Nick Nolte playing the lead in a musical -- now there's something you don't see every day. Nor, for that matter, will you see it any day, thanks to the early test-screening audience that gave the musical sequences in I'll Do Anything a thumbs-down -- way down. Writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) scurried back into the editing room, did some serious snipping, and the resultant version of I'll Do Anything, the one finally making it into theaters around the country, offers nary a note from Nolte. Nor from anyone else in the cast -- Brooks excised all the music from his musical!
That goes a long way toward explaining the choppiness and uneven dramatic arc of Brooks's wry film. The movie has a lot in its favor: decent work by Nolte and Julie Kavner, a vivid turn by Joely Richardson, a brassy, scene-stealing child actress named Whittni Wright, and a hysterical performance by the chronically underrated Albert Brooks (only Charles Grodin is consistently as funny but receives less popular recognition, and even he's changing all that with the Beethoven series). Yet I'll Do Anything lacks precisely the desperate energy its title implies. It's still a better-than-average film; writer-director Brooks's raw intelligence and mature, quirky wit guarantee that. But just when you think it's going to take off, the musical without music is strangely muted. A sort of bland aura envelopes the proceedings; only Albert Brooks's manic tomfoolery manages to pierce it regularly. And the director's keen ear for dialogue and knack for trenchant repartee are occasionally blunted by tired Neil Simonesque bits.
The script is a bizarre hybrid. It's as if Brooks took chunks of Kramer vs. Kramer, Life With Mikey, Broadcast News, The Player, and The Goodbye Girl and fed them into a demented word processor. Nolte plays Matt Hobbs, a perpetually unemployed actor whose ex-wife (no review of this film can in good conscience not mention Tracey Ullman's failed Holly Hunter impersonation in the role) abruptly returns custody of their six-year-old daughter Jeannie. The ex-missus has no choice in the matter; she's on her way to serve a prison term for embezzlement.
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The sudden detour into single fatherhood predictably nonpluses the struggling actor. Suddenly the careerist has to think about someone other than himself (why, hello Mr. Kramer!). Of course, the change couldn't have come at a more difficult time. Just when his daughter arrives, Hobbs's romantic and professional prospects are looking up. He beds Cathy Breslow, deftly portrayed by Richardson as a wishy-washy junior executive to Popcorn Pictures mini-mogul Burke Adler (Albert Brooks). Hobbs is up for a part in Breslow's pet project, a remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. It's one of the movie's funnier ironies that Hobbs eventually loses the role when Breslow, who has become Hobbs's new girlfriend and who wants him to play Mr. Deeds, folds under her colleagues' pressure and agrees with her boss that Hobbs isn't sexy enough for the part. "Would you go to bed with him?" Adler asks her point-blank after viewing Hobbs's screen test, fuckability being the producer's main criterion for determining an actor's bankability.
"No," she lies. Later Breslow consoles Hobbs with this assurance: "I really hung in there for you."
It's a delicious moment, and I'll Do Anything does not lack for bons mots. But the film's odd pacing (again, think missing musical production numbers) neutralizes much of the audience goodwill generated by the comic relief. And there are too many forced, derivative father-daughter scenes for the film to be considered in the same league as Broadcast News. Whittni Wright is fine in small doses, but no matter how talented the young actress, the precocious-kid routine gets old fast.
Still, I'll Do Anything has a lot going for it. It won't make James L. Brooks's reputation, but it won't break it either.