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THE FANTASTICKS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joel Grey, Jonathon Morris, Jean Louisa Kelly, Joe McIntyre, Barnard Hughes, Brad Sullivan
Director:  Michael Ritchie
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  See Review
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  February 27, 2001

Film *

The cover box boldly proclaims The Fantasticks as the world’s longest running musical.  It certainly feels that way when you watch the film.  If there were truth in advertising, this hackneyed musical picture would have been titled The Dullards.

It took spirit to make a movie musical in the mid nineties, almost three decades after the genre ceased to exist for all intents and purposes.  The show was obviously a popular one, and seemed a good choice.  I’ve never seen it on stage myself, but if the film is any indication of the theatrical version, I’d wager a good many theatre owners are getting a remarkable deal.

There are many flaws at play, any one of which could be a death knell for a musical (put them all together, and you might as well gather wood for the pyre).  The dance numbers are so horridly amateur and unnatural looking that you could waltz into any high school auditorium in the country and see better ones.  Nobody looks comfortable with the dance, not even the normally surefooted Joel Grey, who gets for a dancing partner Brad Sullivan (and it is admitted in the commentary track that this actor had no experience with song and dance).  When Jean Louisa Kelly does her steps with former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre, you’d almost swear you could see their lips move as they count; that’s how uncomfortable they look.

Nobody involved knew how to record sound for a musical, either.  Microphones were left on during the dance numbers, so the sounds of the orchestra were constantly competing with the shuffling and clomping of feet.  Songs were recorded live by the cast members, which produced an uneven sounding effect, and created more distraction with the fact that you could often see the earpieces the actors were wearing to keep in time!

Worst of all, the film is just plain boring.  Even at less than an hour and a half, I couldn’t wait for it to end.  I didn’t care for the characters, the story was deliberately bizarre and came across as murky and mean spirited instead of magical.  It played like an exercise in tedium almost all the way; wearing the patience and fraying the nerves.

Sad, because it started out promising enough.  In a beautiful rural setting, where two houses sit side by side at their property’s border, pretty young Luisa (Kelly) has secret fallen for her neighbor’s son, handsome Matt (McIntyre).  They meet discreetly whenever they can, for their fathers (Grey and Sullivan respectively) are feuding, and have expressly forbid their children to see each other.  Little do they know:  the fathers are actually friends, and intend for their children to marry!  They figure the surest way to get your kids to do what you want is to tell them NOT to do it, and it seems to be working!

The fathers have a plan to cement the deal:  with the help of a strange traveling carnival ringleader, El Gallo (Morris), they stage a bizarre kidnapping of Luisa, simply so Matt can rescue her.  (For the film, it was changed from a staged rape to a staged seizing, thankfully).  The romance of such a moment will surely have the kids marching down the aisle, not to mention giving the fathers an excuse to finally end their “feud”.

It goes awry, however, not because of the ridiculous and poorly staged fights by actors who looked as though they’d never seen a sword in their life, but because without the feud, the lovers seem lost.  Gone are their precious stolen moments together, and with their romance unhindered, they don’t seem to know where to take it.  It gets a little more complicated when they learn about their fathers’ staged event, plunging both youngsters back into that strange carnival world, where El Gallo makes no bones about proving to Matt that he’s the superior fighter, or to Luisa that he’s the superior lover.

The scenes go from strange to stranger, and many are in questionable taste.  I particularly loathed El Gallo’s fantasy dance number with Luisa, where she constantly sees, but doesn’t respond to, Matt being tortured by the carnival cronies.

By the end, everything sort of works out…that is, if you can believe that these two could ever have a life together after going through such a sordid ordeal.  El Gallo drives away singing “Try to Remember”, yet one more example of tediousness run amuck, as the song rhymes “remember” with “September” and “December” more times than I cared to count.

There is probably enough blame to go around here.  I blame the casting director, who obviously thought Joe McIntyre might be a draw for the film, and didn’t take into account that he couldn’t act, and that his singing as he’s grown up has become questionable at best.  I blame the choreographer, Michael Smuin, whose work is so amateurish that had he left the cast alone to improvise their own steps on camera, it couldn’t have been any worse than what we get here.  I blame Michael Ritchie, who either didn’t recognize that he had all the wrong people in key positions on his film, or chose to ignore it.

Mostly, I blame the timing.  The musical is a nostalgic art form that yearns for the glamour of the old studio systems, the grace of top notch singers and hoofers, and the beautiful heightened sense of fantasy brought about by Technicolor.  It’s an almost impossible genre to resurrect without these things.  The Fantasticks is a pale, pale imitation of those great films, and will certainly never take its place beside them.

Video ***1/2

This is a very impressive anamorphic transfer.  The color schemes are rich and varied, and they render with perfect brightness, tone, and integrity, with no bleeding or distortions.  When Luisa first steps out of her house and into a sunflower field, that’s just about as beautiful as it gets.  Images are generally very sharp and clear throughout, even in scenes involving some depth of field, and save for one or two slightly softer, slightly hazier darker sequences, there are no complaints.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is generally very good, with most of the channel discretion coming from the musical orchestration.  Though the songs are not memorable, the score still benefits from full digital surround sound:  it’s clear, lively, and dynamic throughout.  There are one or two effects sequences that make use of the multi-channel audio, though not a lot of use of the .1 channel for bottom end (truth be told, it doesn’t really need it).  Dialogue and lyrics were easily understood, and the track was free from distracting noise or distortions.

Features ***

The disc starts with a commentary track by director Michael Ritchie…a pleasant enough listen, as he has a relaxed speaking manner and plenty to say, but is hardly unbiased about his work.  When he praises the swordplay, for example, I wondered if he was watching the same scene I was!  There is also 30 plus minutes of extra footage, including deleted scenes and songs, extended numbers, and a rather goofy alternative ending.  There is a “jump-to-a-song” feature and a trailer as well.

Summary:

The Fantasticks lacks the right lead players, the good songs, the memorable dance numbers, and the winning story needed to be a successful musical adaptation.  It may be a hit on the stage, but on the screen, it’s a bit too tiresome and unaffecting to work.  Delve into MGM’s catalogue of classic musicals instead, and try to forget this one.