Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's Up, Tiger Lily?

Woody Allen's directorial debut is not what you might expect from the man who has made self-deprecation an art form.  In fact, any assumptions you might have over a first-time director's work are probably going to be wrong here.  What's Up, Tiger Lily? is a unique blend of stupid slapstick and clever ideas.  And by "unique," I mean that this the first and (for the most part) only movie of its kind.

What makes this movie so special?  Allen takes two Japanese spy movies --- International Secret Police: A Barrel of Gunpowder and International Secret Police: Key of Keys --- and re-wrote and re-dubbed all the dialogue, and also radically re-edited the two films.  So, instead of being a spy story about smuggling or whatever, it turned into a film about the quest for the ultimate egg salad recipe.  This isn't the only time a movie has re-dubbed a movie, but this one features no new footage and does not insert any American actors into the story (like the awful Kung Pow: Enter the Fist).
A film that dubs in funny dialogue defeats the purpose of witty captions.

Normally, I would provide a bit of plot summary for the film, but that's completely besides the point in this movie.  The re-editing and -dubbing makes the acting equally irrelevant.  What mattes is just how funny the film is.  And it's occasionally very funny.  My favorite joke has one character unrolling blueprints and saying something along the lines of so-and-so lives here, which gets the response "He lives in that piece of paper?"  Pretty dumb, I know, but it made me laugh.  The character names are all joke names, too, with the Yaki sisters (Suki and Teri), a villain named Wing Fat and the Japanese hero named Phil Moscowitz.  Again, these are all fairly cheap jokes, but are still sometimes funny.

Surprisingly, you might recognize some contributors to the movie.  Woody Allen makes a few brief appearances as himself, where he either explains (or doesn't) the film's concept.  Allen's occasional early collaborator/future ex-wife Louise Lasser (she was in Bananas) provided one of the girl voices in the film.  The Lovin' Spoonful also appeared in a few scenes, but I'll speak to that in a little bit.  The most surprisingly thing about this cast is that one of the actors (the Asian ones) actually had a substantial role in a major British motion picture; Mie Hama was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.  The rest of the cast apparently was content to be Japanese B-movie actors, which isn't too surprising, after watching their acting.  Oh, and if you're curious about the striptease (unrelated to anything else in the movie) during the end credits, that is China Lee, the first Asian-American Playboy Playmate.  She was married to Allen's friend, and he promised her a part in the movie; she ended up with a striptease while Allen ate an apple behind her, which is not at all uncomfortable.

While there are several genuinely funny one-liners, What's Up, Tiger Lily? is surprisingly bland and oddly paced.  The first five-ish minutes of the movie are scenes from an un-dubbed and un-subtitled Asian movie.  This is even before the opening credits, so it is both somewhat confusing to watch and it makes for five minutes of the movie that were completely unnecessary.  Then Allen shows up on screen and explains the gist of the movie, which is helpful, if not awkward.  What surprised me when I reviewed this film for the first time since I was a kid is just how much of the movie is spent on not-jokes and silence.  It feels like Allen lost sight of the purpose of his movie idea (manufacture an excuse to tell lots of silly jokes) and actually tried to tell a not-too-interesting story.  Another odd thing to note about the movie is that, if you cut out the Lovin' Spoonful and the un-dubbed introductory scenes, this movie would clock in at just over an hour --- and it's still not jam-packed with jokes.

You might notice that the scenes with the Lovin' Spoonful were obviously not intended to appear as if they made any sense at all in the context of the film.  The band is shown in a studio with a bunch of dancing kids for two separate songs.  What's up with that?  Apparently, those scenes were included on the insistence of the movie studio, with little or no input from Allen, which is perhaps the last time the writer/director is blameless for any aspect of any of his films.
Ugh.  Just awful.  And ugly, too.

I was surprised at what I found in What's Up, Tiger Lily?  Yes, it is certainly part of Woody Allen's early collection of movies that stress the importance of the gag above all else, but it is also the least funny Allen movie I have seen from this period.  It's nice to know that he can crack jokes that aren't about his inept love life or his neuroses, but this movie was a little bland when you compare it to Sleeper, Bananas, or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  Is it wacky?  Sure.  Is it silly?  Definitely.  It's just nowhere near as funny as the concept promises.

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