The Year of Nora & Nancy: Lesser Known Crimes

   While Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are better known for their rom-coms and female-oriented comedies, they have enough films between them that some have slipped into the past. For two filmmakers with decade-spanning careers, it’s understandable to have movies that might be forgettable or lesser known compared to the ‘greatest hits’ but this month it is notable that they’re all related to the crime-comedy subgenre. This was huge in the 80s and early-90s and, honestly, I’d love to see a comeback because we need a good caper now and then compared to all the Law & Order seriousness. But is there a reason these films faded away, and is it better that way?

            I started with 1990’s My Blue Heaven, directed by Herbert Ross and written by Nora Ephron. This film is like a complete duality when you understand that it’s based on the same book that also inspired Goodfellas. Like, on one hand, you get serious crime drama and, on the other, you get goofy black comedy. Vinnie Antonelli (Steve Martin) is placed in witness protection while waiting to testify against a major mob boss. He forms an unlikely friendship with the FBI officer in charge (Rick Moranis), and a friendly antagonism with the local district attorney (Joan Cusack). The strongest aspect of this film is the writing because, while it is a story we are familiar with and has been done, there are a lot of good lines, jokes, and comebacks therein. It’s a script that is obviously pushing the characters together in predictable yet satisfying ways, but you don’t quite feel cheated by it. However, for as stacked as this cast is the film never feels like it uses full advantage of their abilities (especially Carol Kane), and it plods along at a lazy Sunday afternoon pace. Martin and Moranis, acting together again, are fun (especially in a random dance sequence), but it feels like there could be more for them to do at times. I did enjoy elements of the production, such as how Cusack’s wardrobe changes and Vinnie’s suits. The concept and writing are entertaining, the cast and performances are there, but something about the execution doesn’t feel fully formed.

            1986’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash, directed by Penny Marshall in her debut feature with Nancy Meyers as one of the co-writers (credited as Patricia Irving), was honestly a bit of a surprise for me. The trailer plays up the comedy and the fact Whoopi Goldberg was coming off of The Color Purple, but other things come into play. Terry Doolittle (Goldberg) works at a major bank, transferring international funds all day on a computer and also chitchatting with people all over the world, but she becomes involved in the espionage game when she’s contacted by ‘Jack Flash’ and he asks for her help. Goldberg carries this film so well since she’s the perfect balance of the ‘every woman’ and the extraordinary. Like, Terry’s a Black woman working in computer programming in the 80s and she does awesome spy things. But she also has to deal with sexism, racism, and other issues that constantly try to stop her from getting things done. In some ways, I appreciate that the film doesn’t really concern itself with Jack because we just have to accept the need to help him as much as Terry does, but—at the same time—the blind faith is a bit staggering. The cast, including Carol Kane and a lot of members of Saturday Night Live, bring humor and fun to the film. Some of the scenes are so 80s action that they don’t quite hold up, but are still entertaining. I love Terry’s bright and colorful shoes. In some ways, this is one of the early Meyers’ comedies that is definitely of its time but I also feel could be adapted for today with a modern Black comedienne and still work, because the story overall works.

            Nora Ephron co-scripted 1991’s The Super with Sam Simon so we can’t be sure how much of it is really hers and how much of it is his. Between the two of them, this film honestly feels like a miss. Louie Kritski (Joe Pesci) is sentenced by the New York City Housing Authority to live in the building he owns and bring it up to code or go to jail. While he’s initially resistant because of his father’s ultimatums, he comes around and begins to see that there’s more to owning a building than just collecting rent. This film is apparently loosely based off of some other well-known New York realty family at the time, but—beyond that—it doesn’t have much going for it in trying to offer redemption to the slumlord. Most of the supporting cast are BIPOC of various ages and there is a physical sense of humor in watching Joe Pesci play an almost hallucinogenic basketball game (like some bizarre early Space Jam), but most of the film is cringe. A large part of the plot involves ‘joking’ sexual harassment Kritski makes toward the lawyer for the housing authority (Madolyn Smith). For his part, though, Pesci is playing the part as well as he can and is entertaining. However, as the film flips between insulting and then trying to win us back with little moments, the bigger picture isn’t all there.

            Lastly, 1992’s Once Upon a Crime, written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Steve Kluger based on 1960’s Crimen, is a good example of an ensemble farcical caper put onscreen. A couple celebrating their anniversary, two strangers returning a lost dog, a man with a gambling addiction and his wife, and a womanizer all become embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a wealthy Madame. The cast is full of recognizable faces—John Candy, James Belushi, Cybill Shepherd—and watching how the storylines interact and come into eventual play together is satisfying. As a mystery and caper, the film works because it’s full of red herrings as to who may have committed the murder. The eventual reveal is a bit unsatisfactory but also feels understandable, but the last shot is a lot of fun. As a comedy, however, it seems as if the cast are more so trying to have their moment on camera than work with whatever they’re given (Cybill Shepherd and Giancarlo Giannini being the exceptions). There are some great lines and jokes, but they don’t always hit right. Some of this may come down to direction or balancing the parts, but, overall, it’s still an entertaining film.

            So, why are these lesser known crimes? I think it’s notable that, for the most part, these films weren’t directed by Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers. Additionally, with the exception of The Super, I wouldn’t say the writing was the problem with any of these films. As with many other projects in Hollywood—not just Nora and Nancy—often it’s the combination of director, writer, production, and cast that makes a film more successful than not. And, perhaps, in some ways, these films just didn’t have the right combination for longevity. For their moments of time, they feel like appropriate and entertaining comedies. Maybe they’re even one of those films someone puts on to remember their childhood. But, to withstand the test of time and to become a better known movie in a filmography, I can understand why these haven’t lasted in the same way Sleepless in Seattle or Something’s Gotta Give have.

            Generally, every month will have at least two films (but often more), so keep an eye on the blog for these updates. If you’re interested in what films I’ll be looking at you can find the whole list for The Year of Nora & Nancy on my Letterboxd. In August, we’re enjoying the last of summer break with the kids. See you then!