I had thought after Bullets Over Broadway I would be moving on to another crowd-pleasing comedy Woody Allen made for Miramax, Mighty Aphrodite. But a quick check of Wikipedia reminded me that in between he wrote and directed a TV movie version of his 1966 play, Don’t Drink The Water. I’m not sure it has ever screened in Australia. As a completist/tragic I bought a copy on DVD many years ago, watched it once and forgot about it.
Sadly, it’s fairly forgettable. That’s despite the fact that the elements are in place for a classic farce: an American embassy behind the Iron Curtain, an incompetent junior diplomat (Michael J. Fox), a hilarious priest (Dom DeLuise), a fish-out-of-water couple from New Jersey (Woody Allen and Julie Kavner) and their daughter (Mayim Bialik). Throw in an apoplectic chef (Austin Pendleton), visiting dignitaries, a token love story and cold war paranoia, and you have the makings of a story that could bring big laughs on the stage.
Could, and probably did in 1966, and probably still do in countless high school and am-dram productions – some of which are on YouTube. But this production never seems to do the material justice. Which is ironic, because Woody has said he directed this because he was so dissatisfied with the filmed 1969 version starring Jackie Gleason. (He didn’t write, direct or have anything to do with that beyond the original stage play inspiration, which is why this blog doesn’t cover it.)
So what went wrong? The cast are all fine, and sometimes really funny. Dom DeLuise really delivers, Woody Allen is clearly enjoying playing another kind of Broadway Danny Rose lowlife, and Julie Kavner is always excellent as his foil. But the style he was enamoured of at this time (casual long takes and a roving camera) doesn’t serve the quick pace of a farce very well. Hilarity does not ensue.
After the sophistication of the characters and structure and satire in Bullets Over Broadway, this feels like more than a backwards step. It feels like a giant leap back to those hit-and-miss comedies of the early 1970s. Don’t Drink The Water doesn’t seem to have anything deep and meaningful to say, but then as a pure laugh machine it doesn’t exactly work either. It’s no Play It Again, Sam.
To be fair, perhaps an reworked old play and a hamstrung TV production never could work that well. Next week I’m looking forward to getting back to big-screen where Woody belongs.
Next week: Mighty Aphrodite