From The Parallax Review Vaults: The Money Pit (1986)

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 The Money Pit was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore Love, Movieplex

There is a reason the sketch comedy format exists. Certain concepts are strictly a one-joke premise and don’t need to be stretched past the five-minute mark. Hence, the need for sketch comedy — get in, set up the joke, hit the punch line, get the laugh, get out. The very talented people in front of and behind the camera of The Money Pit are apparently unfamiliar with this idea, because the movie is a labored attempt to stretch its one-joke premise to an impossible ninety minutes.

Walter (Tom Hanks) is a guy who is down on his luck in most areas of his life. A lawyer for several successful musicians, his business partner father has stolen several million dollars from their clients and escaped to Rio de Janeiro, leaving Walter to clean up the mess and pay back the clients. Basically homeless, he lives with his girlfriend, Anna (Shelley Long), the only part of his life that seems to be working. When Max (Alexander Gudonov), Anna’s egomaniacal ex-husband, returns from living abroad, he demands they leave her apartment as part of the bizarre divorce settlement he negotiated.

With only a few days to find an apartment, Walter turns to a shady real estate agent who finds him an amazing mansion in the suburbs of New York. It’s a steal, literally a million dollar house for only two hundred thousand dollars. Despite their initial skepticism, they’re convinced the deal is on the up-and-up by the sob story about why the house has to be sold by its current owner (a cameoing Maureen Stapleton). Believing they’re actually getting a bargain and ignoring the old saying that whatever seems too good to be true usually is, Walter and Anna borrow more money than they can afford and buy the house. What could possibly go wrong?

Based on this lengthy plot setup and the title of the movie, you can probably guess what happens next: repairs, repairs, and more repairs. And while the first ten minutes of Walter and Anna discovering everything that is wrong with their new purchase are quite funny as the inexperienced homeowners deal with crass contractors and plumbers bleeding them dry, the joke quickly wears thin, leaving the cast flailing to draw laughs from the same five or six gags repeated over and over.

I remember seeing an interview with Tom Hanks where the interviewer was giving him grief about his involvement with Turner and Hooch. Obviously, I’ll have to paraphrase, but Hanks made the case that everyone works harder when they realize a film isn’t working. The idea being that no one wants to throw up their hands and look terrible in a terrible movie. I find that both an admirable and naïve idea. If a film fails to work on a story level, nine times out of ten, there’s nothing the cast or director can do to fix it once shooting has begun. But I do give Hanks points for doing his best with The Money Pit to sell the obviously stale gags that make up much of the final hour of the film. He puts everything he has into the film. Occasionally, he tries too hard and goes over-the-top, but he can never be accused of phoning his performance in.

The same cannot be said for Long. Perhaps she realized just how much the film wasn’t working and gave up, but her turn is uninspired. She goes from sitcom mugging to staring blankly, with no grades of subtlety in between. It also doesn’t help that most of her scenes are either opposite Hanks or Gudonov, both of whom offer up more interesting and charismatic takes on their characters than she bothers to. The result is zero chemistry with either of her costars — the kiss of death for a film that is supposed to have romantic-comedy underpinnings.

But I feel that I’ve written far more words about The Money Pit than it deserves. It’s a promising idea that never branches out beyond its initial joke. While that joke is very funny for a while, it quickly wears thin. If it weren’t for its constant rotation on cable, it would be a forgotten relic of another time when Yakov Smirnoff was considered a solid comedic cameo, all comedies had to have a character who played an instrument in a symphony, and Steven Spielberg executive-produced movies co-headlined by sitcom stars. In other words, it’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten.

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