Think of "I'll Do Anything" as the cake that didn't rise, the broken eggs that didn't become an omelet.
It's a beautiful, charming and heartfelt $45-million mess. At any point you could stop it and poll the audience on the question, "What is this movie about" and you'd get 427 different answers. But if you asked them, "Where is it going?" you'd get only one: "Huh?"
It seems to be about two issues never before twinned in a single work (for the good reason that they make very little sense together, and may even be mutually contradictory): moviemaking and parenting.
It follows as a gifted but perpetually out of work actor (Nick Nolte) tries to find roles in Hollywood while preserving just a shred of his integrity. At the same time, he's just inherited stewardship of his darling 6-year-old daughter (Whittni Wright), who had been living with his divorced wife in Atlanta, and she's a pistol. At the same time, he's falling in love with a story executive (Joely Richardson) who, like him, believes in the redemptive power of film art and despises the studio schlock she's forced to work on. At the same time, the head of the studio (Albert Brooks) is falling in love with a practical-minded pollster (Julie Kavner) who has a distressing tendency to tell the truth. And on top of everything . . . it used to be a musical.
Written and directed by the James L. Brooks who guided the classic "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and then segued into films with such brilliant and high-toned amusements as "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News," the movie was initially conceived as a post-modernist musical, with songs by the likes of Prince and Sinead O'Connor and choreography by Twyla Tharp. But those same preview audience polls the movie so lampoons proved the concept to be totally unworkable -- Nick Nolte singing songs by Prince and dancing to moves by Tharp? -- so the musical numbers were trimmed.
Though the trimming is reasonably seamless, it leaves behind tonal difficulties. Much of the action is baldly declamatory at the emotional level in ways appropriate to the anti-realistic form of the musical but entirely inappropriate to the form of the realistic drama, which "I'll Do Anything" now pretends to be.
Worse, the scenes seem constructed to lead to the numbers: They rise and rise and then -- cut to something else. It has a very strange rhythm.
There are also changes in the values of characters far too abrupt for a realistic medium. For example, Richardson is initially a conventional object of desire and alliance; but suddenly, late in the film, after Nolte has committed to being a responsible father, her insistence on career is a negative. She's assigned the role of villain, deserving of comeuppance.
And you can feel Brooks' familiarity with the form of sitcom. No less an authority than my daughter points out how perfectly it embraces sitcom structure. It boasts an overarching plot (Nolte-Richardson) and an ironic, mirroring subplot (Albert Brooks-Kavner) dovetailed into it. The whole thing is constructed around a conventionally stupid one-beat TV irony, which is that as Nolte's career flounders, his daughter, who has apparently inherited a great deal of his talent, begins her own, being selected for a TV show.
Really, the thing is a tatters. Relationships start and stop abruptly, or in some cases are joined in the middle with the beginning missing. When, for example, did Richardson and Nolte begin sleeping together? Presumably in a musical number now gathering dust in the Columbia vault.
What remains are a few patchy virtues that render the film fascinating though somewhat daze-inducing. The first is 6-year-old Whittni Wright as Nolte's daughter. Wright is a find, an authentic, "real" child who can instantly slip into show biz shtick; she can throw a tantrum or do a dazzling little riff on the pain and loneliness of childhood that will break your heart. In fact, so compelling is her presence that I would bet the film was cut around her, which is why so many of the other stories feel so undernourished.
Then there's Alfred Brooks' gravelly voiced studio chief paired romantically with the unflappable Kavner. These two are far more interesting than Nolte and Richardson and match up beautifully: Brooks is self-delusional and helplessly narcissistic, while Kavner so grounded in reality she seems built out of mud. Brooks (the director; why did these guys have to have the same last name? It's so confusing) gives them some great lines, as when she has to tell him the numbers are bad on a film project and he melts in pain. She says, "I love the way you don't even pretend to be strong."
Let's hope the musical version of this misbegotten confection comes out on video; the plot might make some sense, even if, to get to it, you have to watch Nick Nolte dance.
'I'll Do Anything' is a delightful mess
Starring Nick Nolte, Albert Brooks and Whittni Wright
Directed by James L. Brooks
Released by Columbia