`A Fine Mess': Laurel-Hardy slapstick, but without humor

Once upon a time, when director Blake Edwards asked composer Henry Mancini to come up with a movie score, Mancini would write a ``Pink Panther'' or ``Days of Wine and Roses'' theme that became as justly celebrated as the film itself. Nowadays when Edwards calls, the composer of ``Moon River'' and ``Peter Gunn'' knocks off a bit of disco-drivel that won't be remembered five minutes after the credits have ended. At least, that's the case with ``A Fine Mess,'' their latest collaboration. Or maybe Mancini was commenting on the quality of the movie itself, which is a major disappointment -- especially since it comes from a filmmaker with a long list of impressive comic credentials.

The title recalls Oliver Hardy's perennial line, always directed at partner Stan Laurel when their fortunes had sunk particularly low: ``Well,'' the roly-poly Ollie would intone, ``here's another fine mess you've gotten us into!''

Edwards's mess isn't so fine. In trying to revive the great tradition of rough-and-tumble farce, he strains so hard for vigorous slapstick and wild gags that he forgets to be funny. Cars crash. Guns fire in crazy directions. Bodies whiz the wrong way on escalators. Lovers hide in goofy places from goofy spouses -- and there's hardly a chuckle to be mined from all this exertion.

Part of the blame rests with the performers. Mugging their way through a loosely stuck-together story -- about two loafers who try to make a bundle through a fixed horse race -- they rarely strike up any real chemistry with one another, even though they operate mostly as two-man teams, in mechanical imitation of the Laurel and Hardy heritage.

But most of the trouble lies in the lumpy screenplay and Edwards's too-frantic style, which is so relentlessly busy that the characters never have time to come alive.

When he has solid material and the right collaborators to work with -- like the late Peter Sellers, who brightened many of his pictures -- Edwards can be a first-rate comic filmmaker. But nostalgia for the laff-riots of the past isn't enough to turn a hodgepodge into a coherent comedy.

In the end, there's something basically askew when a movie gives its heroes a valuable piano to move -- a classic Laurel and Hardy situation -- and then makes it an easy job, without a single teetering bridge to carry it across! Stan and Ollie, where are you when we need you?

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