Movie review: ‘My Blue Heaven’

What Steve Martin does best is take a role, make you laugh and yet know that you’d like to be friends with his character. From being a frenzied father in “Parenthood” (click here for my review) to a harried one in “Father of the Bride” (click here for my review) to the pretty much perfect one in “Cheaper by the Dozen” (click here for my review of the sequel), he’s made part of his extensive career on doing just that. In today’s “My Blue Heaven,” Martin manages to make a criminal fun, compassionate and likeable and just over-the-top enough to be one of his least recognized efforts.

‘My Blue Heaven’
(1990; 97 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin, Rick Moranis and Joan Cusack)

DON’T TELL THIS MAN THE WORD ‘NO’

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion and trivia, fixed typos and corrected the misspelling of a supporting character’s name and the updating of links on Nov. 17, 2018.)

If anyone can turn a successful mobster likeable – even one who was present for at least one murder about which he cracks a funny story, then it’s Steve Martin. Yes, you know, “The Father of the Bride.” Well, in “My Blue Heaven” he’s manic, certainly ADHD and is completely entrepreneurial and a capitalist. As “Vincent ‘Vinnie’ Antontelli,” he’s a New York thug who ratted out his former friends and is now being relocated by the government.

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Martin is a habitual criminal: he can’t stop trying to steal even from his soon-to-be ex-wife as they’re moving into the home provided by the FBI and at the same time lying about his Social Security number (he obviously doesn’t know anything about one). Best yet, Martin does such a good job that even though his character remains flawed, he’s funny, bewildering and, at his core, loyal.

The plot of “My Blue Heaven” is how Martin doesn’t easily settle into witness protection (his new name is “Tod Wilkinson”) and quickly takes back up with crime after he’s recognized by an old colleague and has a touching reunion with other mobsters, including one at whose funeral he was a pallbearer … “I appreciate it, Vinnie!” he tells Martin.

From his FBI handler, whose wife just left him and finds love with the local prosecutor who has Martin in her sights, to subplots about turtles, kids baseball and becoming a self-improvement guru, Martin careens like a pinball through everyone’s life and actually making each one better – although it doesn’t always appear so at the time. The plot, while straightforward, is intelligent and doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence in trying to get a laugh.

Now, let’s look at some of the cast:

  • A five-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Martin, who was also in “The Man with Two Brains,” does it all here: he has physical comedy, emotional comedy, plays matchmaker and tosses in a bit of drama (the few times he gets serious) at just the right moment and with impeccable sincerity. He’s also stellar in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and he was great in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” opposite Michael Caine (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Pennies from Heaven,” “All of Me,” “Roxanne,” “Parenthood” and “Father of the Bride Part II.” Steve was given an honorary Academy award recognizing his “extraordinary” talents and inspiration to others.
  • The alter ego to Martin here is Primetime Emmy winner Rick Moranis as uptight FBI agent “Barney Coopersmith.” Moranis is everything Martin is not: bland, colorless and humorless. However, he does a good job here as his character begins a metamorphosis into a man with a bit of style and confidence outside law enforcement. Moranis was also in “Little Giants” (click here for my review), “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “Ghostbusters.” I liked him in a small part in “Head Office” (click here for my review) and his solid work in a bigger role in “Streets of Fire” (click here for my review). He won his Emmy for writing for “SCTV Network 90.”
  • A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), Cusack is both the prosecutor who wants but pretty much fails to be tough and the eventual love interest of Moranis (or is it a better description that he is her love interest?). Cusack, who at 5-foot-9 nearly measures up to the 5-foot-11½ Martin and towers over the 5-foot-4 Moranis, is good playing the somewhat naïve “Hannah Stubbs” and does great showing her ongoing irritation at the mere existence of Martin. Cusack’s also been in “Grosse Pointe Blank” with her brother John (click here for my review). She was nominated for “Working Girl” and “In & Out” with Kevin Kline and I liked her voice work as “Jesse” in the “Toy Story” franchise. You might also remember that she was “Geek Girl #1” in her fourth film – John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles.”

You’ll find especially good work between Moranis and Cusack. The best example is a party scene where they dance. Moranis, as he begins his personal evolution, has learned how to tip to get a song played and then dances with Cusack. The run-up conversation is fun and the dance sequence is neat (but not as good as the “merengue” to come – everyone dances in this one).

Oh, yes, in a role unfortunately easy to forget but deserving of your attention, Bill Irwin plays “Kirby,” who is Moranis’ partner in the FBI and an eager-beaver (but kind of clueless) agent looking to actually see a criminal since financial fraud takes up a lot of research and little actual law enforcement. Irwin, who was in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Hot Shots!,” is good and has an especially nice dance solo at the party where other agents look askance at his moves.

