Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 105: Arsenic and Old Lace

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #249
Year: 1944
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant and Raymond Massey

I kind of love when I get the chance to watch one of the bottom ten movies on the IMDb Top 250 for this project. I don't particularly know why, but there's just something about watching one of the movies that just sneaked in by the skin of its teeth that feels really rewarding. It's also partly because in the back of my mind I know that if this were the 251st-ranked movie on the IMDb when I set out to do this blog instead of the 249th, I would probably never see it. Arsenic and Old Lace has all the characteristics of a 240s movie (excluding Mulholland Dr., thank you very much) – it's a damn good movie, but there's no way in hell it's a crowning achievement or, God forbid, a masterpiece. Like a few other movies on this list that were adapted from stage plays – Rope, Harvey, Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? – it feels exactly like a stage play. With that fact comes limited scenery, heavily implied visuals, and, somewhat uniquely to Arsenic and Old Lace, borderline fourth-wall breaking knowledge of a camera by the characters. And as with most films based on plays, the strength is undoubtedly the script.

Arsenic and Old Lace has been called a black comedy, but I'm not sure I completely agree. The subject matter is grim – a family of lunatics whose members, respectively, kill lonely old men and bury them in the cellar, sew other men's faces on their own to evade arrest, and believe themselves to be Theodore Roosevelt – but it's dealt with in such a farcical manner that it's hard to call this a black anything. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, something of a straight man to his crazy family, and his own mental health deteriorates over the course of his wedding night as he has to deal with insanity from his brothers, his aunts, and an inept team of policemen and psychiatrists who drop in at the house periodically. His poor, oblivious wife sticks beside him through the multitude of events she either isn't aware of or doesn't understand, and soon a strain is placed on his one-day-old marriage, too. Of course, there is a happy (and hilarious) ending to the madness, but the madness was never anything other than humorously delivered in the first place. Arsenic and Old Lace shares some characteristics with true black comedies, but I think the delivery keeps the tone light enough to prevent it from earning the distinction.

This movie really does all that anyone could ask it to, even if it does feel a bit like someone just set up a camera in a civic theater and edited out the crowd noise later. The script is whip-smart, rapidly executed, and consistently hilarious, and the casting is pitch perfect. Its characters are likable despite their various, erm, quirks. It's relatively unambitious, but it follows through on everything it attempts. It's the perfect #249 movie.

The Good: The script! Funny lines every five minutes at worst and every other sentence at best.

The Bad: You can really only call this movie "adequate." It's by no means great. It just does what little is expected of it.

The Skinny: #249 is exactly where it should be.

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