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Funny Lady

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Running Time: 135 minutes

Starring: Barbra Streisand, James Caan, Omar Sharif, Roddy McDowell

Written by: Jay Presson Allen

Directed by: Herbert Ross

 

Studio: Columbia/Tri-Star

Retail Price: $24.95

Features: Song Highlights, Production Notes, Filmographies, Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 3.0, French Dolby Digital 2.0, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and English subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (28 Scenes)

Released: February 5th, 2002

 

 

When it comes down to sequels, "Funny Lady" is quite a come down for fans of "Funny Girl;" however, taken on its own terms, it is a passable excursion into the musical biography genre of films. The musical biography was at its peak in the 1950's with the production of such genre classics as "Love Me or Leave Me" (1920's torch singer and moll, Ruth Etting) and "Interrupted Melody" (Eleanor Parker as polio stricken songstress Marjorie Lawrence), but audiences failed to delight in 1968's Robert Wise-helmed "Star!" which featured Julie Andrews in an atypical role, nor 1971's mega-floperetta, "Song of Norway," which purported to tell the life of composer Edvard Greig. With the lackluster returns of several big screen musicals, it's little wonder that Barbra Streisand was reluctant to return to the role, and the form, which had garnered her the Academy Award. Her personal, off-screen battles with producer Ray Stark also hindered her commitment to reprise the role of Fanny Brice, and was only persuaded to tackle "Funny Lady" to fulfill her contract with Stark.

Following a montage of scenes from the first film, "Funny Lady" finds Fanny in the midst of The Great Depression, when even Flo Ziegfeld cannot raise funds for another "Follies" extravaganza. Left showless, and nearly as poor as the apple peddlers on the street, Fanny seeks financial advice from Bernard Baruch, her accountant. He advises her to start selling off her stocks and bonds as future husband, Billy Rose (a physically miscast, but ultimately charming, James Caan) rushes into Baruch's office and displays a rapid-fire study in stenography. Billy is uncouth, untrained and unlike Fanny's previous love, Nick Arnstein; and sparks fly instantaneously, though not the sparks which kindle true love. Billy is all wrong for Fanny from the start, but you somehow want this little guy (Rose was only about 5' 5", compared to Caan's 6' 2") to win Fanny's love, and marvel at the ways he will go about it, as well as appreciate the lengths that Jay Presson Allen's script will go to make Billy as unlikable as Fanny finds him to be. He's celery tonic, she's champagne - so, as in a 1930's madcap, screwball comedy, you just know that when they finally find that they do love each other that the right sparks will ignite into a blaze.

And that's the trouble with "Funny Lady;" it tries to be three movies at once: a). The musical, b). The 30's comedy and c). The biographical tale of two now nearly forgotten talents. As a musical, it sometimes works. Too much cutting of the musical numbers is a major problem with the film (as anyone who has ever heard the magnificent soundtrack album will vouch). Possibly running time restraints have left the film bereft of a complete version of such musical classics as "Am I Blue?" which remains only as a punchline, "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store)" is given very short shrift, "More Than You Know" is cut off quite abruptly while several new songs by Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Cabaret") serve the film as showcases for Streisand's estimable talents. The comedic elements come in every form: witty repartee, slapstick comedy, powder in the face (I gather no pies were available) right down to buffalo shit. (I'm not kidding!) in place of a bull in a china shop (Oh, right, Streisand mavens got the bull in "For Pete's Sake"). While the biographical elements are truer than they were in "Funny Girl." Yes, Brice was down on her luck when she met her husband-to-be; yes, he headlined her in an overproduced Follies-wannabe; yes, Fanny Brice did leave Billy when Billy began to see the charms of aquatic Olympic champion Eleanor Holm; and yes, Billy did build the huge entertainment complex, Casa Manana in the state of Texas. (It's still standing, cabaret and "OZ" star Betty Lynn Buckley still returns to perform there in her home state).

