Sunday, March 6, 2011

What a Way To Go! (1964)

Packed, front-to-back, with old-school Hollywood glam, but ultimately hollow, this star-studded affair concerns a young heiress as she recalls, to a psychiatrist, the circumstances that led to the various deaths of her previous husbands. Shirley MacLaine plays the bereaved, but ditzy young woman, who we see progress from a young, naive farm girl to an endowed, but still innocent millionaire. In an early role, MacLaine is hilarious and adorable; while not conventionally attractive, she possesses a certain quirky earthiness that provides a sharp contrast with the traditionalism of her contemporaries (Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn). However, due to the episodic nature of the film, the energy of the film is maintained only through the caliber of male co-stars they managed to dig up for MacLaine: her ill-fated husbands include Dick Van Dyke, Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly. They are all exemplary, highlighting various aspects and methods of attaining wealth, from Newman's anarchic, Pollack-esque artist to Robert Mitchum's big business executive. Newman and Martin fare the best with their zany, cartooney characters, while Kelly's sub-interesting throughline leaves him with little more than his quick feet to work with.

Aside from a co-star, each sequence gets a specific interlude where, in a musical montage, we see how MacLaine's character has encapsulated these relationships in her mind. For example, Dick Van Dyke's clumsy schlub gets a goofy, black and white silent-film bit, while Mitchum's penthouse provides the stage for a fashion show for Edith Head's phenomenally larger-than-life costumes. Director J. Lee Thompson has the most fun in these scenes, which are far more ironic and meta than many of the sillier, but equally gaudy '60s Hollywood vanity pics. However, in the end, the episodic nature, and the unfortunate positioning of Kelly's sequence as the sendoff, keep the energy of the film from going full speed, and keeps it as, merely, a gorgeous, but hollow postcard to a lost era in big-budget, production design-heavy Hollywood filmmaking.

Slightly Recommended for fans of the cast or really absurdly lavish and busy Technicolor Hollywood musicals of the '50s and '60s. There are a couple of truly memorable set pieces and musical numbers here; too bad they are not wrapped around with something more thematically ambitious.

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