I love Jules Feiffer as a cartoonist. But he is one seriously overrated screenwriter. Carnal Knowledge never worked for me, especially the ending, and now I've finally seen Little Murders, a movie based on his play. The play closed after one week. The film didn't fare much better, and it's easy to understand why.
Little Murders may have had more satirical impact if I'd seen it back in 1971, when it seemed like the social fabric was breaking down and New York had aspects of an outlaw town. Now, it just comes across as an over-the-top translation of a theater farce (you can feel the outlines of stage blocking throughout) and a not very good one at that.
The movie, with a screenplay by Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin, does try to spoof the concerns of New Yorkers in that time period. There is the young "apathist" photographer (Elliott Gould) who has gone from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar to snapping piles of dog shit, and winning awards for both. He meets a young, upbeat woman (Marcia Rudd) who is determined to snap him out of his funk and marry him, essentially making him conform to middle-class mores.
She has a crazy family, including a hothead dad (Vincent Gardenia), a mother with blinders on and the requisite crazy brother. (I got the feeling that Woody Allen may have used some of this as subconscious inspiration for Annie Hall). There are scenes that are supposed to be hilarious family gatherings, but Feiffer and Arkin are not the Marx Brothers, even though Gardenia is a physically appealing farceur.
Little Murders may work best in the little details. Throughout the movie, New York's infrastructure is seen crumbling, a metaphor for moral decay, as well. Lights fail, bombs explode, Gould gets beaten up and called homosexual epithets, and 340 "little murders" go unsolved through the city. When we finally meet Gould's parents (John Randolph and a young Doris Roberts), they are the clueless, over-educated liberals that Feiffer often winningly skewed in his cartoons. Finally, the lawlessness building slowly on the edges of the story strikes Gould and his wife's family, and they literally go crazy, turning into part of the city's uncontrollable rabble.
Feiffer said some of this movie was his reaction to the political assassinations of the '60s. It is also part of theater's absurdist and surreal traditions, from Beckett to Ionesco. And I can see where he's going with it, but it just doesn't work onscreen. There are long, excruciating stretches, as though the whole movie is the opening cat food scene of Gould's The Long Goodbye. This might have made a nifty casual on the pages of The New Yorker or Feiffer's Village Voice, but onscreen it doesn't come close to what Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola pulled off in their '60s indie experiments.
There are several reasons to sit through Little Murders. From the opening credits, you can spot the gorgeous grainy photography of Gordon Willis, who favors us again with several velvety dark interior shots. Arkin's direction is sort of intriguing, a mix of standard and hand-held shots that keeps the film off-balance. Elliott Gould was at the height of his youthful handsomeness, and has there ever been a more unlikely and appealing leading man than Elliott Gould? Sometimes, just the mere fact of his presence in a movie makes it worthwhile.
Finally, in the pantheon of great ministers-at-weddings scenes, Donald Sutherland's cameo as a hippie existentialist reverend deserves pride of place next to Peter Cook's in Bedazzled. Instead of me describing it, you can watch it here. This might be the single best sequence in the movie, with Feiffer pulling together a great soliloquy on marriage and Arkin crisply editing the back-and-forth commentary with a deft touch that resembles Mel Brooks-meets-Woody Allen:
Sutherland is great, isn't he? In the end, I wish all of Little Murders could live up to that scene. (The opening scene, as we hear Gould being beaten up outside Rudd's window and she keeps getting a busy signal when she calls 911, is just as inspired.) It sounds as though there are a lot of reasons to see Little Murders, and perhaps there are.
It is definitely a sui generis film, but I don't think it measures up to similar counterculture classics such as Hi, Mom! and You're A Big Boy Now. In acting parlance, it doesn't kill.