'Lucky Stiff': Film Review

Mark Fellman
Movie musicals don't get much worse than this.

A hapless shoe salesman is forced to bring the body of his dead uncle on a vacation trip to Monte Carlo in this film adaptation of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Off-Broadway musical.

Bad movies are bad. Bad theater is worse. But bad movies resembling bad theater are perhaps worst of all.

Such is the case with Christopher Ashley's cinematic adaptation of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 1988. While the original show had its charms and its talented creators went on to produce such acclaimed musicals as Ragtime and Once on This Island, the film version of Lucky Stiff lives up to only half of its title.

Set in "1970-ish," the farcical film musical concerns hapless English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Dominic Marsh) who is informed that an American uncle he never knew has died and left him a $6 million fortune. But as Harry soon finds out, the bounty comes with a catch: he has to travel with his uncle's body, fully preserved by a taxidermist, to Monte Carlo on a dreamed of, but never experienced vacation. Otherwise the entire fortune goes to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn.

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The resulting Weekend at Bernie's scenario — no, it's not a rip-off, since both the original  musical and the novel it's based on predate the 1989 film comedy — finds Harry escorting his very dead uncle (Dom Amendolia, properly stiff), sitting in a wheelchair and outfitted with a hat and sunglasses, to a luxurious resort. In hot pursuit are his uncle's nearsighted lover (Pamela Shaw) who shot him in a fit of jealous rage; her nebbishy optometrist brother (Jason Alexander, no doubt wondering what happened to his career after Seinfeld); and a young woman (Nikki M. James) who hopes that Harry will slip up so the money will go to her beloved dog shelter. The latter, of course, eventually becomes a romantic interest.

With such other colorful figures injected as a flamboyant Italian playboy (Dennis Farina, in his last screen appearance), a saucy French housekeeper and a beautiful showgirl, hilarity most definitely does not ensue. The convoluted plot is ridiculous beyond endurance; Ahrens' screenplay, featuring such lines as Harry's declaration that "no dog is gonna get his paws" on the money, is tone-deaf; and the performances, with the exception of the charming, low-key James, are wildly overpitched.

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While a few of the songs are tuneful enough and the supporting cast features a raft of musical theater veterans including Alexander, James (The Book of Mormon) and Cheyenne Jackson (Damn Yankees, Finian's Rainbow), the musical numbers are staged with an awkwardness not seen on the big screen since the likes of the 1974 film fiasco Mame.

Director Ashley emphasizes the cartoonish nature of the proceedings via animated interludes, to little avail. Even with its mere 79-minute running time, Lucky Stiff seems to last an eternity.  

Production: Branded Pictures Entertainment, New Oz Productions
Cast: Dominic Marsh, Nikki M. James, Pamela Shaw, Jason Alexander, Dennis Farina, Dom Amendolia
Director: Christopher Ashley
Screenwriter: Lynn Ahrens
Producers: Victor Syrmis, J. Todd Harris
Executive producer: Marc Marcum
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: Stephen Marsh
Editors: Trudy Ship, Jeremiah O'Driscoll, Annette Davey
Costume designer: Durinda Wood
Composer: Stephen Flaherty
Casting: Tara Jayne Rubin, Stephanie Yankwitt

Not rated, 79 min.

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