Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project Movie Review

At the New York Film Festival screening of John Landis' Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, subversion was in the air as Landis strolled out to introduce the film and, peering into the audience, asked William Lustig, the director of Maniac Cop, to take a bow. The excitement continued when the lights dimmed and Harry Dean Stanton in the film began warbling "Old Blue" in Dan Tana's Restaurant. Landis' camera then picks up Rickles' empty dressing room at the Stardust in a series of masterly composed shots of vacant chairs and silent bric-a-brac -- Ozu in Vegas. But then banality set in.

Landis very quickly assumes the role of the Los Angeles Chapter President of The Don Rickles Fan Club. Legions of comics and actors are trotted out (much in the manner of The Aristocrats) to praise the brilliance and hilarity of the master of the comic insult. These interviews are interspersed with clips from Rickles' films -- Kelly's Heroes, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Rat Race, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Beach Blanket Bingo -- along with television excerpts from The Tonight Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. The Man Himself is interviewed and asked to comment on his life and art. Centering the whole mishmash is footage of Rickles' nightclub act at the Stardust -- an act Rickles had heretofore adamantly refused to be filmed.

Rickles is extolled as the first performance artist and the one and only insult comedian. Or course this doesn't hold water with anyone familiar with comics as divergent as Jack E. Leonard and Brother Theodore. Rickles' stock in trade is the virulently racist insult, cracks so nasty and retrograde they become hilarious due to Rickles' perfectly timed and explosive delivery (for example, his greeting of a Japanese gentleman in the Stardust audience, "I spent three years in the jungle looking for your father"). Sarah Silverman praises Rickles: "I was a small, sheltered Jewish girl from New Hampshire and when I was little and heard Don Rickles talk about blacks, Mexicans, and Asians, he did me a service because when I grew up I knew what to expect."

Rickles really hit his stride on television talk shows, where he became legendary for turning his rapier wit on pompous and blowhard celebrities and the film is larded with hilarious clips that include a The Tonight Show With Jay Leno where Rickles lacerates Scorsese and his asthma and from a Dean Martin roast where Rickles says to Martin, "Thank you, Jerry." Here is the real crux of his fame -- Rickles as the great leveler, the big shots and the lowly are all grist for ridicule.

However, Rickles has no follow-through. Jack E. Leonard would never bow or apologize, but sanctimony is part of Rickles' act. After skewering his audience, then Rickles reverses himself and resorts to the most cloying forms of letting the audience know he was only kidding, singing a mawkish tune called "I'm a Nice Guy" and even performing a tribute to Jimmy Cagney by singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Even his pal Bob Newhart can't take it. Newhart relates: "When I'm in the audience and I see Rickles do his Cagney tribute I think to myself, 'Well, let's see. There's a 12:15am flight and 2:00am flight.'"

Landis follows the Rickles rulebook like a toady and any extended analysis is eschewed. It isn't until the halfway mark that Landis finally explores Rickles' biography and later still for an eleven o' clock paean is to the greatness of Las Vegas under the mob. Landis doesn't buttress Rickles' shtick with anything but smoke and mirrors, and the film falls away like a cheap suit.

At the end of the screening, Landis and Rickles emerged from the wings, Landis relentlessly plugging the forthcoming DVD release of Mr. Warmth as Rickles, hunched over a conference table on the stage, called out bingo numbers. This bit of business was more inventive than anything in Mr. Warmth.

Reviewed at the 2007 New York Film Festival.

He hates you.


Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project Rating

" Weak "

Rating: NR, 2007


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