From The Parallax Review Vaults: Opportunity Knocks (1990)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Opportunity Knocks was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Cinemax

For an innocuous vehicle to capitalize on Dana Carvey’s popularity during his Saturday Night Live heyday, there’s something slightly distasteful about Opportunity Knocks. This lack of taste has nothing to do with Carvey, but with using his talents for mimicry and improvisation to tell a story about a con man seeking to rip off a wealthy Chicago businessman by getting his daughter to fall in love with him. Comedies about con artists work best when the person being conned is someone who deserves to be ripped off (The Sting). Here, I just found the premise so off-putting, it was hard to appreciate the minimal amount of actual comedic entertainment on display.

Eddie (Carvey) is a talented con man running small-time scams with his partner, Lou (Todd Graff). Lou is a screw-up who keeps them in debt to Sal (veteran hard-ass character actor James Tolkan), a local crime kingpin who hides his illegal activities behind his legitimate demolition company. When Eddie gets angry at Pinkie (Mike Bacarella), one of Sal’s goons, he steals what he thinks is Pinkie’s car to vandalize it. When he realizes the car actually belongs to Sal, he quickly abandons it. In a funny (one of the film’s only funny moments) time-lapse sequence, the car is stripped and vandalized over the course of one night. By the time Sal finds the car, it is nothing more than a shell of its former self. Even worse, Sal had $60,000 locked in the trunk that is now missing. Sal quickly learns that it was Eddie and Lou who took the car and puts a price on their heads. Eddie and Lou split up, and Eddie takes refuge in the suburban house of an out-of-town businessman.

Through the movie magic of mistaken identity, Milt (Robert Loggia) and Mona (Doris Belack), the parents of the owner of the house, confuse Eddie for their son’s house sitter, his best friend from Harvard. Before long, Eddie is formulating a plan to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the successful Milt that involves going to work for him and romancing his daughter, Annie (Julia Campbell). That said plan involves Carvey making lots of funny voices and working in a George Bush (H.W., not W.) impression is a given.

The film wants to be a combination of a fish-out-of-water story combined with a traditional con game. But the fish-out-of-water story quickly grows thin when Eddies makes the transition from streetwise crook to master of the boardroom in record time. Even worse, the con game is too transparent to be interesting and becomes increasingly unpleasant as Milt, Mona, and Annie reveal themselves to be truly nice people. That Eddie finds himself having a crisis of conscience as he grows to love Annie and respect Milt, is supposed to show growth in his character. But what does it say about him when he still goes through with the con? Granted, the script by Mitchel Katlin and Nat Bernstein set up circumstances to have Eddie only go through with the con when Sal tracks him down and threatens to kill Lou. But the attempt to make Eddie likable by using his gifts as a con artist to slither out from under Sal’s thumb and try to make things right with Milt and Annie only come across as shallow and underhanded. By the time the requisite happy ending rolls around for Eddie in his reconnection with Annie, I was slightly sick to my stomach.

Obviously, a film like Opportunity Knocks is not meant to be taken seriously. The story doesn’t hold up to even casual scrutiny, and Milt and Annie react to Eddie’s antics in ways that no actual person would. But the film is so devoid of laughs, I found myself focusing on the leaky story and the awful psychological trickery that Eddie employs on characters that don’t deserve such callous treatment.

If there is a positive to be taken away from the film, it’s Carvey’s performance. When not doing silly voices and impersonations (some of which are quite good), he’s actually very charismatic and effective. He plays the scenes of Eddie questioning his path in life and the morality of what he’s doing to Milt and Annie with the weight of a serious drama and pulls the transition in tone off nicely. Maybe it’s just because Carvey’s movie career never took off or the fact that he’s so associated with his Saturday Night Live characters, but I was surprised at the range he showed.

Unfortunately, Carvey’s performance and a supporting cast of reliable character actors are unable to salvage much of anything from the wreckage of the script. As it exists, Opportunity Knocks has a fundamentally flawed idea at its core. The inability to deliver in the comedy department only makes the story problems more glaringly obvious.

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