Friday, August 10, 2018

Neglected Gem: Moon Over Parador (1988)

Richard Dreyfuss in Moon Over Parador. (Photo: IMDB)

In Moon Over Parador, a New York actor named Jack Noah (Richard Dreyfuss), who’s just completed a spy thriller on location in a mythical Central American nation called Parador, is kidnapped and forced to impersonate the country's dictator, Simms, who has just keeled over from a heart attack. With the help of his double’s mistress (Sonia Braga), Noah outwits the Secretary of the Interior, Roberto Strausmann (Raul Julia), who runs the secret police and thinks he’s still pulling the dictator’s strings, and ushers in a new, humanistic regime. Paul Mazursky’s film, which he co-wrote with Leon Capetanos, was probably suggested by a 1939 comedy called The Magnificent Fraud, starring Akim Tamiroff and Lloyd Nolan, and it bears some resemblance to Roberto Rossellini’s General della Rovere, in which Vittorio De Sica gave an unforgettable performance as a con man, hired by the Nazis to imitate an executed Resistance fighter, who undermines them by turning into the man he’s playing. But the absurdist-farce style of Moon Over Parador is entirely Mazursky’s, and so is the sensibility. In his movie, the emphasis isn’t on politics or even on character transformations; it’s on role-playing. Moon Over Parador is a comedy built around an actor’s vision of the way the world works.

The film is framed by a bull session among actors who’ve come out to audition for Joe Papp at the Public Theater and are waiting in the lobby for their call. Their chit-chat recalls the theatrical banter in Tootsie: when one of the guys mentions that he’s proud of the sperm he once played, you think of Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey boasting about the evening of vegetables he performed off Broadway that knocked critics on their asses. When one of the other actors asks Jack what he’s been working on for the past year, he tells them about his stint as dictator of Parador. The tone of this scene informs the rest of the movie. On the last day of shooting the spy picture, Jack approaches the director after an elaborate slaughter scene without an iota of plausibility in it to beg for another take, and when Roberto corrals him into impersonating Simms, he uses the same approach. “I need rehearsal time!” he protests when he’s told he has to give a speech to the citizens of Parador the next day. “So far my performance has been what we call ‘result-oriented,’” he explains after a few hours in the part. And when the Paradorians cheer the speech he’s learned by rote, he warms to their applause and begins to improvise, tossing in lines from “The Impossible Dream” and “September Song” for sentimental effect. Roberto’s amused, as a director might be whose star has tried something new on stage without breaking character. He has no objections, either, when Jack puts the whole country on an exercise regimen, leading them in aerobics on TV every morning, or when he orders a new national anthem. (The old one was to the tune of “O Tannenbaum!”; the new one is hilariously show-biz, with lyrics like these words of praise for Parador: “Your mountains, your beaches / Your guavas, your peaches . . .”) It’s when Jack switches scripts on him and upsets his political agenda that Roberto gets furious – but by then, Jack has arranged a television interview with Dick Cavett (who does a neat self-parody) and he’s too much in the spotlight to have to kowtow any longer to Parador’s chief puppeteer.

Mazursky had engaged in this kind of burlesque before. He sent up Hollywood lifestyles in the best parts of Alex in Wonderland in 1970, and his autobiographical Next Stop, Greenwich Village is also about actors and the way they think (among other things). He was practically a genius at this, so even though Moon Over Parador may be the sloppiest movie he ever made, with glaring plot glitches and next to no structure, it’s immensely entertaining. Braga and Julia are very lively, and Mazursky assembled a supporting cast that would do justice to a Preston Sturges picture: Jonathan Winters as a CIA agent masquerading as a semi-retired businessman, Polly Holliday as his raucous, randy wife, Fernando Rey, Marianne Sagebrecht, Charo, and Mazursky himself in drag as the dictator’s mother, who’s so estranged from her son she can’t tell that Jack is an imposter. And Dreyfuss is terrific as a man who lives off his actor’s vanity yet still manages to be appealing. Dreyfuss had made his comeback in 1986 in Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and in this new, re-energized phase in his career meant seeing his name in the credits of a movie was enough to make you grin in anticipation.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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