Friday, October 21, 2016

America could use another 'Mad Mad Mad Mad World'

Barrie Chase and Dick Shawn in Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Sometimes, when I'm suffering from insomnia, I'll try to put myself to sleep by thinking about fantasy projects that I will never (and can never) possibly complete. Lately, I've been casting an imaginary, 21st century remake of Stanley Kramer's 1963 film, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. That epic, all-star comedy ran on TCM a few weeks ago, and for some reason, it caught my imagination like it never had before. Maybe it's because the title seems so true in 2016, or maybe because I can now relate to the middle-aged crankiness and desperation of the main characters. I've watched the movie all the way through about five or six times now, and I've been combing YouTube and Google for more information about it.

I don't know where this notion of mine came from. Maybe it's from this dodgy-looking IMDb entry for a supposed 2017 sequel. But I don't want to do a follow-up. I want to do a big-budget remake of the original, keeping the plot and characters mostly intact. I'd also keep the musical score by Ernest Gold intact, including the songs with lyrics by Mack David. I'd even set it in 1963, mainly because I prefer the clothes and cars of that time, plus I don't want the characters having access to Uber, smartphones, or GPS. The great thing is that, since most of the movie was set in the California desert, the original locations look pretty much the same today.

Milton Berle as J. Russell Finch
So who would be in my 2016 Mad World cast? The whole crux of this project is that I want to cast Louis CK as J. Russell Finch, the character played by Milton Berle in the original. Finch is a milquetoast, would-be entrepreneur who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is trying to soothe his nerves with a "relaxing" trip to Lake Mead with his wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his fearsome, always-complaining mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman). That's before he and a bunch of greedy strangers get involved in a madcap treasure hunt for a dying gangster's stolen money. For the role of Algernon, the snooty Englishman that Finch encounters and with whom he forms a shaky partnership, I can only think of Ricky Gervais, with whom CK has worked several times. For Emmeline, who secretly dreams of running away to a convent, how about Amy Poehler?  For Mrs. Marcus... God, I don't know. Ethel Merman really owns that part. Maybe Meryl Streep could do something with it. Or Lily Tomlin or Susan Sarandon. Someone of that caliber. But for the role of Sylvester, Mrs. Marcus' whacked-out beach bum of a son (originally played by Dick Shawn), only one modern day actor will do: Will Ferrell. End of discussion. Non negotiable.

Arguably, the central character of Mad World is Captain Culpepper, a grizzled old lawman who has spent his life being an honest public servant and has nothing to show for it but a face full of wrinkles and a head full of white hair. It's Culpepper who is really orchestrating the whole film, using the treasure seekers to find the same money that he has been seeking without success for years. In the original, this top-billed character is played by an ailing, decrepit Spencer Tracy. For my version, I considered Clint Eastwood but decided instead that Nick Nolte would be perfect. For Culpepper's equally grizzled but less honest colleague Aloysius (originally William Demarest), maybe Billy Bob Thornton.

Some of the casting decisions were no-brainers. In the original, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett play Dingy and Benji, a couple of hipster doofuses on their way to Las Vegas. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele would knock these roles out of the park. Dingy and Benji spend most of the movie aboard a small private plane with a drunken sot of a pilot who passes out cold while making an old-fashioned in mid-flight. In the original, this character is played by Jim Backus, but we don't really have a modern equivalent of that actor. I think Bill Murray could handle the assignment.

Carell and Fey, together again.
In the 1963 film, Sid Caesar and Edie Adams play the Crumps, a dentist and his wife who join the treasure hunt but find themselves locked in a hardware store basement and have to do crazy, dangerous things to escape. This was another easy one for me. Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Hey, I liked Date Night. They could even reprise their roles from that movie if they wanted.

One role that really stumps me is that of Lennie Pike, the burly truck driver played by Jonathan Winters. Lennie is a true force of nature, famously destroying an entire gas station without assistance, and Winters gives one of the film's best performances. We have no modern day equivalent of that comedian. I could go in completely the opposite direction and hire Larry the Cable Guy, but that would turn off the critics and comedy purists alike. So no to that. Instead, I'll give John C. Reilly a shot at the part. But what about Otto Meyer, the conman who takes advantage of Pike? We don't have a modern day Phil Silvers either, but I'll give Steve Martin another try at it. Remember his Sgt. Bilko movie? No? Well, this will be like that, but less of it.

There is but one big piece missing: Who will play Smiler Grogan, the crime boss whose stolen money is at the heart of this story? In the original, this part went to the inimitable Jimmy Durante. For selfish reasons, I'm going to go in a very different direction and cast cult filmmaker John WatersIn addition to being a fine character actor in his own right, Waters could bring a lot of style and flair to this brief but memorable role.

I think that takes care of all the major parts. But the real fun of Mad World is spotting all the famous comedians in supporting and cameo roles. A list of comedians and actors I'd want to use includes (but is not limited to): Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, the women of Broad City, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Bill Hader, Amy Schumer, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Scharpling and Wurster, Christopher Guest (and members of his ensemble, like Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), Neil Hamburger, Dana Snyder, Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, and H. Jon Benjamin.

Only a handful of cast members from the original movie survive. Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis, and Barrie Chase are still around, so they should all get cameos. I know that I said I wanted to set the movie in 1963 and avoid modern technology, but for Lewis' scene, I'd bend the rules a little. In the original movie, Lewis plays a man who drives over Captain Culpepper's hat just for fun.

So in my version, Culpepper would again throw his hat out the window, but this time it would land on the sidewalk. Lewis would come by on a mobility scooter and run it over, cackling to himself.  Culpepper would see him and yell, "Hey, you! Yeah, you! Get back here!" At which point, Lewis would throw his scooter into reverse and run over the hat again, still cackling. Culpepper would then give up in disgust and return to work. But a few minutes later, there would be a callback to the joke when a uniformed officer (played by Patton Oswalt) returns the ruined hat to Culpepper. I don't think mobility scooters existed back in 1963, but I couldn't resist referencing the 1963 film this way.