So, we're left with a puzzling piece of entertainment, trying to be too many things in too little time. As far as the performances go, Streisand when she's singing, is superb. When she's clowning, she seems quite screechy and undisciplined. An all-time favorite Streisand moment of mine comes late in the second half of the film, when Fanny has decided that she will meet her now-married, ex-husband Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif returns in a glorified cameo). Fanny is seen rehearsing song, and there's just the piano, the player and Babs - vocalizing lightly the lovely ballad "If I Love Again;" a class act all the way. Out of the new material written exclusively for Barbra, one number stands out, and once again, it's a solo, emotional piece at the other end of the spectrum: "How Lucky Can You Get" finds Fanny venting all her pent-up anger on an eerily lit, empty stage. Herbert Ross' visual flair as a director shines through as the music builds to a towering crescendo, while Fanny, clad in a black dress cut all the way to there and back, builds to her own emotional climax. Speaking of climaxes, this would logically seem to lead into an Intermission, which had the film not been so musically edited, might have existed. James Caan is a revelation. Seriously. This is the same actor who was Sonny Corleone, and yet, here as Billy Rose, he's light on his feet, possesses a light tenor voice and incorporates the bantam quality that Rose himself was said to possess. Caan fits into the role, and is equally at ease with the comedy as he is with the drama. I wish he had been allowed to sing a little more, though. Caan gets to croon a counter-melody to "It's Only a Paper Moon," called "I Like Her," which acts as an interior monologue just as he and Fanny are beginning to see each other's good qualities; and you know what, he's a charming singer! Jay Presson Allen's screenplay truly gives Omar Sharif little to do but stand around and look "gorgeous."

"Funny Lady" is filmed with flair, but with a third of the musical numbers cut to shreds, begins to sag after the first hour. There's a lot to like about "Funny Lady," the out-of-town opening of Rose's "Crazy Quilt" is brilliantly colored, and outrageous in its depiction of the Peter Principle: if something can go wrong, it will. (Although, the 1953 MGM musical classic covered this same territory by cutting from the onstage antics to a painting of an egg, proving that brevity is indeed the soul of wit).

 

The title of Kander & Ebb's new ballad for "Funny Lady" amply applies to the film's transfer to DVD: "Isn't This Better?" Better by far than any previous home video release; from the peachy-faced, panned and scanned video tape to the Pioneer Special Edition laserdisc, which looked a lot like the video tape, but at least was in its proper aspect ratio. The DVD has a nicely detailed picture, grabbing all of the eye-popping color of the musical numbers to accurate, natural fleshtones. Where "Funny Lady" fails is in its one darkly lit, and I mean darkly lit, musical sequence: "Isn't This Better?"(Chapter 19). This brief interlude has proven problematic for each video incarnation, so the blame should rightfully fall onto the usually reliable cinematographer James Wong Hong ("Seconds"). Black levels otherwise, are super (Chapter 9)! The candy-colored magic of musical theater is constantly right on target. "Funny Girl" fans seeking lost footage from that film will also find a very brief unused clip from that film's "The Swan" on display here - sticking out like a sore thumb, as its age contrasts highly against the pristine print of "Funny Lady." Some unobtrusive edge enhancement keeps this one from a higher video rating, well above average, but not reference. "Funny Lady" is truly a visual treat in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1) that has been indeed anamorphically enhanced.

 

I kept asking myself, "Where's the bass?" throughout "Funny Lady's" presentation. With this being a more recent film than "Funny Girl," I had high expectations for its transfer to DVD. Though those expectations weren't totally dashed, I was disappointed. Definitely the dialogue benefits greatly from this Dolby Digital 3.0 mix, using that center channel for all it's worth. The music, and "Funny Lady's" raison d'etre, is clean, but nothing spectacular. A robust bass would have made this a shimmering jewel of a soundtrack. As usual for Columbia, a grocery list of subtitles are available, as is English Closed-Captioning. Barbra speaks French on a French Surround track, well, that's not entirely true: a champagne-voiced French woman speaks for her.

 

Accessing the film's musical numbers is considered by Columbia to be a "Special Feature." Correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't that a tad redundant? One can just as easily access the numbers from the disc's main menu. Adding less information are the incomplete filmographies for Herbert Ross, James Caan and Barbra. The only trailer included is for Streisand's ill-received slapstick comedy, "For Pete's Sake." And here is just as good a place to discuss the packaging as any. Like "Funny Girl," someone made the unfortunate decision to use a Day-Glo, Pepto-Bismal PINK background for SILVER and WHITE text. Geesh! If I have the urge to suddenly watch either film in the middle of the night, I won't need to turn on the lights to find the films!

 

Now we have two of Streisand's musical films on DVD; let's hear it for Columbia! Are you listening, Fox, Paramount and/or MGM? Streisand fans are waiting with baited breath for "Hello, Dolly,!" "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and "Yentl;" let's get these shows on the road. And while you're at it, kindly give us her television specials, "My Name is Barbra," Color Me Barbra," "The Belle of 14th Street," " A Happening in Central Park," even "Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments!"

 

*Streisand mavens may add ONE point to all of the above, except Extras.