The central image is buoyantly sketched, Mr. Wise Guy with baggy coat and suitcase and artiste's cap, out of the Brooklyn nest and into the Bohemian wonderland. Gangling and moonstruck like an Archie Comics beanpole, the aspiring actor (Lenny Baker) hurtles through the neighborhood, devouring life with a jester's grin; elated after a midnight lay, he segues from a manic Hamlet soliloquy to a slurpy Brando monologue and concludes with an Oscar acceptance speech on a deserted subway platform before a surly policeman advises him to change vocations. (Everybody is a performer, everybody is a critic.) The girlfriend fiercely wielding the word "diaphragm" (Ellen Greene), the aloof and leopard-elegant wannabe writer (Christopher Walken), the queeny hepcat (Antonio Fargas) and the desolate neurotic (Lois Smith), these are the vitelonni around him. In the footlights of his psyche is the Jewish mother (Shelley Winters) with one lachrymose aria after another, "she invented the Oedipus complex!" Corman's Little Shop of Horrors lays much of the groundwork for Paul Mazursky's tragicomic recollection of a funky alternative 1950s as a foretaste of the counterculture, a string of romantic flares and breakups and painful revelations faced with a light, sunny heart. "Joking is the American actor's disease," admonishes the Method instructor, though the trouper's education unfolds not on the stage but in saloons and bedrooms where Dostoevsky's suicides are zingers until the real thing turns up. Reiner's Enter Laughing is perhaps a closer kin than Amarcord, Blackboard Jungle is indicated in a screen test that gives a rich glimpse of Jeff Goldblum as a needling audition-room habitué. "I am an actor, generally living on air..." (Nabokov) Off to Hollywood at the close, with Mazursky and his alter ego gazing fondly at streets lost to gentrification yet revived in Eyes Wide Shut. With Dori Brenner, Mike Kellin, Lou Jacobi, and Michael Egan.
--- Fernando F. Croce