' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Charles Grodin

Thursday, May 20, 2021

In Memoriam: Charles Grodin

“What you want most in a Muppet movie,” Wesley Morris once observed, “is for the non-Muppets to seem happy.” Was any non-Muppet happier in a Muppet movie than Charles Grodin in 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper”? As jewel thief Nicky Holiday, he buried himself in the part utterly, not so much falling in love with Miss Piggy, as the role required, as lusting after her, looking at her like Clark Gable looked at Jean Harlow in “Red Dust.” That commitment to the bit defined Grodin, whether he was picking apart not just the whole talk show format but the entire entertainment business in his knowingly grouchy tête-à-têtes with Johnny Carson and David Letterman or, as a disgruntled patriarch, dealing with the antics of that comical canine “Beethoven” (1992). “The disdain this one man had for his dog,” Trevor Dobbin wrote on Twitter, “was the funniest thing on the planet for a 5 year old Trevor. And it still is.” Fourteen-year-old Nick, meanwhile, had only begun to consciously grasp the fact that sometimes what made a movie with a big ol’ funny dog enjoyable was not as much the big ol’ funny dog as it was the irascible actor reacting to the big ol’ funny dog.

As that part suggested, Grodin often had the droll deportment of a straight man. That’s why when “So I Married an Axe Murderer” (1993) required someone disagreeably impassive to be at the wheel of the car Anthony LaPaglia’s detective commandeers, it enlisted Grodin. But that sells Grodin short. He was the rare actor who seemed to play both parts of a comedy duo at once, fusing a straight man’s air with the comic character’s hilarity. “The Lonely Guy” (1984) was Steve Martin’s movie, of course, but in his scenes with Grodin as a just-as-lonely-guy, especially their park bench conversations, forerunners to Jerry and George at the coffee shop, you realize that despite Grodin’s deadpan, the funny moments are just as often his, with Martin playing the observer’s role. A more typical version of “Midnight Run” (1988) would have made Robert DeNiro’s bounty hunter the straight man, reacting to the amusing eccentricities of Grodin’s accused embezzler, a la Steve Martin and John Candy of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” But in his almost severe demeanor, strategically needling the bounty hunter the whole way, Grodin feels as much like a straight man as DeNiro; it’s like a movie with two Steve Martins. Even when Grodin cuts loose like in a scene where he gets to impersonate the FBI agent that DeNiro’s character has already been impersonating, Grodin isn’t really cutting loose but having immaculate fun by playing a stiff-necked G-man. (“You seen any suspicious looking characters around here?” he says to an unassuming guy at the bar, a straightforward line that Grodin renders impossibly hilarious, accentuated by that turn of the head, burying his character in the part as much as Grodin is burying himself in his part.) 

In the mid-90s, Grodin left acting, staying away for 12 years, opting to do a talk show instead. In an interview with Nathan Rabin for The AV Club in 2009, Grodin explained that with his son entering first grade at the time, he no longer wanted to travel. It’s a noble reason, certainly, but as Rabin notes, it does not sound like Grodin missed the business, and Grodin basically he admits he didn’t. “No, I don’t miss acting, he says. “I don’t even see movies.” Rabin, perhaps out of respect, never brings up the 2007 remake of Grodin’s stone cold comedy classic “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972). Where the former was cruel, callow and false, the latter was caustic, complex and true, a masterpiece if I can use that term, with Grodin playing a man who falls in love with another woman while on his honeymoon, trying to boldly remake his life even as he is essentially rearranging a couple deck chairs on a ship plunging into the sea. The best scenes in the movie are Grodin just riffing, if only because the character is riffing, trying to work up the courage to end his marriage and then explain himself, not once but twice, to his prospective Father-in-Law, Grodin building this elaborate house of cards through philosophical b.s., not mixing up but somehow mixing valor and bluster. It is a performance as deep and rich as any dramatic one; “so earnest that it must be a put-on,” wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “so transparent that he can’t fool anyone.”

Grodin, though, was one of those actors who didn’t even need lines, improvised or otherwise, because just a look, a single expression, could garner the kind of belly laughs typically reserved for some ornate setpiece of buffoonery. Gary Ross’s 1993 comedy “Dave”, in which Kevin Kline plays dual roles, as the lecherous President and the good-hearted stand-in lookalike for the Commander-in-Chief, might have the perspective of a Pollyanna, wanting to believe politics had not gone to the goblins. But that’s why you cast Grodin, to add a little skepticism. 

As Dave’s accountant pal, the magnificently named Murray Blum, summoned to the White House to improbably help balance the national budget, Grodin at first can’t believe he’s in the White House and then can’t believe his friend’s request. “You gotta help me cut the budget a little,” Dave explains. “You gotta cut the budget?” Grodin does not so much ask as repeat, as if it’s a punchline, a bad one, and he’s waiting for Dave’s laughter. “About six-hundred and fifty-million dollars,” says Dave. To which Grodin responds with a look so good that no words, least of all mine, could hope to describe it.

Charles Grodin died on Tuesday. He was 86.

No comments: