Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 23, 2006)
For a few lessons in advertising, we need look no further than the DVD release of 1979’s The Frisco Kid. Take a gander at that cover. With its giant head shot of Harrison Ford, poor Gene Wilder – the true star of the movie – gets relegated to a tiny inset picture. The message is clear: Ford’s mug moves DVDs, but Wilder’s doesn’t.
As tactless as the cover may be, it doesn’t misadvertise too badly. After all, Ford does play a major role in the film. The flick’s trailer is a different matter as far as truth in advertising goes.
Although fresh off the success of Star Wars, Ford barely appears in the trailer. Instead, it focuses on Wilder and heavily touts his appearances in hit films like Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak and Young Frankenstein.
The message? Expect Frisco to offer another wild and wacky comedy with Wilder. However, the reality turned out to be rather different.
Set in 1850, Frisco introduces us to Avram Belinski (Wilder), a recently ordained rabbi in Poland. Though not the sharpest blade – he placed 87th in his class of 88 – he gets an assignment to head to San Francisco and lead a temple there. Avram makes it to Philadelphia okay, but after he misses his boat to San Francisco, he gets robbed by some low-lifes who offer him a wagon ride out west.
They leave him on the side of a road, but he gets some help from an Amish clan. They offer him enough money to take a train part of the way to San Francisco. That journey provides our first look at Tommy Lillard (Ford) when he robs the train.
Avram misses that occurrence but soon bumps into Tommy. When Avram departs the train, he lacks many resources and meets Tommy when the latter helps him snare some fish. The two soon become an odd partnership as Tommy grudgingly helps Avram make it across country. Along the way, they go through many adventures and become pals.
When Frisco hit the screens in 1979, I recall that I believed it was a new film from Mel Brooks. After all, Brooks worked with Wilder many times in the past, and a flick about a Jewish cowboy – as ads touted Frisco - sounded like something up Brooks’ alley.
As it happens, Brooks had no involvement in Frisco whatsoever. Instead, Robert Aldrich directed the flick. My most recent experience with an Aldrich movie came when I watched the original version of The Longest Yard, an effort that I found to be confused and muddled.
I guess that means I shouldn’t be surprised that I thought Frisco was confused and muddled as well. Much of the time Frisco feels like a much longer movie cut down to fit time limitations. At 119 minutes, Frisco already seems too long for this sort of film, but as was the case with Yard, the piece suffers from jerky editing. Many scenes end abruptly, and there’s exceedingly little narrative flow to matters. Our leads go from one spot to another without much to connect events, and the story fails to explore issues and characters well.
These problems extend to the movie’s tone. As I mentioned, the trailer touts Frisco as a Mel Brooks style comedy, but that’s not remotely the case. Though it attempts laughs at times, it almost never achieves them, and the story seems inappropriate for that sort of tale.
In truth, Frisco would work much better as an adventure drama. The story comes with many moments that depict how Avram’s faith helps him, and that attitude would fit better with a more serious movie. Instead, Frisco tries to have it both ways. It really does stick with a more serious tone much of the time, but then it’ll toss in a wacky bit here or there. Frank De Vol’s score also attempts to leaven things, but it sounds out of place. It’s like putting Carl Stalling music on top of Sophie’s Choice; the drama doesn’t match with the goofy music.
No one seems to know what kind of movie they want to make. Much of the story focuses on the drama but the actors seem to think they need to play it for laughs. I like Wilder but he does a terrible job here. He simply bugs out his eyes and shouts most of his lines. Much of these odd readings make little sense. He turns Avram into a charmless, annoying character.
In the end, the movie’s problems mainly reside with the director. He made The Frisco Kid a flick with no consistency or clarity. Is it a wacky comedy or a serious drama? No one seems to know, and the audience suffers through this poorly edited mishmash.