of course that element gets written into the musical itself as part of its redemptive arc. It’s supposed to tug at the heartstrings a little and provide some warmth to the film, but it plays out inconsequentially because the reconciliation has practically taken place before it’s even really begun; it’s purchased but never earned.
In a movie that strikes a smarter tone like Waiting for Guffman, the musical numbers would probably have been memorable. The way I think of the songs from Guffman is “so convincingly bad-but-almost-good that they’re great.” In How Sweet It Is, none of the songs are notable except for the one about crack, though this may speak more to my own feelings about crack than the song itself. There’s a lyricless melody in the score that’s actually quite good, and sounds a bit Brian Wilson-y, but it shows up only twice, and both times briefly.
The whole film actually feels like it was slapped together on the cheap and on the quick… and possibly to repay mob debts. It’s sort of a shame because there might have been something to all this if the script was smacked around a little for its own good, and if the direction had some actual fire or wit to it rather than a journeyman’s telltale matte finish.
There’s a music number for Piscopo about showbiz and making a comeback. He dances but it’s a little uncoordinated, he sings and is flat a lot of the time; he even throws in a Frank Sinatra impression from SNL. (Another Piscopo in-joke might be a line about how much getting divorced sucks.) If How Sweet It Is was actually working, this number could have been like a Guffman moment — there’d be genuine humor in it as well as a strange little heart. I cringed and winced, but the giggles didn’t come.