Blame it on Rio (United States, 1984)

January 30, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Blame it on Rio Poster

For more than 65 years, Michael Caine was among the most prolific and respected working British actors (he retired in 2023). From The Ipcress File and Alfie to The Dark Knight and Kingsman, he was capable of working in almost any genre and bringing class to any production. Over the years, he has collected two Oscars (for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules), a BAFTA, and three Golden Globes.

Throughout the mid-20th century, few directors of movie musicals were more revered than Stanley Donen. His filmography incorporates collaborations with Gene Kelly, including Singin’ in the Rain. He also directed such icons as Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Cary Grant, Yul Brynner, Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, George C. Scott, and Debbie Reynolds. His post-Singin’ productions included the box office hits Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Indiscreet, and Charade.

The careers of these two greats intersected in 1984 and the result was a disaster of epic proportions. Caine, as might be expected for someone who made over 100 films, has had his share of bombs – this was the biggest. Donen’s filmography wasn’t as expansive but this was the worse thing he was involved in in any capacity. Based on a French film by Claude Berri, Blame it on Rio not only fell apart in translation but even the participation of Caine and Donen couldn’t save it from appearing on a roster of 1980s movie infamy.

Blame it on Rio, a farce about a middle-aged man sleeping with the 17-year-old daughter of his best friend while the three of them are on a vacation to Rio, has little to recommend it. History perhaps best remembers it for its nudity but there’s less of that than one might suspect. Aside from some random shorts of topless sunbathers on the beach, the only nakedness comes from Michelle Johnson (who had to receive permission from a court to appear nude because she was 17 at the time of filming) and, over the course of several short scenes, totals no more than a couple of minutes of screen time. Demi Moore, who plays a supporting role, is topless but uses the strategic placement of her long hair to hide anything that would get the movie an R-rating. (No such coyness was evident two years later when she appeared in About Last Night.) Those believing that Blame it on Rio might have value as a cheesy “skin flick” would be sorely disappointed.

The plot revolves around a vacation to Rio taken by two middle-aged buddies, Matthew (Caine) and Victor (Joseph Bologna), who are accompanied by their daughters, Nicole (Moore) and Jennifer (Michelle Johnson). Originally, the plan was for Matthew’s wife, Karen (Valerie Harper), to come along but she demurs at the last minute, opting to take her vacation separately from her husband. Things start out awkwardly for Matthew, who is scandalized by the beach scenery (topless women everywhere!), especially when Nicole and Jennifer decide to blend in. But that’s nothing compared to what happens after he, Jennifer, and Nicole attend a wedding. A little innocent skinny-dipping is followed by some not-so-innocent kissing between Matthew and Jennifer. This leads to an affair that makes Jennifer delirious and riddles Matthew with equal parts guilt and paranoia…especially when Victor finds out that his daughter is sleeping with an older man and enlists Matthew to help root out the pervert.

Viewed in 1984, Blame it on Rio was a bad movie. Viewed forty years later, the badness is overlaid by a strong creepiness factor. (Although the idea of a 40-something man having an affair with a 17-year-old was by no means deemed appropriate during the 1980s, it was nowhere close to the taboo then that it is today.) Putting aside any morally objectionable aspects, the movie gets tripped up in three areas: bad writing, bad acting, and an whiplash-inducing inconsistency in tone. Is this supposed to be funny? Then where’s the humor? Is this supposed to be serious? Then why is Joseph Bologna playing every line for laughs? At no point do we sense that the filmmakers know what they want Blame it on Rio to be, and if they don’t know, how are we supposed to?

I haven’t seen the 1977 French original, In a Wild Moment, but I have been told it does a much better job developing the same basic premise than Blame it on Rio. (Not surprising considering Claude Berri’s resume both before and after In a Wild Moment.) Charlie Peters and Larry Gelbart’s adaptation features dialogue that is often stilted and sometimes downright embarrassing. The awful songs, which sound bad even for ‘80s stuff, argue for wearing earplugs.

Originally, Donen wanted an established actress (albeit a young one) to play Jennifer but the nudity (which he was upfront about) scared potential choices away. At the time, Michelle Johnson was a model and he was captivated when he saw her on the cover of a magazine. Looks, therefore, became the prime motivation for hiring her. Her inability to act wasn’t taken into account. Granted, she looks great (with or without clothing) but her thespian abilities are threadbare (as evidenced by her post-Rio filmography, which was highlighted by a stint on The Love Boat). Her reason for making the film was that she felt it might advance her career. Thinking about this, I get distinct vibes of Elizabeth Berkeley and Showgirls.

For Stanley Donen, this marked the end of a career that spanned 35 years. It wasn’t the last time he would be behind the camera – he subsequently directed an episode of the TV series “Moonlighting,” a music video (Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling”), and a made-for-TV-movie (1999’s Love Letters) – but this was his last theatrical offering. As swansongs go, this was lamentable. For Michael Caine, it was a bump in the road, a paycheck to cash. Two years later, he would win an Oscar. A year after that, he would make Jaws: The Revenge, probably the only movie on his filmography to contend with Blame it on Rio as the worst thing he made. (Although he had a great quote about the Jaws sequel: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”)

A lot of bad 1980s films have long since been forgotten but the co-association of Donen and Caine has kept this one floating around, like flotsam in a stream of sewage. Sometimes, bad old movies can be enjoyable to revisit but that’s not really the case with Blame it on Rio. It’s so misbegotten and awkward that it’s better being left ignored.

Blame it on Rio (United States, 1984)

Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Michelle Johnson, Demi Moore, Valerie Harper
Home Release Date: 2024-01-30
Screenplay: Charlie Peters and Larry Gelbart
Cinematography: Reynaldo Vilalobos
Music: Kenneth Wannberg
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-01-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1