But of all of Wilder's films, so many great ones among them, Avanti! is this writer's personal favorite. It flopped when it was new, the picture lost money and critics generally weren't impressed. Conventional wisdom was that Wilder was too old, too out-of-step with contemporary American and international cinema of the early 1970s, though this explanation goes only so far. It's easy to see why Wilder's fascinating but arcane Fedora (1978) didn't connect with general audiences, but Avanti! sure should have.
Jack Lemmon stars as an unhappy corporate executive in Ischia, Italy, there to retrieve the body of his father, who died in an automobile accident. Once there, however, he discovers that Dear-Old-Dad had for the past 10 years been engaged in a love affair with an English manicurist, whose daughter (Juliet Mills), arrives simultaneously to claim her body.
It's a romantic-comedy only in the strict dictionary definition sense. Written by Wilder and longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, adapting Samuel A. Taylor's short-lived 1968 play, Avanti! is lushly romantic yet uniquely unsentimental. What romance unfolds is fleeting, and Lemmon's character is only slightly less unpleasant and generally miserable than when the story began. Indeed, if it ever were to be remade, one imagines all the ways today's Hollywood would ruin it with a sugar rush of phony sentiment and high-concept escapist romantic fantasy.
Characters describe Italy as not so much a country but an emotion, and Ischia for its curative powers. (Leonardo de Vinci passed three stones there, on display at the local museum.) In one sense Avanti! is more about those aspects than the farcical elements, brilliant as those are. There's a truthfulness about the Lemmon and Mills characters, as if fusing Brief Encounter with the best films of Alexander Payne, that make Avanti! the most emotionally satisfying of all of Wilder's movies.
Ugly American Armbruster arrives on Saturday to claim his father's corpse, scrambling to get the body back to Baltimore for a veritable state funeral the following Tuesday. But this is Italy, where everything closes down on the weekend, especially between 1:00-4:00, when everyone takes a long lunch. ("It's-a lunch-time. Lunch-time!" implores one.) Nevertheless, dutiful hotel manager Carlo Carlucci (Clive Revill) set those wheels into motion while Armbruster prepares his father's eulogy. Soon enough, Armbruster realizes that his father wasn't spending one month out of each year there for the therapeutic mud baths.
Anxious to avoid a scandal, Armbruster unsubtly tries to buy off the mistress's daughter, overweight and clinically depressed Pamela Piggot (Juliet Mills). She's not interested. After a tearful goodbye to her mother, Pamela, never having traveled abroad, is much more interested in sampling the life her mother loved. Oblivious to Armbruster's completely self-involved concerns, she undergoes a complete transformation, abandoning an absurd strict diet ("[My psychiatrist] telling me I was unhappy because I was overweight. Rubbish! Obviously I was overweight... because I was unhappy. ") and, eventually, swimming nude in the Mediterranean and unashamedly sunbathing on a rock as sardine fisherman ogle her.
Contrastingly, Armbruster resists Ischia's beguiling charms, partly because he's too busy trying to unravel the growing complications of trying to get his father's corpse out of Italy. But, gradually, circumstances and Miss Piggot's sweet nature wear him down and, ever so subtly, he begins to question his own life and the one his father managed to escape to for a few precious weeks each year.
By all accounts the play was a mere springboard from which to work from. In the play, the second act revolves around the Armbruster character agonizing over whether to return to his conservative corporate life in America or remain in Italy with his new lover. In the movie, there's no doubt at all that Armbruster will go back, more or less on schedule, and that what redemption he gains through his experiences remains limited, even leaving ambiguous if hopeful any future for Armbruster and Miss Piggot's relationship.
Further, Armbruster is a miserable human being, closer to slimy executives Lemmon's character obliges in The Apartment rather than his own, sweet-natured role in that film. When he swims out to the rock where Miss Piggot sunbathes, there's a wonderful expression on Lemmon's face: while she looks like a woman reborn he uncomfortably straddles the rock in a state of confusion and distress, like a man undergoing a colonoscopy. The seeds of redemption may be right there in front of him, but he hasn't the foggiest idea what to do with them.
