Holiday Rewind: Mixed Nuts

I hardly remember watching Mixed Nuts at all, to be honest. I seem to remember it was even darker than I expected from the phrase “dark comedy”. From the synopsis I’m looking at now, it seems like it takes plenty of opportunities for comedy from the kinds of “weirdos” Steve Martin’s character has to encounter taking suicide hotline calls, but I think the main source of comedy was his holiday at home spiraling out of control for some reason. That’s a big reach for my memory on this. The biggest thing I’m noticing now that I didn’t notice before is that I think this is one of only two movies where Steve Martin has color in his hair (sandy blond in this case, jet black pompadour in Little Shop of Horrors).

Mixed Nuts. Tristar Pictures 1994.

Phillip is the director of crisis helpline Lifesavers, a non-profit operated out of an apartment with an apparent staff of three including himself. As Lifesavers is several months behind on rent, the landlord, eager to sell his building for condo development, has served an eviction notice to everyone in the building, though Phillip hides news of Livesavers’ eviction from the staff in the hope that he’ll come up with some $5,000 miracle in the next week. Mrs. Munchnik is eager to leave for Christmas Eve dinner with her late husband’s family, and gets trapped in the broken down elevator. Catherine is easily overwhelmed by empathizing with the callers, and has secretly been holding a torch for Phillip. Catherine’s friends Felix and Gracie are seven months into a pregnancy and about to break up because Felix lost a job he wasn’t interested in and intends to pursue his art dream that isn’t going anywhere. One caller, Chris, is desperate for someone to talk to in person and begs Phillip to give the address of the office, which is against the rules, but Phillip caves to Chris’s crying. Chris is actually a lonely trans woman whose family openly mocks her, but Catherine worries that Phillip may have invited the Seaside Strangler serial killer. Also probably-autistic neighbor Louie is around.

I noticed this time around that it’s a Nora Ephron film, and I thought I was going to see something familiar in the writing or directing, but it’s only maybe there in the parts that slow down enough to almost not fit with the rest of the movie. That probably comes from adapting somebody else’s densely character-driven farce.

For the most part, the plot is a train wreck in slow motion, mainly in the form of Phillip’s world crumbling and leading him toward a breakdown. Unfortunately for everyone, the main victim of his breakdown is Chris. After struggling to hide his discomfort with Chris and console her, he finds himself pinned into dancing with her, and for a moment, Phillip really is able to let go and enjoy the dance, which just makes it more tragic when he’s snapped out of it and lashes out, and then further when he seems to resent her for not accepting his meek apologies.

I’ve always kind of seen Adam Sandler’s childish shtick from his early career as probably insulting to someone, but he’s so deep in it this time that I suspect more strongly than I have in any other Sandler movie that his character is on the autism spectrum. Louie is fixated on his special interests to the point of not quite being tuned into everyone else’s world, or at least the five-dimensional chess of adult social relationships going on around him. This however leads to him relating to Chris completely earnestly and they end up being really cute together, to the point that I don’t really mind that he really only enters the plot for the act that Mrs. Munchnik exits it.

I think I appreciated this movie more this time around. Except for one really irreverent shock joke with a one-off suicidal caller, it’s not as dark as I remember it. It’s ultimately a story about people in a crazy mixed up world finding hope. Or at least, that’s the last-minute swerve to wrap up the series of unfortunate events. It’s almost experimental, not in any seriously unusual way, but even with the large cast of big names, this feels like a small-time labor of love. Maybe the cast and crew loved it more than anyone else did, but there’s definitely a lot to love hidden inside.

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