Avanti's incongruities give pleasure (1972)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 12, 1973 @ The Journal Herald.

Director Billy Wilder, on of the old pros if American movie-making, is sixty-seven years old. His career has been productive, uneven, and creative. His films have sharp edges and soft centers, often teetering on the borders of the maudlin.

For me, Wilder's films are a mixed bag, but as time passes, the things that are good and unique in them remain strong in potency and appeal.

Some of the best moments in American films are in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. And his films such as Ace in the Hole, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes have their masterly qualities.

There are movies in which it helps to know the tradition of the director. This is certainly true of Wilder and his latest film Avanti!

On the surface, Avanti! -- at the Salem Mall II and the Dayton Mall II -- has too many problems to satisfy many mass audiences looking for zippy entertainment. It lasts nearly 2 1/2 hours, has several slack periods, and has a protagonist who is not your normal good guy. But perhaps Wilder has earned the right to take his time and do things his way.

Wilder's last film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was severely cut for public showing: Avanti! seems to have avoided this mutilation.

Avanti! is the story of Wendell Armbruster (Jack Lemmon) who goes to the Italian island of Ischia to bring the body of his wealthy-executive father back to Baltimore to be buried.

Also in Ischia is Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills) who is recovering the remains of her mother for burial in their native England.

It turns out both victims were in the same car. And Armbruster, to his dismay, discovers that for 10 years his father has been coming to Ischia not for his health but for romantic assignations with his English mistress, with whom he went to his eternal reward.

Armbruster and Miss Piggott become involved in Italian bureaucracy as they try to process the bodies, and eventually they get involved with each others.

Wendell Armbruster is an ugly American -- loud, rude, pushy, and abrasive. Miss Piggott is a romantic Britisher -- quiet, plump, blonde, and sentimental.

Wilder and his coscriptor I. A. L. Diamond do a nice job of contrasting the two. Their script is an adaptation of a play by Samuel Taylor.

Armbruster thinks signing papers is "a lotta crap." He hands out money and tries to buy his way around. Totally unsentimental himself, he calls Miss Piggott, "that sentimental idiot." He growls, "Love is for filing clerks; not for the head of conglomerate."

The surly Armbruster frowns at Italian musicians, barks at the wine server, scowls even when he tests wine, and seems pained whenever he says "please," which isn't often.

Miss Piggott believes she has a weight problem, and her name is an unkind reminder -- a typical Wilder touch. "Italy is not a country; it's an emotion," she enthuses.

She loves bells; Armbruster doesn't. She likes Italian coffee; he hates it. She thinks the Italian language is like music; he snaps his fingers to stop it and get on with business.

Like his father, he drinks a whiskey sour on the sour side; like her mother, she drinks Bacardi on the sweet side. And the sweetest part of the scene is the swishing bartender.

Wendell Armbruster is not the kind of man an audience is going to love. At least not until the end. And his grating quality is one of the film's nicer aspects. In a world of slick, prepackaged, conventional leading men, Wilder's sour character is a welcome change-of-pace.

Lemmon is one of the few popular actors who has the nerve to portray vulgar characters. He is particularly deft as Armbruster. Juliet Mills is properly warm and unprepossessing as the bountiful Pamela. Clive Revill is a delight as the worldly hotel manager.

One reason why the film may fail with many audiences is because it is not openly funny. It is laced with flecks of comedy, but they only glint maliciously.

There are some bright latches of dialogue. Armbruster snaps to the hotel manager, "You can dig up a couple of coffins." Aghast, the hotel man replies, "You want second-hand coffins?"

The film also has a bit in which a coroner goes through a snappy ritual of stamping papers that is worthy of a Chaplin skit.

But basically the pleasure is in the incongruities of a man struggling with his zippered soul in a romantic foreign land. The satire on the ugly American is canny.

However, as always with Wilder, Mixed with the irony is a large dose of sentimentality.

There is a lot of Billy Wilder in his latest movie, including the idea that age is a state of mind. It is the young nurse who has the heart attack, not the old baron. He dances on like the old director himself.

The film doesn't all work, and some of the gags, such as the one with the ice cream cones, are soft. But Avanti! has a goodly portion of sweet-and-sour charm. It is as slow and sunny as a Naples afternoon.

When the rigid Armbruster warms up on a sunny rock and begins to shuck the cold, American, uptight existence for a lazier, livelier life, Wilder is telling us something that is more than just fun.

© 2000-2022 Tony Macklin