Miss Piggot, less entrenched in a wasted, unrewarding existence, lets the experience literally wash over her. Being English, what she's left behind is more obvious (the rain and the cold, the lousy food, etc.) while Armbruster's place in his father's business has defined him, completely. He's so American that, adrift in stereotypical Napoli, he becomes the butt of Wilder and Diamond's endless funny lines:
(Looking at the beautiful, Old World Grand Hotel Excelsior)
Armbruster: Well, it doesn't look like a Hilton.
Carlucci: In Italy, the lunch hour is from one to four.
After the difficult production and heart-crushing distributor tampering on Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), everything seemed to fall into perfect place on Avanti!. In new interviews on the Blu-ray, Mills and Revill marvel at the perfection of Wilder's and Diamond's screenplay, and the shooting of the film seems to have been a blissful experience for all. For Mills especially, the daughter of the great screen actor John Mills (and older sister of Haley), whose only big exposure had been on, as Wilder called it, that "stupid television series called Nanny and the Professor," Avanti! was the role of a lifetime. It was a brilliant casting choice for a difficult part, one that had to win over audiences much as Shirley MacLaine's character in The Apartment, a woman who could be both overweight yet sexy, sympathetic without appearing maudlin. Indeed, her underplayed tears, saying goodbye to her mother in the morgue, is part of a deeply moving scene, deeply moving precisely because it's so understated.
Revill, so magnificently in-sync with Wilder's and Diamond's writing in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (as Rogozhin, manager of the Bolshoi Ballet), is equally fine and funny here, his comic timing a marvel to watch. (The role had been intended for an Italian actor, but none could match the precision Wilder needed.) Edward Andrews is amusing as J.J. Blodgett, the broadly sketched U.S. State Department official who blusters into the film's last act, a role supposedly written with Walter Matthau in mind. (It certainly sounds like Matthau-esque dialogue.) The smaller Italian roles are well cast also. As the duplicitous hotel valet Bruno, Gianfranco Barra speaks English with a wonderfully nasally voice. He and others in the cast turned up in a lot of Italian genre films (he has a small part in Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling, made that same year) but few, if any, had major careers in their native Italy. And it almost goes without saying that Jack Lemmon, so long a friend and collaborator of Wilder's that it's easy to forget noting that he was taking a bit of a chance, playing against his nice everyman image portraying a lout like this.
The film's score, mostly adaptations of Italian standards like "Un 'Ora Sola Ti Vorrei," is as important as anyone in the cast, as it so beautifully expresses the lush romanticism of the story's setting.
Wilder (and Diamond) touches abound, from the risque dialogue-less opening scene, with Armbruster changing clothes with a stranger mid-transatlantic flight, lest he show up wearing garish golf clothes; the obsessively efficient Italian coroner, which has a funny payoff; the montage of Miss Piggot exploring Ischia, a kind of parody of earlier CinemaScope travelogue-type movies filmed abroad; and the myriad, offhand but hilarious throwaway lines. My favorite: when Carlucci asks Armbruster, "There is just one thing that puzzles me. The black socks. Is it because you are in mourning?" (See the film.)
Other than a few topical references lost on some viewers today, Avanti! hasn't dated, except in one curious respect. Throughout the film Armbruster calls her a "fat ass" "built like a Japanese wrestler," and Miss Piggot herself is painfully self-deprecating. In one scene she reveals her enormous weight: 135lbs. On a five-foot-two frame. How standards have changed.
Video & Audio
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray, presented in 1080p and 1.85:1 widescreen, offers an excellent transfer, correcting a flawed encoding error present on an earlier French Blu-ray release. The image is nearly perfect, showing off Luigi Kuveiller's lush color cinematography to full advantage. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono is also strong, considering, and English subtitles are offered on this Region A disc.
Supplements include two warm if not especially enlightening interviews, one with Juliet Mills, the other with Clive Revill, who have nothing but praise for Wilder and their co-stars.
One of the great underrated films of all-time, Avanti! is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.