DVD Review Of Minnie And Moskowitz
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/07
All choice entails risk, therefore John Cassavetes’ artistic choice to structure his films based mostly on improvisation rather than hard scripted dialogue is a decision that can result in great films, like his Faces, ok films like his Shadows, and bad films, like his 1971 film, Minnie And Moskowitz, an awkwardly written and poorly acted comedy that has a few brilliant moments that reveal Cassavetes at his filmmaking best, but also shows far too much sloppy editing, amateurish overacting, and a really forced love story between two characters that have nothing in common, and are not given any reason to bridge their gap.
Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) is a professional car parker (aka valet) whose mother finances his move from New York to Los Angeles. He is, as his mother admits, a bum, a wacko, a long haired aging hippy, with a handlebar mustache, who clearly has mental- or, at least, emotional- problems. Cassel portrays him as a hyperactive, immature, loudmouthed, foolish stoner type from the first shot through the last shot.. One day, while at work, he rescues Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands), a docent at an arts museum, from a date from hell with Zelmo Swift (Val Avery). She had been set up on a blind date with Zelmo, by her older female neighbor, after her married lover (John Cassavetes, himself) has dumped her because his wife found out of their affair and tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. He is a balding, fat man with a propensity to shout, and one of the funniest scenes in the film is when he is telling Minnie all about his life, and embarrasses her by shouting all sorts of intimacies across the restaurant. When she can take no more, and tries to leave, he gets violent with her, out in the parking lot, where Moskowitz tries to intercede, and ends up beating him up, losing his job, and driving away with Minnie. He then hits on her, and they go for a hot dog. Then, when she sees he’s as crazy as Zelmo, he stalks her in his car, and finally drops her off at the museum.
The next day he shows up professing undying love for Minnie. We are led by the script to believe that Minnie is a smart woman, but why she doesn’t immediately call the cops on Moskowitz, nor did she report Zelmo, is a gaping logical hole in the plot. That she then goes out repeatedly with Moskowitz, over the next few days, only adds to the mystery, for he is every bit as rude and obnoxious as Zelmo was, and much more insistent. Moskowitz, as crazy as he is, is a bit more understandable a character than Minnie is. Earlier in the film, he too had a run in with a loudmouth, even wackier, character at a restaurant; a guy called Morgan Morgan (Tim Carey). This, too was a brilliant scene, that reeked of naturalness. Another great scene comes near the film’s end, when, just four days after meeting each other, Moskowitz proposes and Minnie accepts. This is following a scene where Minnie has hurt Moskowitz’s feelings in front of clients from the museum. He drives away and leaves her high and dry. One of the men drives her home, only to be confronted by a psychotic Moskowitz. The man thrashes Moskowitz, who- in fighting back- hits Minnie, and in helping each other recover, they end up engaged.
The next day their two mothers, Minnie’s mother, Georgia Moore, played by Gena Rowlands’ mother Lady, and Moskowitz’s mother, Sheba, played by Cassavetes’ mother Katherine, meet them at a restaurant. It’s another funny scene where Sheba first feels up Minnie’s breasts and puts down her son, ‘Albert Einstein he’s not. Pretty he’s not. Look at that face. A future he doesn’t have; he parks cars for a living….Look at my son. He’s a bum. Where will they sleep? What food will they eat? Money will they make?’ But, it is poorly shot and framed. One can even see the actors trying to refrain from laughing, and what power and humor the scene has wanes with what looks like outtakes. Then, we cut to the wedding, which ends abruptly, in mid-sentence; one of many scenes in this film whose editing is a mess (two others are when Seymour is at Sheba’s apartment, and when he’s on an airplane to LA). Then there is a backyard party and it ends.
The scoring is virtually nonexistent, and the camera work is very poor, as is Cassel’s acting. Considering the stellar work on Faces, including Cassel’s own acting, one would hardly believe the same team was responsible for this mess. That film had great realistic scenes, and the humor that flowed from it was never forced. This film never relents with Moskowitz’s stupidity, and why Minnie is drawn to him is never laid bare, nor is it in the least bit believable. Yes, she’s hurt by her lover. So? Only Rowlands’ good acting shows any professionalism. The DVD transfer is ok, but not really cleaned up, even though it is in a letterboxed 1.85:1 ratio. The bonus features are only two- a trailer lauding the film as one of 1971’s best, and a commentary track from Rowlands and Cassel. While they do not perform the usual critical fellatio, the track does err into the dull sort of commentary where the two speakers say very little- of interest or not, and sound more like they are watching a home movie. Virtually nothing of the art behind the film is learned.
It’s often said by his boosters, that Cassavetes’ films are about truth. Well, putting aside the manifest fallacy that any art can be ‘truth’, even were one to accept that premise, this film is a walking, talking testament for the need of a little judicious fibbing, every so often, to up the art quotient. Yes, the realism of certain humorous scenes is way above the typical Hollywood screwball domestic comedies of earlier times, but Cassavetes ruins their power by never relenting, never letting a mature nor subtle dramatic moment exist between the two leads. There is no vulnerability shown, no moderation brinked, and thus Moskowitz comes across as a dislikable, if not despicable, person, and one that, in a truly ‘truthful’ film, someone like Minnie Moore would not waste a minute of her life on, much less a doomed marriage. And you just know that the ‘marriage’ of these two characters will last no longer than the film they’re in, but Cassavetes accepts it and wants you too, as well. Fine, but acceptance is not caring, and without a character to care for, or empathize with, few films can succeed.
Even though the clothes and sayings are passé, that is not the reason this film has not aged well. When it was made, all independent films were thought to have that rough, shoestring budget quality, and it seemed a virtue, of sorts, but too much has changed. Indy filmmakers like John Sayles and David Gordon Green have shown that a low budget does not automatically equal a low quality film, so this film simply looks cheap, silly, dated, and amateurish in all technical aspects, but especially so in the writing, where loose ends hang all over the place. My wife told me, when it was over, that she felt like she was waiting for a punchline that never came, and it’s true, for Minnie And Moskowitz is not really a single film, but more like a series of brilliant and horrible vignettes, or blackout sketches, that never quite connect up into a coherent whole to be enjoyed. Had the film recapitulated that feeling into the romance it might have been something wonderful. As it is, it is merely a noble, but head-scratching, failure.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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