As klutzy as its concept

Laughter somehow lost in translation

Published: Mar 26 2022, 01:01:am

Friday, August 9, 1991

PURE LUCK. Written by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris. Based on Francis Veber’s screenplay for the 1981 feature La Chèvre. Music by Jonathan Sheffer. Directed by Nadia Tass. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning:  occasional violence and coarse language.
WHEN ACCOUNTANT EUGENE PROCTOR (Martin Short) was born, the stars were misaligned. He grew up accident-prone, a victim of what industrial psychologists call CMS — coincident misfortune syndrome.
    Valerie Highsmith (Sheila Kelley) suffers from the same affliction. When the attractive, good-natured heiress disappears during a Mexican vacation, George Highsmith (Sam Wanamaker), her fabulously wealthy father, spares no expense attempting to find her.
    After a month with no results, Highsmith is at his wits' end. Dr. Monosoff (Harry Shearer) suggests a radical departure from accepted police procedure — team the chronically luckless Proctor with ace private investigator Raymond Campanella (Danny Glover): “He could literally stumble over her.”
    A slapstick thriller based on the notion that clumsy is funny, director Nadia Tass’s American debut feature could have been called To Catch a Klutz. Instead, Universal settled on a more forgettable title, Pure Luck.
    And who’s this wearing the executive producer’s hat? Why, it’s our old friend Francis Veber, the writer-director responsible for La Chévre, 1981’s top-grossing film in France.
    After achieving success in his homeland, Veber embarked on a second career in cinematic recycling. His French-language screenplays have been used for years as the basis for such Hollywood comedies as Buddy, Buddy (1981), The Toy (1982), and The Man with One Red Shoe (1985).
    In 1989, he made his Stateside directorial debut with Three Fugitives, a remake of his own 1986 feature Les Fugitifs.
    That film brought together Martin Short and Nick Nolte in roles originated by Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieu. Energetic and well-paced, it proved that Veber was no slouch as an English-language movie director.
    Pure Luck, a remake of his La Chévre, features Short and Glover in roles also originated by Richard and Depardieu. It's less successful.
    Part of the problem is the polyglot nature of the production. Here, a Canadian (Short) plays an American in Greek-born Australian director Tass's version of a French-style comedy.
    Filmed in Mexico and B.C., the screenplay is credited to a pair of Americans (Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris) who were educated in the United Kingdom. This massive international effort is expended on a premise so slight that it plays like an over-extended variety show skit.
    How many times can Short walk into a glass door, trip over his feet,  stick plastic straws up his nose or fall over the furniture and remain funny, while earnestly searching for a girl who walks into glass doors and trips over her feet?
    Paired with Nolte, the likeable Short was able to generate some comic chemistry. He has no such luck with Glover, who, to be fair, is saddled with creating a character with no obvious help from his screenwriters or director.
    Pure Luck is as klutzy as its concept.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1991. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: And just how did the magic of the movies come to rely on the science of chemistry? I don’t know, so I’ll cover my ignorance with a quote from Rose Theatre impresario Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love): “It’s a mystery.” At some point, though, the word entered the critic’s working vocabulary. It’s the one we use to describe a performing partnership that appears real and authentic, as in “the chemistry between Martin Short and Steve Martin.”     
    The actors met during the filming of 1986’s Three Amigos!, the SCTV alum’s first big-screen starring role. They struck up a friendship that continues to this day. While mostly offscreen, it did result in Short appearing in both of Martin’s Father of the Bride comedies (1991, 1995) as over-the-top wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer. “Playing with the Big Boys,” the song they sung as high priests Huy (Short) and Hotep (Martin),  was the comic highlight of the 1998 animated musical Prince of Egypt. In 2021,  they began co-starring in the mystery comedy series Only Murders in the Building, aired on the Hulu streaming service. They play a pair of aging apartment dwellers who apply their performing arts backgrounds to true-crime podcasting.
    But wait, as the late-night advertorials often insisted, there's more. Since 2015, they’ve been on the road, touring in a series of live concerts. Last year’s offering was called Steve Martin and Martin Short: The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment. Tonight (March 26), Short will celebrate his 72nd birthday on stage with Martin in Atlantic City, the second stop on their You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today tour.