- Year: 1981
- Director: Steven Hilliard Stern
- Starring: Elliott Gould, Bill Cosby, Susan Anspach
As I mentioned in my review of Something Wicked This Way Comes, Disney was trying a lot of new things in the 1980s, including their first PG-rated animated film (The Black Cauldron), their first horror film (The Watcher in the Woods), and two deal-with-the-devil movies. This eventually led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, which is for the best, because can you imagine Disney bringing you Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo?
Let’s go ahead and get the elephant in the room out of the way—that’s Elliott Gould in the lead role, not George Segal. I know, they’re really easy to get confused. One played Sam Spade in a 1970s film and the other played Phillip Marlowe, which only adds to the confusion. Alright, but really, yes this film features Bill Cosby as the Devil, which is horrifyingly accurate casting today but must have seemed a very strange choice in 1981.
The Faust of this story is Max Devlin (Elliott Gould), a tenement landlord who we’re supposed to hate, because he has rules I guess. He doesn’t allow children or pets, but it’s clearly stated that he hasn’t changed this policy to screw anyone over. He is clearly a bit stingy towards repairs and bug extermination, but this doesn’t make him a villain. He chases a tenant down the street who owes two months’ rent, trips over an old lady’s cane, gets hit by a bus and dies.
Max descends into the depths of hell, the design of which clearly cost every penny of the film’s budget.
Seriously, though, someone went all out designing the look of that shot above which is shown for only a few seconds. Upon arriving, Max meets Barney Satin (Bill Cosby), the souls manager, as well as the rest of the business team of Hell, because it was the ’80s and someone thought this was clever. Max has his sins read to him, and he is damned to level 4. Wait, did someone on the staff of this movie read Dante? In the screenwriter’s defense, Dante’s fourth circle of hell in Inferno was greed, and that would be Max’s biggest sin.
Barney tells Max that if he can corrupt the souls of three innocent young people in a period of two months, he will be…well we’re not really told. Will Max simply get to live out his natural life on earth and still go to Hell or will his soul actually be redeemed? Obviously, the first one makes more sense, but Barney seems to imply it’s the second. Either way, Max agrees to do it. That’s right, in the first ten minutes of this film, our lead character has agreed to let two children and one young adult sign their souls over to the Devil.
Barney checks in with Max at various times throughout the film, but of course Max is the only one who see him. It’s such an old joke, and it doesn’t lead to one funny moment. Cosby is clearly bored throughout the entire film, and he delivers the lines in a strange way that sounds like he recorded each word individually and they were then shuffled in a random order. The whole performance reeks of contractual obligation.
Max is given magical powers that whenever he looks at someone he can give them whatever talent he wants. His three targets are Stella Summers (Julie Budd), a 19-year-old aspiring singer, Nerve Nordlinger (David Knell), a nerdy high school student who wants to be a motocross champion, and Toby Hart (Adam Rich), a young boy who wants someone to marry his widowed mother. Oh goody, three cliches, I’m sure nothing could go wrong.
I have to give credit to Julie Budd, because she is desperately trying to make this a good movie. Her song “Any Fool Can See” is actually quite nice, and even though it’s played multiple times throughout the movie, I don’t get tired of it. Her characters hits all the expected beats, but she’s putting her heart into it, and the film’s quality is elevated whenever she’s on screen.
Is there an implicit joke in that she looks like Barbra Streisand? Do people even still remember that Barbra Streisand was married to Elliott Gould in the ’60s?
Nerve Nordlinger’s character gets by far the least focus of the three, probably because there’s just so little to do with it. He wants to be a motocross champ, he becomes one, great. David Knell tries his best to play both sides of the character, and he’s fine, but it’s hard to make anything interesting out of this character.
I hate to say this kind of thing about child actors, but Toby Hart is an unbearable character. I’m sure actor Adam Rich is doing exactly what the filmmakers wanted, but this is the reason people don’t like kid performances. His whole arc is “I want a dad” and trying to convince his mom (Susan Ansbach) to marry Max.
