Film Review: Lucky Stiff

Talented Nikki M. James is the only possible reason to see this leadenly tongue-in-cheek, whimsical musical misfire.
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Mild-mannered British shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Dominic Marsh) discovers that an American uncle named Anthony (Don Amendolia) he has never met has left him $6 million. The conditions of the will, however, specify that he must take his uncle's embalmed body on a vacation the dead man dreamed about, to Monte Carlo. If Harry does not comply, the money will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, Uncle Anthony's favorite charity.

En route to Monte Carlo, Harry encounters Annabel (Nikki M. James), a representative from the dog home who is recording his every move to make sure he is carrying out the conditions of the will to the letter. Her beseeching has no effect on Harry, who hates dogs as a result of being attacked by the vicious hounds of his crazy landlady (Jayne Houdyshell).

Also after the loot are a bumbling optometrist named Vinnie (Jason Alexander) and his legally blind sister Rita (a screechingly abrasive Pamela Shaw), who claims she was the lover of Anthony, with whom she embezzled $6 million worth of diamonds from her husband which have mysteriously disappeared. Another greedy character is a flashy Italian, Luigi Gaudi (the late Dennis Farina), who offers his tour-guide services to Harry once he gets to Monte Carlo.      

I love musicals and would love to see more of them onscreen, modestly scaled even, as they don't all have to be holiday blockbusters like Into the Woods. But this enterprise, which began as an off-Broadway show in 1988, is just too inane for words, a heavy dollop of two-ton whimsy that I cannot see appealing to anyone. Granted, any musical requires a happy suspension of disbelief, but that Weekend with Bernie device of the hero clumsily toting a corpse around is  literally deadly. The characters in Lucky Stiff are all conceived in cardboard and singularly lack any scripted charm, Christopher Ashley's direction is in-your-face obvious, only emphasizing the material's weakness, and the songs (by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) are mostly undistinguished, with lots of lyric lows like "Think what we could do here/Fancy meeting you here/We could start anew here." The many garish dream sequences and, especially, the insertion of highly unnecessary and incessant cutesy-poo animation just add weight to what should be a lighter-than-air soufflé.

A lot of talented performers, like poor, versatile Alexander, Mary Birdsong, and Kate Shindle and Cheyenne Jackson as French cabaret entertainers, are wasted in wholly cartoonish turns here. The filmmakers were, however, lucky in the casting of their leads, as Marsh and James individually possess real appeal and have a meltingly convincing chemistry together as they fall in love. James, in particular, who provided the beating heart of that overrated, overaged frat-boy contraption that is The Book of Mormon, is lovely, and her poignantly rendered song "Times Like This" is this flailingly raucous movie's single winning (and human) moment.

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