Most helpful critical review
Hope for the best, expect the worst
on 22 February 2015
Occasionally, clear failures generate more interest than modest successes. Mel Brooks's second movie as director is a terrible mess - did he ever direct an unmessy film? - but one has, throughout, glimpses of a potential classic comedy, although Brooks clearly was undecided as to what sort of comedy he wanted to make. Based on the famous satire by Ilf and Petrov (that rarest of literary sports, a funny Russian novel written in the Stalinist era), it presents us with a study in greed and degradation in which laughter is consistently wrung from pain, humiliation and misery and from the lowest human motives. To find the fortune in jewels hidden in the seat of one of the eponymous chairs. the two appalling heroes go through every kind of trial and any show of dignity is destroyed again and again. The potential of the storyline is enormous; but Brooks's script is, for too much of the time, a tame one, going for the obvious joke instead of the one that might draw blood as well as laughter. Against a background of genuine Eastern European locations, actors act out ridiculous jokes based on antique Hollywood notions of "foreignness", and too often the idea that there should be an undertow of real pain behind the laughter (a notion of which Brooks is obviously aware) is lost. The most eloquent aspect of the film is the acting of Ron Moody as the smug, hypocritical bourgeois who must turn himself into the most shameless of vagabond con men in order to survive in post-revolutionary Russia. His sad eyes, filled with self-disgust, tell us so much more than the screenplay does about the sort of film this should be. Unfortunately, Moody is partnered by the charmless, narcissistic Frank Langella, whose witless performance really drags the movie down. But the supporting cast is good, and here and there one gets glimpses of the much better film that might have been made.