The Hollywood satire is as American as any of our genres. Soon after film stock first began to roll, stars and filmmakers turned the camera about-face to what’s going on behind the scenes: Chaplin mimed the chaos of movie-making in its earliest days, and Harold Lloyd wasn’t far behind with “Movie Crazy.” “Sullivan’s Travels,” a bleak Preston Sturges Hollywood satire so inventive that it rattles against the classic Hollywood tradition that produced it, is a landmark example of how comedy can sweep across a range of emotion. We have to wonder if Truffaut and Fassbinder would have undertaken “Day for Night” and “Beware of a Holy W***e,” respectively, if it hadn’t been for the self-reflection in a national cinema they both so adored.
“The Deal,” another stop for journeyman actor (and here co-writer with director Steven Schachter) William H. Macy, takes a whiff of the dirtier aspects of the modern industry with a breezy touch that makes all things considered in it laughable and delightful. Sure, we’ll recall Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.,” Christopher Guest’s “The Big Picture,” and Macy’s own “State and Main” (David Mamet’s jolly little invective to big pictures) during the running time. But as Macy’s friend and collaborator Stuart Gordon says, the former is “the Fred Astaire of actors”: give him a scene, any scene, and watch it flurry into life.
Macy plays Charlie Berns, a producer fallen on hard times. In the opening minutes he opts to taste some carbon monoxide piped into the house from his car exhaust, while he sips a fine red and hears some opera. Here we remember Richard Mulligan at the start of Edward’s satire, as Felix Farmer, the producer-character who wanders about looking for a sure means of death. “S.O.B.” fires into its satire once Farmer, mid-suicide-attempt, finds his next big idea (a turkey which he thinks will take flight). And such is the case with Charlie Berns: his big idea comes from his nephew, Lionel Travitz (a lively Jason Ritter – yes, the next generation of that Ritter family).
Lionel has taken his uncle’s advice to follow his dream of writing a real film, a period piece about Benjamin Disraeli, the first and only Jewish-born prime minister of England. Charlie has no time for art film projects, since he can’t even strike with a high-concept idea. Though soon he reformulates the script into a big, hollow concept in a flash of what some Hollywood types would call inspiration. Charlie’s soon gearing the project for newly-Judaic action star Bobby Mason (L.L. Cool J), who travels with his own portable temple and dons a personalized yarmulke and a Star of David tattoo as if they bring him street cred. Berns negotiates the deal with the help of a studio exec (Meg Ryan), a step which mixes in rom-com elements while the filmmakers thumb their nose up at an establishment that too often dismissed independent productions like “The Deal.” The Ryan-Macy romance begins on a sketchy plot point, but I guess many of this film’s targets have done much worse.
“The Deal” lets many humorous conceits fly. Macy is clearly having a time poking fun at producers who have reduced him to a “character actor” for years – his producer has perfected methods to shut people up and fire them on the spot, even though he never reads his production’s source material. When Charlie’s concept turns into a Bobby Mason vehicle, Mason gets to save the day with the girl on one shoulder and a Torah scroll on another. He takes advice for his signature phrase from a high-profile Rabbi-turned-executive-producer (Eliot Gould, very spoofy-go-lucky), and to reveal the catchphrase would do a disservice to viewers.
But the real treat here is Macy’s performance. Even though he delighted in the forgotten “State and Main,” as a demanding director who made a career by talking his way in, Macy’s Charlie in “The Deal” is one of his lightest roles yet. Often realizing victimized losers who resort to violence or self-destruction, Macy proves his versatility here by becoming a snarky romantic lead with a helping of sight gags and slapstick. The brilliant Macy we know best would usually use his open face to draw pathos for an ambivalent character. In this rewarding turn, how easy does this “Fred Astaire” make it look.
It’s disheartening to learn, at the film’s East Coast premiere at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, that “The Deal” has yet to iron out its own distribution deal. For a tale this enjoyable, an easy choice for a fun night out, that deal should be a no-brainer.