Seeing director/co-writer Nora Ephron's name attached to "Mixed Nuts" gave me hope that this dark comedy about eccentrics working at a suicide hotline center on Christmas Eve might be funny and warm. But instead of going for gentle humor in the style of her big hit "Sleepless in Seattle," Ephron has tried to construct a knockabout, door-slamming farce made up of TV-style skits, with everyone doing shtick instead of playing real characters.
Too bad, since the cast of "Mixed Nuts" is first-rate and there are some enjoyable bits of business . . . but most of the film goes awry with far too many misfired, ill-conceived gags.
Steve Martin stars as the naive do-gooder who heads up Lifesavers, a nonprofit organization he has desperately been trying to keep afloat for five years. He has two female employees, this ensemble film's other nominal main characters — the widowed, constantly complaining, no-nonsense Madeline Kahn, and dewy-eyed, overly sympathetic Rita Wilson, who is secretly in love with Martin.
But now Martin's Scrooge-like landlord (unbilled Garry Shandling) is evicting them and if he doesn't raise $5,000 quickly, Lifesavers is sunk.
The action is set on the boardwalk in Venice, Calif., one Christmas Eve. Under the opening credits we see a string of amusing sight gags that show Christmas being celebrated in sunny California, while Martin rides to work on his bicycle. It's a delightful, but deceptive beginning.
As Martin attempts to keep the bad news from Kahn and Wilson, they answer an array of silly calls that range from people who are depressed (transvestite Liev Schreiber) suicidal (unbilled Steven Wright) or deranged (an obscene caller who repeatedly tries to embarrass Wilson). (The dark edge for which Ephron strives seems horribly at odds with the film's generally sunny disposition, punctuated by inappropriately overwhelming goofy music.)
They must also contend with an array of uninvited visitors, such as Robert Klein, a dog-loving tenant in the same building; Anthony LaPaglia, an ex-con in a Santa suit whose pregnant girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) cut up all his clothes; veterinarian Rob Reiner, who is called upon by Martin to treat injured humans; falsetto-singing Adam Sandler, who has a crush on Wilson, etc.
Some of these visits are more amusing than others, but most fall flat. Played very broadly, with no real characterizations under the layers of silliness, the only time the film hits is when a gag happens to be played particularly well. But the ratio is so low that the entire project seems better suited to an hourlong television special than a feature film.
Ephron based "Mixed Nuts" (originally titled "Lifesavers") on an obscure French farce called "Le Pere Noel Est une Ordure." Maybe she should have simply tried to get that film an American distributor instead of remaking it.
"Mixed Nuts" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity, violence and sex.