My Blue Heaven (United States, 1990)

April 26, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
My Blue Heaven Poster

Was there ever a bigger misuse of talent than the one evident in 1990’s My Blue Heaven? Not only were both leads, Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, miscast but the director, Herbert Ross (Steel Magnolias), is tone-deaf when it comes to comedic timing. Then there’s screenwriter Nora Ephron, known best for her witty rom-coms, whose attempts at doing a fish-out-of-water comedy display her limitations as a writer.  Although the movie, forgettable and deservedly forgotten, doesn’t represent a nadir for any of its participants, it’s a reminder of how much mediocrity Hollywood churns out on an annual basis.

There’s a sense that My Blue Heaven should be a lot funnier than it is. Part of the problem may be that Steve Martin’s interpretation of Vinnie Antonelli is too broad for the material. Martin, in full “King Tut” mode, preens and chews up the scenery as only he can, but it’s the wrong brand of humor for something that calls for a little more subtlety. There’s no heart in his performance and, as a result, we never develop any sort of bond with the character. That’s a far cry from three of the four films Martin made prior to My Blue Heaven (Roxanne, Planes Trains and Automobiles, and Parenthood) or the two he made immediately after (L.A. Story and Father of the Bride). Rick Moranis tries to show a stronger, less timid side but he’s undone by scenes that force him back into the stereotypical nerdiness that defined much of his career. Disappointingly, there’s not much chemistry between Martin and Moranis even though this is the third time in a few years they appeared together (the other two: Little Shop of Horrors and Parenthood).

Fish-out-of-water comedies were popular during the ‘80s and early ‘90s (with Crocodile Dundee leading the way) but this one misfires. Martin’s Vinnie is a mobster rat who enters the witness protection program after he agrees to testify against his former associates. He is relocated from New York to the San Diego area, where he’s given a new name and a cookie-cutter suburban house. His wife immediately skedaddles, leaving him at loose ends. FBI agent Barney Coopersmith (Moranis) is assigned to watch him – a task he initially finds tedious. After Barney’s wife dumps him for a minor league baseball player, however, Barney discovers a kinship with Vinnie. But the ex-mobster can’t stay out of trouble and he soon comes onto the radar of policewoman Crystal Rybak (Melanie Mayron) and D.A. Hannah Stubbs (Joan Cusack). The former becomes a love interest for Vinnie while the latter catches Barney’s eye.

Despite the movie’s general failings as a comedy, there are some memorable moments. In one amusing sequence, Vinnie is reunited with a group of turncoat wiseguys, all of whom have been given new names after being reassigned to the same nondescript Southern California location. Actor Bill Irwin, playing Barney’s partner, steals scenes when he breaks out the dance moves. Irwin’s out-of-nowhere footwork represents the funniest thing My Blue Heaven has to offer.

There is a curious relationship between My Blue Heaven and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released a month later. Although his name was changed, Vinnie was intended to be a fictionalized version of Henry Hill, the character played by Ray Liotta in the latter production. Scorsese based his movie on Nicholas Pileggi’s book (he also co-wrote the screenplay with the director). Pileggi was married to Nora Ephron; this gave her direct contact with Hill, who frequently conversed with her and her husband. Aspects of Hill’s life found their way into My Blue Heaven, making this film an odd and unofficial continuation of the story begun in Goodfellas. (Hill enters witness protection at the end of Scorsese’s movie, which is the point at which My Blue Heaven begins.)

Although Ephron is best remembered for When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, her Hollywood career began in 1983 with the neither funny nor romantic Silkwood. By 1990, however, she had lost the touch for crafting scripts not focused on love and mating; the flatness of My Blue Heaven is evidence. The movie shows none of the wit and deftness that shines through in her late ‘80s and early ‘90s rom-coms. At times, it feels like Ephron is trying for a Woody Allen approach (a series of intertitle cards move the story along) but never quite gets there. As an audience, we keep expecting the movie to become smarter than it is. And Martin’s hammy, off-key performance doesn’t help.

One reason why My Blue Heaven hasn’t remained plugged into the collective cultural memory bank is, although it’s not a complete failure, it also doesn’t do anything especially well. As a satire of suburban banality, it’s lukewarm and not especially incisive. As a buddy film, it lacks backbone. As a romance (between Moranis and Joan Cusack), it lacks chemistry. And as a fish-out-of-water comedy, it feels lazy and overfamiliar. No one involved in the film needs to be embarrassed for participating but neither is this something they’ll bring up in a career retrospective.

My Blue Heaven (United States, 1990)

Director: Herbert Ross
Cast: Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, Joan Cusack, Melanie Mayron, Bill Irwin, Carol Kane
Home Release Date: 2020-04-26
Screenplay: Nora Ephron
Cinematography: John Bailey
Music: Ira Newborn
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1990-08-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1