Sure, it was 35 years ago, but didn’t someone on set realize how unintentionally creepy Max Devlin is? I’m talking in addition to the fact that he’s corrupting children’s souls. He first meets Stella in a women’s bathroom, but this is just because he is trying out his new teleportation powers (yeah, he has those too), and it doesn’t go so well. At least she is rightfully creeped out by this, but she still lets him be her manager later, so it’s a bit of a mixed message. He first meets Nerve by picking him up at school and saying he’ll help him fulfill his dream. Yes, Disney, have your kid character get picked up by a stranger at school. No one could ever take that the wrong way. Worst of all, he first meets Toby at a fair and calls himself his Uncle Max. Seriously.
Eventually, one way or another, Max gets all three targets to sign a contract. Barney tells him that instead of letting the three live out their natural lives as he originally promised, he needs them now. Max of course says it isn’t fair, to which Barney says “I lied.” Max goes home to burn the contracts, but Barney tries to scare by revealing his true self.
It’s the funniest scene in the movie. Look, I think it’s supposed to be scary, but it’s hilarious. The stuttering line delivery and stupid looking costume (is he wearing lace pants?) are dead on arrival. Max burns the contracts anyway, and thankfully that’s the last we see of Barney.
Max’s soul is redeemed, because he committed a selfless act, even though he still agreed to corrupt the souls of children at the beginning! What if in the opening he had said he wouldn’t do it? Would his soul have been redeemed then, too, or is it only because he learned something now? He has no arc, but simply goes from being a bad guy to a guy who off-and-on likes the people he’s trying to corrupt to a guy who’s redeemed.
As much as I hate to compare this movie to something competent, it reminded me a lot of one of the greatest episodes of The Twilight Zone—”One for the Angels.” The episode concerns Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn), a salesman who all the kids love (it might not work today, but it’s never creepy here). Death (Murray Hamilton) comes for Lou, who says he doesn’t want to die until he does the greatest pitch ever. Thinking he’s found a loophole, he agrees to never do the pitch, but death comes for a little girl in Lou’s building. Lou sacrifices himself and distracts Death with his greatest pitch ever. He accepts his fate and Death tells him he made it to heaven.
It’s a half hour episode of television and yet the character arc is much more pronounced than this mess. Lou goes from being a bit self-centered to selfless and gives up his own life to save a child. Max, on the other hand, agrees to corrupt children, but changes his mind when he learns they will die now. Either Max doesn’t believe in eternity, which wouldn’t make sense because he’s seen Hell, or it’s poor writing.
I’ll admit that there’s one thing I did not expect this movie to be—lazy. Elliott Gould plays the part like he’s reading the lines for the first time and putting a question mark at the end of them. Cosby as mentioned above is clearly bored and wants to be anywhere else. The love story between Max and Toby’s mother has zero chemistry, and is so forced it’s unpleasant. Max has way more chemistry with Stella, which they could have easily made a few years older (the actress was in her mid-to-late 20s) and put them together instead. The scenes are choppy and a lot could be played in any random order and it wouldn’t matter. Worst of all, it’s not funny. This feels like a comedy where someone wrote a set-up but forgot to actually write any jokes. For example, when Stella becomes famous, Max is going to the Grammys and Barney shows up the back of the limo and says he’s never been to the Grammys before. How do you not make a joke out of that? It’s the perfect set-up! Someone should have had their comedy license revoked for not running with that.
Do I have to give this thing a final score?
Story (5/20 Points)
It’s run-of-the-mill without any real originality or inspiration. The character arcs are incredibly predictable without any shred of fun.
Faust (6/20 Points)
Gould’s acting is incredibly wooden throughout the whole thing. He’s not believable as a slum landlord and he’s not believable as a redeemed good man. His scenes with Stella are at least watchable.
Devil (2/20 Points)
This is a terrible performance. When an actor doesn’t want to be in a movie this badly, it shows. He’s not funny or scary, and the line delivery is really strange.
Supporting Cast (9/20 Points)
Julie Budd is really good as Stella, making something out of mostly nothing. David Knell doesn’t really get a chance to do a lot as he’s very much sidelined, but he’s fine.
Experience (9/20 Points)
“Any Fool Can See” is a very good song that belongs in a much better movie, and Stella’s second song “Roses and Rainbows” is perfectly fine. The Lovecraftian design of Hell is really creative, but the editing, music, and jokes are all lazy.
FINAL SCORE: 31%
If it strikes you as a bizarre anomaly, you might be glad you checked it out, but there’s no other real reason to watch this movie. It’s crap.
Next week, I’ll wrap up with some final thoughts on Faustian films.