From The Parallax Review Vaults: Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

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 Prizzi’s Honor was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on HBO

Prizzi’s Honor is a movie about a conflicted hitman. But unlike so many movies with similar descriptions, the protagonist in this case is not concerned with the morality of his job, but his duties to his crime family and to his wife. When those duties conflict with each other, should he choose love or honor? Like so many other things in this subversive film, the answer to that question is stickier than it seems.

Charlie Partanna (Jack Nicholson) is a high-ranking hitman in the Prizzi crime family. When he attends a family wedding, he meets sultry mystery woman Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner). For the two of them, it’s love at first sight. But there are numerous flies in the ointment. Charlie’s ex-girlfriend, Maerose (Anjelica Huston), the daughter of Charlie’s boss, has decided that she wants to be accepted back into the family after four years of being exiled for cheating on Charlie. This means she has to make nice with Charlie, but her motives may not be so cut-and-dried. On top of this, Irene may or may not have been involved in scamming a casino that resulted in nearly a million dollars being stolen from the Prizzi family. And did I mention that Irene is also a deadly assassin?

What is fascinating and frustrating at the same time about the film is that it plays with the same themes that the first two Godfather films worked with. Instead of playing the film as a straight drama, legendary director John Huston gives it the tipsy tone of a British comedy of manners. Misunderstandings, old resentments, and comically swooning scenes of romance combine to create a film with a pitch-black sense of humor. This is very much to the film’s benefit, and if Huston had maintained this tone through to the end, he would have wound up with another masterpiece. Unfortunately, he attempts to turn the film into a serious drama in the third act, fumbling the bleak climax before trying to recapture the comedic tone with a deceptively sinister resolution.

Still, the film manages to make many points about the corruptive nature of crime families and their so-called code-of-honor. As the characters demonstrate many times through the film with their selfish actions, the code is something they consider malleable if it leads to bigger profits.

Huston also manages to wring laughs out of scenes that would otherwise not deserve them. His main weapon in this is the casting of Nicholson as Charlie. With several scenes of Charlie spouting purple prose as he professes his love for Irene, the film could have become laughable as a cheesy exercise in how to make a bad romance. But coming from Nicholson’s mouth, the lines are both funny and oddly sincere. Huston knows that the audience has a pre-determined idea of the kinds of characters that Nicholson plays, so he gives the audience what they expect: a hardened killer. He then turns this perception on its ear when Charlie starts delivering Harlequin romance-worthy dialogue.

While Nicholson shines, Turner gives a less steady performance. She’s never bad, but she seems unsure if Irene is supposed to be actually in love with Charlie, or only using him to make a big payday. While the script seems to want the audience to ask this question, it’s never handled in a confident enough manner to suggest either option to be true. Turner’s performance suffers as a result of this uncertainty. It also doesn’t help that she shares many of her scenes with Nicholson, who dominates the film with his grandiose comedic performance.

Prizzi’s Honor is yet another good film that has the capability of reaching greatness, but fails because of a poor third act. It is still worth checking out for the cynical touches that Huston and the script bring to the proceedings and for Nicholson’s performance. Just anticipate a final twenty minutes that is as unsatisfying as any that has been captured on film.

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