As a comedy, "Taking Care of Business" (citywide) has everything going for it but laughs. It's like a stand-up comic who invested his sense of humor in the Sunbelt Jokes Savings and Loan: It hasn't got a million of them.
Take this scene: Manhattan neat freak Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin), who's lost his Filofax at LAX, drives a rented clunker through L.A.'s Eastside, hails down four grotesque thugs in a convertible and asks how to get to Malibu. They misdirect him and throw him in a trash dumpster. He clambers out, looking messy.
Are you laughing yet? No? Try this: good-hearted Chicago-born slobbo Jimmy Dworski (Jim Belushi), who's just broken out of prison so he can attend a World Series between the Angels and the Cubs, has Spencer's datebook, credit cards and list of power words--none of which will be used in this review. He gets into the Malibu home of Spencer's boss, sees the luscious interior and begins howling and running up and down the stairs. Then he howls and runs up and down the other stairway. Hmmm . . .
Wait a minute. The Cubs? In the World Series? Now, that should be funny . . . There's something eerie about this movie: a kind of mix-and-match "Trading Places," a cross-town "Midnight Run" with an "Odd Couple" who never meet. Everything seems to be in place: cast, direction, sets, the title song (borrowed from Bachman-Turner Overdrive) and, most crucial of all, the ad campaign. Director Arthur Hiller, cinematographer David Walsh and editor William Reynolds are smooth old pros who know how to do the job without jags or rough edges. Executive producer Paul Mazursky is a past master at amiably offbeat, humane, quasi-realistic comedy-dramas: movies very unlike this one.
Yet nothing works. It's as if the High Concept--two fish out of water swimming upstream and downstream across L.A.--took over so completely, the humor became conceptual too, though not very high. (Perhaps the right response is conceptual laughter.)
The press book, in a humanizing touch, reveals that writers Jill Mazursky (Paul's daughter) and Jeffrey Abrams dreamed "Business" up in a shopping mall. It fits.
To be fair, Mazursky and Abrams' script might work perfectly well, rewritten. Here, it's still an outline. The connections haven't been filled in; nothing makes much sense. Why are all those cons risking extra time just to get their pal out two days early? Why does Jimbo--a guy on the lam--keep posing as a man who may show up at any minute and get him arrested? Why can't Spencer simply stop running all around L.A., take two minutes and call somebody?
And when did eventual superchums Spence and Jimbo experience their intense male bonding during two days when they barely see each other? Was it in the screening room, while they watched rushes together?
"Taking Care of Business" is a curious achievement: a laughless comedy starring Belushi and Grodin, two actors who are almost always funny. One cast member who does find the laughs: Anne De Salvo, who hurls herself into the role of a voracious wallflower on-the-prowl, squeezing out chuckles by sheer willpower.
But it's Spencer's Filofax that gives the most amazing performance, surviving everything, even the moment when it supports two grown men as they slide down a television cable. It seems almost churlish to throw this datebook away. By the end of the movie, it's the only thing that's still hanging together.