The rest of the supporting cast is surprisingly deep and I’ll run through the best somewhat quickly:

  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), William Hickey plays “Johnny Bird,” whose new name is “Billy Sparrow.” He’s the one who recognizes Martin and hooks him up with the other relocated mobsters. Hickey, with his gravelly voice, does a wonderful job especially expressing sarcasm or frustration. He also played a mobster to perfection in and got his nomination for “Prizzi’s Honor” (click here for my review) and was a Coney Island barker in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (a rare bright spot in that piece of crap – click here for my review). He was also a family member in the iconic holiday comedy “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (click here for my review). Hickey died at 69 in 1997 of emphysema and bronchitis.
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this is one), the quirky Carol Kane plays “Shaldeen,” the woman Martin meets in his new hometown and becomes his bride — and he didn’t marry her under his real name. She’s just as odd as ever in her career, which includes turns on TV’s “Two and a Half Men” (good, that is, before it turned to crap with the talentless Aston Kutcher) and films such as “Dog Day Afternoon.” You might remember her as the, of course, quirky mother on the teen comedy “License to Drive” (click here for my review). Kane was at a peak in the 1970s and early ’80s with her Oscar nomination for “Hester Street” and a Golden Globe nomination for her work on TV’s “Taxi.”
  • Daniel Stern, much more famous for roles in two “Home Alone” films (click here for my look at them) and the iconic drama “Diner,” plays “Will Stubbs,” who is Cusack’s pushy ex-husband who gets some comeuppance by Moranis. Unfortuantely, “Will Stubbs” is another good character that is too small but had no room to grow in the overall plot. Interestingly, you’d believe Stern would have a more prolific career, but has just 77 acting credits on a career spanning five decades since his first film “Breaking Away” (click here for my review).
  • Ed Lauter, who was in the dark films “The Amateur” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” does a respectable job as the by-the-book FBI supervisor “Robert Underwood.” Lauter was familiar with this kind of character, since playing them in films such as “Real Genius” (click here for my review), but I liked him best in the excellent TV movie “The Jericho Mile” (click here for my review). Lauter died at 74 in 2013 of mesothelioma.
  • Colleen Camp plays “Dr. Margaret Snow Coopersmith,” who runs off with a baseball failing relief pitcher who she’s counseling when she leaves Moranis. It’s not much of a role, but, then again, she’s not top-shelf material. Camp has also been in “The Gumball Rally” (click here for my review) and, regrettably, in “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3” (as a character actually named “Dusty Trails”).

So, from an old life to a new one, Martin plays “Vinnie” to the fullest. Of course, there’s a nice ending where Martin is the hero for everyone from the local Little League team (you know the home team will win because Hickey is the umpire), his new family, his friends, Moranis and Cusack and, of course, the audience.

It’s interesting to note that Martin’s character is somewhat based on the real-life mobster Henry Hill from “GoodFellas” fame. The writer of “My Blue Heaven” (Nora Ephron) was married to the writer of “GoodFellas” (Nicholas Pileggi) and they reportedly used conversations with Hill as research for both films. Hill was a notorious gangster who turned state’s evidence against his friends and was relocated by the government. He returned to a life of crime while in witness protection and died in 2012 (ironically that was the same year of Ephron’s death). I’m sure he wasn’t as funny as Martin.

My Blue Heaven” was the 53rd ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1990 with $23.5 million in receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. “GoodFellas” was released the same year and was 26th with $46.8 million.” The No. 1 film of the year was “Home Alone” with $285.7 million. Here are the other films from that year that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Carol Ann Susi, who is best known as the shrill voice of “Mrs. Deborah ‘Debbie’ Wolowitz” on TV’s hit “The Big Bang Theory” (click here for my look at it), plays Martin’s cousin “Filomena” in a tiny role. Susi was in the recent “Just Go With It” with Adam Sandler (click here for my review). Sadly, Susi succumbed to cancer at 62 in 2014.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In Sweden, the movie was named ‘How I Taught an FBI-agent to Dance the Marengo.’”
  • My Blue Heaven” is another one where original casting would have spelled fail (you can tell with hindsight). Martin was originally to play “Barney Coopersmith” with Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Vinnie.” Arnie bailed for another project (“Kindergarten Cop”) and Martin offered to switch characters and producers brought in Moranis. While Arnie was great in “Twins” (click here for my review), he would have been a real fish-out-of-water in this one.
  • Another poor casting choice that fortunately didn’t happen was that Danny DeVito was to play “Vinnie.” I like DeVito (check out “Ruthless People” – click here for my review), but he would have just been as bad as Arnie, in my opinion.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The hotel at which Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis) and Hanna Stubbs (Joan Cusack) attend a convention for law enforcement officials is the famed Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, CA”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
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