Retro Review: Rhinoceros

Retro Review: Rhinoceros.

1974 was a huge year for Gene Wilder, posting five movies, including some of his best work such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. As we look back at Wilder’s career we review his first film of 1974, Rhinoceros.

When Neil came to me to write a review of a lesser known movie from Gene Wilder’s amazing career I was a little leery, but as a movie blogging professional I decided to take on the assignment with quiet dignity and grace. YOU SON OF A BITCH! BASTARD! I’LL GET YOU FOR THIS! WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME! I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE!!! MOMMY!

Retro Review: Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros (1974) by Tom O’Horgan, Rhinoceros is a film adaptation of a play by Eugene Ionesco. Ionesco, a Jew living in Romania during the rise of National Socialism (at least it’s an Ethos, dude) was shocked by how quickly the liberal intellectuals he hung out with abandoned French humanism and adopted anti-semitism and mob-rule nationalism. He wrote this play as an allegory to what he saw in the early 1930’s. In this story, one man watches as everyone around him, including his intellectual-elitist friend as well as his love interest slowly turn into Rhinoceros.

Retro Review: Rhinoceros
You can always find a morose picture of a comedian. It’s like a fundamental law of physics.

The play was critically well received, and Zero Mostel played the foppish Jean on a Broadway rendition of the play. Mostel was tapped to reprise his role in the movie version, now under the name of John. Wilder plays his slovenly drunkard friend and main protagonist Stanley. Having played together before to great success in 1967’s The Producers, Wilder and Mostel have instant chemistry as the detached loser and his haughty friend. The most charming aspect of this movie is their friendship, and in many takes it’s obvious that Wilder is trying to not burst out laughing at Mostel’s antics. Gene Wilder’s mesmerising smile can’t save this film however. While I’m glad Wilder seemed to be having fun making this film, there was none to be had in watching it.

Retro Review: Rhinoceros
Just keep it together, man.

Those who would give up meaning for a little temporary comedy deserve neither

Benjamin Franklin’s above statement has been stolen, misused and bastardized many a time, so my corruption of the phrase fits well with the manner in which this film fails. Critics of the movie at it’s release complained that the movie lost the sharp allegory of the play, and watered itself down with comedy. I agree with the first point, but I would hardly call the slapstick and wordplay on display in this film comedy. It’s just a bore. Most jokes rush through as if embarrassed by themselves and many of the supporting cast seem like frenetic extras in a high school play. They can’t even get the fumbling waiter jokes to be funny. Maybe Donald Sutherland could give them some pointers?

Retro Review: Rhinoceros

The message of the play is very muted, and would not have been apparent to me had I not gone to my good friend Wikipedia to find out what the hell this film was supposed to be about. As we saw with the uneven second act in The Lobster, balancing audience entertainment and delivering a message can be a difficult balance for even better films than this. Mostel praises Ionesco in one of his windbag admonishments to Wilder about how Stanley should aspire to intellectual perfection. Maybe the admonition should have been directed to O’Horgan instead.

Alls Mel that ends Mel
Pass the comedy, please.

As noted in our reviews of Start the Revolution Without Me and Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, many attempted the type of zany humor and biting dialogue that Mel Brooks made famous, but few could get that formula correct, even with many of the same actors in place. Rhinoceros could also be a victim of it’s time, with studios desperate to cash in on any successful play (much like today where every comic book -good or bad- is getting thrown up on the screen). Maybe Ionesco’s work was meant to stay on Broadway. But on the bright side, at least this movie wasn’t the worst rendition of this work, as Jenna Jameson (yes, THAT Jenna Jameson) starred in a 2008 movie called Zombie Strippers that was purportedly a spoof of the play.
Another great milestone in cinema.

It’s a shame our last look at Wilder’s career this month ends with a thud, but take heart. While this movie was an ignominious start to 1974, Wilder would also release some of his most brilliant works that year. So sometimes, as a wise man once told me, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have: the facts of life.

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