“Get me six wine bottles and a tuning fork!”
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Die Laughing (1980, Jeff Werner)
Starring: Robby Benson, Linda Grovesnor, Elsa Lanchester, Bud Cort, Peter Coyote, Nick Outin, O-Lan Jones, Morgan Upton.
Tagline: ‘As a singer, he’s a killer. As a lover, he’s a killer. As a killer, he’s a lovely singer.’
Trailers: Steamy Widow, The Biathlon Killers, Todd Times Two
Cherrypick: “Get me six wine bottles and a tuning fork!”
Calling your film Die Laughing is like painting a big dayglo target on your heiney and taking a dump on Charlton Heston’s front lawn - unless you’re going to squeeze out a diamond encrusted work of fucking art onto a velvet pillow stuffed with mice ears and moonbeams, then you can kiss your ass goodbye. Taking all of 2.9 seconds (including credits) to determine that it’s crass ringmasters should indeed be wearing their kiesters in a sling for the rest of their misbegotten careers, DL comes flying out of the traps, hits the floor running and then ploughs itself into the turf like an overstuffed piñata with an outboard motor tied to it’s linus.
Before we can even think about backing out of this entirely foolish enterprise and getting back to playing lawn darts and binge drinking, we’re being energetically corn-holed by a grubby hubbub of dead scientists, dextrous prank monkeys, a bowling ball filled with weapons-grade plutonium and a pre-pubescent computer genius obsessed with blowing the left shirt-potato off the Statue of Liberty. So what the hell - the gang’s all here, let’s ‘par-tay’.
How unfortunate, then, to discover that the whole shebang has been misaligned to gravitate around the feckless nonentity of colossal uselessness that is Robbie Benson’s star. A lupine Travolta knock-off with a vortex of glistening brown bombast for hair, the fifteen-year-old Benson is already a fully licensed cabby and local folk-rock face whose ‘Sesame Street’ serenades make John Denver sound like Husker Dü: his signature tune - ‘Mr. Weinstein’s Barbershop (Slight Return)’ - chugs to the onomatopoeic glory-chorus of “Scissors going snippety-snip…”, while another espouses an enduring fondness for ponies.
If you actually, properly want to learn the actual plot of the film then you really would have been better off looking elsewhere, but take it from us that all you will ever need to know is that the bodies start to pile up swifter than a kick in the nuts as Benson careens around San Francisco chased by the cops, the Feds, some Russian circus freaks and - quite probably - the Mob for a monkey that comes into his possession when that guy who played Kramer in Jerry and George’s pilot in ‘Seinfeld’ blows the brains out of one his fares at a red light. As Maguffins go, it makes ‘The Maltese Falcon’ seem like the search for a unified field theory, but any port in a storm, eh?
Somehow eluding the authorities whilst flagrantly strutting about town in a variety of attention-grabbingly awful disguises (teen Hassidic Rabbi anyone?), continuing to live at home and gigging extensively under his given name, Benson traces provenance of the monkey to the swanky vineyard lair of spectacular man-child Bud Cort. A sandpit Caesar dressed solely and entirely in satin and given to such standalone proclamations as “If you feed me on pears, I shall cry only cider!”, Cort almost makes DL worth the candle, but when even he finally acknowledges that they’re all just pissing in the wind any and all interest in the ongoing plot cools quicker than a well digger’s belt-buckle.
Tiresome, whiny and juvenile, Die Laughing exerts so heartless a reverse alchemy that it reduces fried gold subject matter to base and worthless pig-iron at every single turn. Benson’s performance is lost in the suffocating saccharine fumebanks of his endless lo-cal Carpenters campfire sing-alongs, and director Jeff Werner - whose career would eventually supernova with Coming Attractions: The History of the Move Trailer in ’06 - marshals proceedings with all the finesse of a rhino stampede through a field hospital.
Produced by Barbara Streisand’s former hairdresser, Jon Peters - the executive muscle behind such other, much superior, eighties templates as the ensemble honky ecstasy of Caddyshack, against-the-odds legging porn Flashdance and Mr. T’s timely ghetto-peril allegory, D.C. Cab, and who would in time go on to co-head Sony Pictures - it is in retrospect surprising to find that Die Laughing didn’t have a steadier Eddie at the tiller. In fact, rather than imbue the project with any sign of his otherwise seemingly innate crowd-pleasing, lowest blue collar-denominator magic, Peters allots the film the sole raison d’etre of serving as a lavishly coiffured and cruelly overextended pop video with which to kick-start Benson’s singing career - the highpoint of which was to come as the voice of ‘Insouciant Candlestick #2’ in Disney muckfest Beauty and the Beast.