By S.T. VanAirsdale
Self-aggrandizing asshole or magnanimous, overgrown kid? It's hard to know exactly how to take director John Landis, particularly following yesterday's New York Film Festival press conference for his hilarious new documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. I lean toward the latter characterization; sure, he's namedroppy ("So I called Clint...") and condescending ("I'm sorry to disappoint you; I know you're a journalist"), but as a pure storyteller, Landis wields an acute magnetism similar to that of his poison-tongued subject. And Rickles, arguably in an eternal prime even at age 81, is that rare misanthrope you just can't help but exhort to more and more corrosive levels of acidity.
But if it's a match made in raconteur heaven, Landis nevertheless acknowledged his place as the closer listener. "People call him a stand-up [comic], but the truth is he's a performance artist," Landis told the crowd at Tuesday's press conference. "Don never tells jokes; he didn't tell one joke in the movie. ... What he does, as any great performer does, is he fills the room and he creates an ambiance. It's his room; he raises an eyebrow, he looks and says something innocuous -- something that from us would be stupid? Huge laughs."
Fair enough -- an evergreen topic, but evidently one a little too esoteric for financiers who reportedly shied away from Landis's $500,000 budget. Having delivered a two-day concert shoot from Vegas for a third of HBO's projected $250,000 budget, the director eventually landed a cable deal with the network. But it's worth asking which audience Mr. Warmth will appeal to: the golf-cart crowd who remember Rickles' Tonight Show appearances more readily than their grandkids' names, or perhaps the Comedy Central contingent weaned on interviewees including Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock and Jimmy Kimmel.
"Just an audience, period," Landis told The Reeler about his target viewership. "And I'm very proud to see it's all paid off. What happened was that Don's 81. My wife and I were at his 70th and 75th, and at his 80th birthday, you look around the room and you realize, 'Oh shit -- look who's not here.' I was born in 1950, and I grew up in Los Angeles. So I would see Jimmy Stewart walking down the streets of Beverly Hills; you'd see a lot of movie stars. It's very interesting because (with) movie stars, everything's changed. It was a very different kind of relationship that you had with celebrities. Celebrities now? The whole thing is so grotesque; the whole thing has become so mythic. ...
"So I was at this dinner for Don," Landis continued, "and there's this great band. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme are performing, and then you look around and there's Tim Conway and Sidney Poitier and pretty much everyone who's in the movie -- just amazing people. And I realized, 'You know, I don't think people know what Don does.' "
Here's hoping they will; despite a few obsequious lapses and an utterly Landis-esque digression into the history of Las Vegas, Mr. Warmth is the funniest NYFF selection since Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story ("I've been married for 41 years -- don't applaud, you haven't seen her.") and maybe even an eventual theatrical comer; a few New York distributors in the house took strong notice Tuesday, with at least one presumably possessing the leverage to push HBO's Dec. 2 premiere date with a little corporate shuffling. As always, you'll hear as soon as I do.
Posted at October 10, 2007 12:04 PM
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