Don’t Drink the Water (1994)

Don't Drink the WaterSynopsis: They couldn’t wait to get in. Now it’s hilarious trying to get out!

Ever-popular favorites Michael J. Fox (Mars Attacks!, The American President) and Woody Allen (Small Time Crooks, Deconstructing Harry) star in this hilarious comedy where an outrageous mix-up labels an unsuspecting family of American tourists as a notorious ring of spies! The Hollanders are enjoying their trip behind the Iron Curtain until Walter (Allen) innocently snaps a picture of the sunset…over a politically sensitive area! Before he knows it, his family is the focus of a major international espionage incident! Forced to seek refuge at the American Embassy-it’s up to the Ambassador’s diplomatically inept son (Fox) to keep the Hollanders from landing behind bars! With Mayim Bialik (Beaches, TV’s Blossom), Dom DeLuise (Robin Hood: Men In Tights) and Julie Kavner (Deconstructing Harry, TV’s The Simpsons) in a great cast of familiar faces-you’ll laugh along with the hapless Hollanders as they find out just how hard it is to get around the Iron Curtain!

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Don’t Drink the Water (1994) 7.5

eyelights: Woody Allen. Michael J Fox. Dom DeLuise. Julie Kavner. the plot.
eyesores: the camerawork. Michael J. Fox. Mayim Bialik.

“I can’t sleep on a cot! I’m a dignified human being with a hernia.”

‘Don’t Drink the Water’ is a Woody Allen play that ran for 598 performance at three different theatres on Broadway, in the mid-’60s. The story is set at an American Embassy behind the iron curtain and it revolves around the efforts of the Ambassador’s inept son at keeping a diplomatic situation under control while his father is away. Inevitably, it devolves into chaos.

Despite the success of the play, Allen never made a movie of it. He apparently intended to make one with James Stewart in the lead, but an adaptation featuring Jackie Gleason was made in 1969 without his involvement. He later saw it and was dismayed with the results of the transition from stage to screen. And that is why, in 1994, he decided to dig up the material for a TV movie.

This version of ‘Don’t Drink the Water’ is one of the Woody Allen films that I’ve seen the least. The material is very good, if dated, but the end result left a “half-baked” impression in my mind. Featuring a disparate cast, a television-grade production and perhaps Allen’s worst camerawork ever, it gives the impression of something that was done as an afterthought, as a throwaway.

The cast merely gets by. Individually, they are all quite good, but they don’t seem to gel as a group. Michael J. Fox, Woody Allen, Julie Kavner, Mayim Bialik and Dom Deluise? Who thought that one up? Allen and Kavner work well together, having similar styles. Fox and Bialik aren’t bad; they’d be okay in a sitcom together. Fox is even better with Josef Sommer, who plays his father.

But, as a whole, they’re a mismatch.

Woody Allen is by far the best of the lot, playing an anxious and self-centered American; it’s an edgier version of his usual schtick. Julie Kavner is terrific as his long-suffering, but no nonsense wife. And Dom Deluise? I usually hate his hyperbolic brand of comedy, but he was perfectly cast in the minor part of a refugee who insists on failing his party tricks for anyone who’ll watch.

Unfortunately, Michael J. Fox is a mixed bag. He does a credible job of playing a whinier version of Marty McFly, but what hobbles him is the camerawork. He has a style that is cinematic more so than theatrical; he could have benefited from close-ups and a more energetic camera movement. Or any at all, really. As for Bialik, she comes off as a high school drama student. Meh.

None of them are helped by the camera, actually: it should embrace them, but it doesn’t. The filmmakers seem to have wanted to give the impression that they were filming a play, but they frequently had the wrong timing – especially in the beginning. The camerawork is so poor that it frequently jittered. There were even instances of the focus being off, with key actors coming in blurred.

The worst thing is that Carlo Di Palma, the cinematographer for this telefilm, was the cinematographer on many of Woody Allen’s films, including a half dozen of his classics (not least of which is the gorgeous ‘Shadows and Fog‘), so there’s really no reason for this half-@$$ed amateur hour. It’s as if he and Allen merely shot a first run-through, and couldn’t be bothered with reshoots.

Of course, this could all be due to the spectacularly poor budget. Let’s face it, this was done on the cheap: there’s just one set, the interior of the Embassy, and the couple of times that we are outside, it looks like a crappy television mock-up. Clearly, there wasn’t tons of cash thrown at this film, so perhaps Di Palma and Allen made do with what they had and more-or-less went guerilla on this one.

But none of this matters if the laughs are all there. And, for the most part, they are. This is early Woody Allen , and his material was more farce-like. I’m not a big fan of the early stuff, because his films are constructed too loosely for my taste, and the jokey aspect is unsophisticated. Except that it’s a more mature Woody Allen making it, some 30 years later, and I think that it softens the blow.

Frankly, I think that it’s quite funny. It’s not Allen’s A-game, but the end result is far better than most of his early pictures were. And there is some great stuff in there, such as the brewing irritation of Ambassador McGee, the growing conflict between Walter Hollander and the cook, Father Drobney’s eager but pathetic performances, and even the tensions between Axel McGee and Mr. Kilroy.

I just wish that Woody Allen, in making his own version of the play, had had a chance to make it properly. This take on ‘Don’t Drink the Water’ is too sloppy to fully appreciate; it’s so poorly made that it doesn’t do the material justice. What should have been a solid 8, maybe more, falters under too many deficiencies. It remains a funny film, of course, but I suspect that the play was much better.

As for the 1969 version…? While I expect it to suck (in that “not good” way), I plan on taking a chance on it. In my estimation, anything with or by Woody Allen is worth the time.

Date of viewing: March 11, 2014

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