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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Avanti!
Avanti!
MGM // R // July 15, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted August 3, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Some Like it Hot and Witness for the Prosecution.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Avanti!, the second 70s boxoffice disaster in a row for Billy Wilder, is a wonderful, relaxed romantic comedy that came out in a year disinterested in mature romance or wistful comedy. The baffled manager of the Westwood Theater enlarged UCLA student Janey Place's laudatory review from the Daily Bruin and put it by the boxoffice, but to no avail. The few who came to the theaters loved the classically-plotted farce and its piano pacing - the exact opposite of Wilder's machine-gun comedy One, Two Three.

Synopsis (slight spoiler):

High-powered executive Wendell Armbruster (Jack Lemmon) is more angry than despondent when he rushes to Italy to claim the body of his vacationing father, killed in a car accident. Hotel director Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) tries to explain why local red tape won't allow Armbruster senior to leave the country immediately, which aggravates Wendell to no end. Wendell also becomes short with solicitous fellow-traveller Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) when she tries to tell him that not only did his father not die alone, but that he had a lover - his yearly trips to Italy were to keep up an annual affair.

Critics clumped Wilder's early 70s movies with efforts by Howard Hawks and Blake Edwards, and called them 'old man's movies'. The implication was that they were made by 'mature' directors following their own intuition instead of public taste. Avanti! certainly has a geriatric appeal - it's practically a travelogue and has no problem slowing the pace down to savor an Italian ballad, or three. Wilder swaps his Viennese standards for songs like Senza Fine, and discards his all-designed, all-controlled studio look for leisurely, outdoorsy colors.

Jack Lemmon has to fight an uphill battle, for no fault of his own. Beginning as a curmudgeonly ulcerated corporate hotshot, he spends the first 40 minutes abusing people and acting dispeptic. He's perfectly fine harping at Clive Revill's unflappable hotelier, but since it's obvious he'll soon melt into the familiar nice-guy Lemmon we all know, this section may grate on some people. Revill carries the responsibility of tons of expository dialogue, as his character knows what Lemmon's doesn't, and his job is to keep the obnoxious businessman occupied long enough for the romantic spell of Italy to take hold.

Also put to task is brave actress Juliet Mills, who not only gained weight for the role, but has to weather the indignity of being called things like 'fat ass.' What star or actress today would put her career in jeopardy that way? She even has a brief nude scene, displaying her unnatural added pounds. But Avanti! isn't about 'beautiful people'. It's a unique romance that makes its lovers beautiful.

Contemporary critics sometimes faulted Wilder and Diamond's attempt to 'inject' content like the nudity into such an old-fashioned story, but their point fell flat when the film refuses to be exploitative. The 'basking, like baby seals' scene is crucial to the breakdown of Wendell Armbruster's defenses, and also to the unique symmetrical form of the plot.

(Spoiler) If this were a horror film, we'd say that Pamela and Wendell are caught in a generational curse, 'doomed' to repeat their parents' fates. Wilder and Diamond have instead concocted a romantic curse, one where two strangers discover the beauty of their parents' affair, and are moved to recreate it. It's both inspired and thematically resonant. Avanti! isn't just about two lovers in a palmy vacation spot, it's about the concept of romance itself.  1

The key scene is 37 minutes in. (spoiler again) Wendell and Pamela come together for a legal ceremony at the chapel morturary where their parents lay side by side. When they affirm the identities of the bodies, saying 'I do', the moment doubles as a symbolic marriage. The amusing coroner, a gaunt man who notarizes multiple affadavits with lightning agility, finishes and allows a moment of silence. Wendell leaves, but Pamela walks over and opens a blind, allowing the outside sunlight to touch the bodies of the two lovers who died together. We suddenly realize that the moment has been carefully prepared. The 'cynical' Wilder has a real respect for the love of two old-timers who we never see, but who determine everything that happens to their children. Even the humorless clerk seems to change, from comic relief into a sympathetic soul. It's quite beautiful.

Impatient Yankee Wendell's progress is blocked when the corpses disappear from the morgue. He's harassed by body-snatching locals, and blackmailed by a peeping-tom bellboy who was deported from America and wants desperately to return. The bellboy's vendetta-obsessed Sicilian wife has her say as well. Then a go-getter US State Department troubleshooter (Edward Andrews) arrives to speed things up, just when Wendell and Pamela would prefer they stayed slowed-down. Luckily, the resourceful Carlucci has a complicated solution that solves all problems and grants all wishes, even those of the crooked bellboy.

Janey Place's old Daily Bruin article showed how Avanti! was a sentimental catalogue of previous Wilder situations. At the final funeral scene, there's a romantic orchestra (Love in the Afternoon), and the seven Trotta brothers (one even a dwarf) acting like the seven professors from Ball of Fire. Naturally, there's also a dialogue scene where someone describes a funny suicide attempt. A carefully-guarded coffin that contains the opposite of what it's supposed to contain (Some Like it Hot).

If all of this happened at Wilder's earlier crackerjack pace, Avanti! would be far too frenetic. But the Swiss-clock story construction doesn't permit a scene to be dropped here or shortened there. Perhaps 144 minutes is a longish haul, but I'd rather not do without priceless scenes like the dinner on the hotel balcony. We're perfectly happy to hear the orchestra reprise the medley of Italian ballads once again, and we get to meet the most gracious Italian Maitre D' in film history. He's gentle, thoughtful, and completely non-condescending, even when Pamela brings an apple to his fancy table and announces that it is all she's going to eat. "Ver-ry Goo-ood", he purrs, which is how we feel about the movie, too.


MGM's DVD of Avanti! looks absolutely splendid. The old VHS of the title was nothing special, but I always liked the letterboxed laser disc. This enhanced DVD is far sharper and more colorful, with the photography of Luigi Kuveiller (Deep Red, Flesh for Frankenstein) particularly well displayed. Scenes that before were blah, now stand out beautifully. The film looks completely brand-new.

An unimpressive original trailer is included, which probably misled potential audiences to think that the film wasn't going to be funny. Avanti! is witty, sentimental, and an almost-perfect romance.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Avanti! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2003


Footnote:

1. Wilder has a penchant for Lubitsch-like farce material. Disguise and mistaken identity figure in almost all of his films, but some of the cleverest add complicated symmetrical plotting to the stew. Wendell and Pamela's retracing the romantic steps of their parents has a pleasing confected quality, because we perceive the pattern unfolding. When Wilder has the gall to make a movie about a Hollywood writer (Sunset Blvd.), even that writer concocts a clever meet-cute construction: Two teachers, a man and a woman, fall in love before they ever make contact. They share a classroom, see, but one teaches during the day and the other at night, so they don't directly meet one another ...
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