Hugh Grant was the co-star of Notting Hill, but rightly or wrongly, its commercial success was attributed almost solely to Julia Roberts. If his new film, Mickey Blue Eyes, turns out to be boffo, there will be no one else to credit; his co-stars, after all, are Jeanne Tripplehorn and James Caan, names unlikely to cause a box-office stampede. Given what passes for funny these days, Mickey Blue Eyes probably will be a hit, which means we’re in for a lot more of Hugh Grant’s effetely charming tic shtick.
Grant’s ascension as a leading man may have something to do with the plenitude of slobs onscreen these days. Between the youth-pic gross-out gang and the Sean Penn-Nicolas Cage misfit generation, there aren’t many romantic leads in the movies anymore who seem to know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork – or whether to use a fork at all. Grant is popular, I think, because his mannerisms are all about manners. Trying to keep up the proper front in a world inhabited by the unruly, he’s forever flustered.
Although he’s careful not to play the snob, there’s an element of snobbery, or at least connoisseurship, in the American audience’s embrace of Grant. For one thing, he has that Oxbridge diction that sets him apart from Hollywood’s other leading men. You can actually make out what he’s saying. We have a weakness for royalty, for good breeding, and Grant, stammering and self-effacing, allows us to keep our self-respect by making fun of the very thing that draws us to him. He’s like a fubsier David Niven, or, at his most clownish, a spiffier Stan Laurel. He’s fun to watch in limited doses, but his act is so one-note that his performances blend into one another. From Four Weddings and a Funeral to Nine Months to Notting Hill to Mickey Blue Eyes, he’s working the same narrow track. I’m not suggesting Grant suddenly hit us with his Hamlet, but there was a time a while back, in movies like The Lair of the White Worm and Impromptu, when he had a bit more dash in his stride. It’s too early in his career for him to be neutering himself into an upper-crust bumbler.
Mickey Blue Eyes plays up the chasm between the goons of the world and Grant’s agitated articulateness. He plays Michael Felgate, who works for a New York auction house. To his surprise, his girlfriend, Gina (Tripplehorn), to whom he has just proposed, turns out to be a Mafia princess, plunging him into a world of slugged syllables and good-
natured chops to the solar plexus. In the past, Gina’s family, including her father, Frank (Caan), and “uncle” Vito (Burt Young), have pulled her paramours into a life of crime against her wishes. (She’s a very unprincessy princess – she teaches underprivileged schoolkids.) Inevitably, Michael’s attempts to lure her to the altar bring on the mob; figuring he’s practically one of the family anyway, the goombahs start using his art auctions to launder money. Lies, murder, double crosses ensue, all purportedly comical. At one point, Frank, trying to pass off his prospective son-in-law as mobster Mickey Blue Eyes from Kansas City, counsels Michael in the proper way to pronounce fuhgeddaboudit. Haven’t we already been through this voice lesson in Donnie Brasco? It’s time to fuhgeddabout fuhgeddaboudit.
There are some funny moments early on, before it dawns on Michael exactly what sort of family he’s joining. It might have worked out better for the film if he never quite figured it out – Michael is much funnier clueless than criminal. The best scene in the movie, however, has nothing to do with the mob at all: Michael botches his proposal to Gina in a Chinese restaurant and brings on the wrath of the owner, played by Lori Tan Chinn with such crack comic timing that the film never recovers from her exit. We’re left with a lot of recycled jokes about whacking and wheezing.
If reports in the press are to be trusted, the Mafia is on the wane in this country. So why is it that movies and TV shows about the Mafia are on the rise? Just in the past year, we’ve seen, in rapidly descending order of quality, The Sopranos, Analyze This, and now Mickey Blue Eyes. In Hollywood these days, family entertainment is where you find it.