Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Adam Rafkin
Starring Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, and a mouse
Growing up near New York City, I was well aware of Broadway stars. And it always surprised me when people who were big on stage never found success in movies or film. You'd hear about people like Mary Martin or Gwen Virdon or Barbara Cook or Julie Harris or Larry Kert or Alfred Drake or John Raitt and see their names on original cast albums, but their film careers were reduced to minor roles. The same thing seems to have happened to one of Broadway's biggest current stars, Nathan Lane.
Lane came to prominence on Broadway with his role of Nathan Detroit in a revival of Guys and Dolls in 1994. Since then, he has become a megastar on Broadway, so much so that his presence can even overcome mediocre reviews (e.g., The Addams Family).
But Lane has never hit it big in movies or TV. His most successful was The Lion King, but voice acting is not a path to stardom. His various TV shows were all flops, and even when he was given a chance to reprise his Broadway role in The Producers, the film did poorly and he was no match for the memories of Zero Mostel.* It didn't help that his other movies were all quite forgettable.
Except for Mousehunt.
Lane plays Ernie Smuntz,** an aspiring and arrogant restauranteer who, with his brother Lars (Lee Evans), is the heir to the Smuntz String Company. When their father dies, Ernie is perfectly happy letting Lars run the business; he's only interested in the fame and money his restaurant brings him. That all crashes down, however, when the mayor dies after eating a cockroach in his meal. Lars, in the meantime, has turned down an offer to sell the factory to a string conglomerate because of a promise he made his father. His wife kicks him out.
The two men have only one place to go: a worthless old house that they inherited. Ernie discovers that the house was designed by a famous architect and is worth millions. And more if they fix it up.
There is only one thing stopping them: a mouse. And this isn't any ordinary mouse.
The movie is an intriguing mix of cartoon and black comedy. Director Gore Verbinski -- in his first feature film -- manages to make the cartoony elements work with real actors. There's plenty of slapstick, but it has a dark tinge.
The acting is broad, which may be why a stage actor like Lane fits in so well.*** Ernie is, in many ways, the coyote, trying schemes to catch the mouse and having them backfire, to his growing consternation.
But it's Lee Evans who makes the film work. He's plays the dumber of the two brothers, but the one with a heart. He wants to follow his father's wishes, and do the right thing. Without him, Ernie's arrogance would be hard to take. You don't really care about Ernie, but you do about Lars, and since their fates are intertwined, it makes their failures more sympathetic.
The movie was a solid success, but never really got much buzz. But Verbinski did use it as a stepping stone to direct Pirates of the Caribbean,**** a film that has a similar visual sense. And now Verbinski has come out with Rango, which is as cartoony as Mousehunt. Like Walt Disney, his career started with a mouse.
*Ironically, Mostel's success in The Producers kept him from suffering the same "big on Broadway, small in pictures" fate.
**One of the few exceptions to Ebert's First Law of Funny Names.
***Stage acting requires broader gestures than film for people to see what's going on. I once saw a demonstration by Michael O'Hare about the difference: he showed how you react when another person comes into the room. For stage, you turned your head to look at him; on TV of film, your head barely moved, but your eyes did. All actors have to make this adaptation, and some are just better at it than others.
****People forget now that pirate films had been having a dismal history from the 1950s on: one flop after another. Verbinski and Johnny Depp ended that losing streak.