Guilty Pleasures Holiday Edition: “Mixed Nuts”
When filmmaker Nora Ephron brings together an all-star cast led by Steve Martin, you expect something terrific. Mixed Nuts was Ephron’s follow-up to her smash success Sleepless in Seattle, and when it was released by TriStar Pictures on December 21, 1994, she was greeted with some of the most visceral reviews of her career, and experienced a spectacular failure that would briefly scare her career.
An adaptation of the successful (but obscure to American audiences) 1982 French farce Le Pere Noel Est Une Ordure (loosely translated: Santa Claus is a Bastard), Mixed Nuts retained very little of what made the French farce so dark and uncompromising. At the same time, Ephron tailored the film to something more along her style and managed to give the characters of the piece some hope and love through a cynical story. Right here, it’s easy to see why the film failed at the box office: The film wanted to be hopeful and dark at the same time, and a comedy can’t quite succeed when they’re trying to counter-balance that. It is a weird holiday film made for those who are looking for something a little different than films like A Christmas Story or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
In the film, Martin is Philip, the proprietor of a non-profit organization called Lifesavers. The company’s mission is to help out the distressed or suicidal in to feeling comforted or better under the duress of their lives. It’s Christmas Eve, and everything seems to be heading towards disaster. Entering the building, Philip is given an eviction notice to have the company vacate the premises by the first of the New Year, his fiancee (Joely Fisher) has just dumped him, and it seems that he and his two co-workers Catherine (Rita Wilson) and Mrs. Munchnik (Madeline Kahn) are all on the brink of losing their minds.
It also doesn’t help that there are more creatures waiting in the wings, like the very pregnant Gracie (Juliette Lewis) and her ex-con boyfriend Felix (Anthony LaPaglia), dressed as Santa Claus. Then, there is downstairs neighbors Mr. Lobel (Robert Klein) and Louis (Adam Sandler) who keep dropping in at the wrong moments, and Chris (Liev Schreiber), a transvestite who is just looking for compassion All of these characters will converge on the office at some point and drive these co-workers completely insane before the night is over. There’s even a vet named Dr. Kinsky (Rob Reiner) who even gets involved in the misadventures.
The original French version of Mixed Nuts is based on was essentially the original Bad Santa: An uncompromising and unflinching film that while retaining a high laugh quotient was also bogged down by its darkness. Scenes that were toned down for the American remake were shown in all of their glory (namely a suicidal man who shoots himself in a phone booth), the “c” word was used freely and often, and the ending was close to repellent (feeding a dead man to zoo animals is as dark as it gets).
While the original film is darker and happily cynical, one of the reasons in preferring Ephron’s approach to the material is because it is nowhere near as dark and the characters have some real personality to them. In adapting this material (with her sister Delia), Ephron is able to give each and every one of her characters a sense for living even as they are losing their minds. Each character, no matter how annoying they get, is here for their own reasons, and by the time the film has ended, we realize that the film is more about how Christmas can change us even when we least expect it.
In this sense, Mixed Nuts is at times obviously predictable, but in this case, that is part of the point. A simple gift can be looked upon as great even if what it is is less than the sum of its parts. Take a scene where Adam Sandler is singing a song to Rita Wilson. The song Sandler sings (“Grape Jelly”) is his own creation, and even he knows in his character of Louis that the song might be inconsequential, but he doesn’t care. That’s what makes the song so funny, and the reaction on Martin’s face when he reacts to one of its lyrics is just priceless.
But the film is about more than just being funny. It also leaves room for the heart. The relationship at the core of the picture is the one between Philip and Catherine. Catherine has secretly been in love with Philip for nearly forever, and within the course of the film, one of its finest joys is watching this relationship play out. The scene that marks the turning point is when Gracie completely makes her over in a dress of her own creation. When Philip sees her wearing it for the first time, she immediately stands out to him, and the feelings that she has been feeling forever finally get to him for the first time.
And then there’s the finale of the film, which takes the idea of Christmas and washes it over with so much hope. Any little thing that these characters have done on this day can give new meaning for their future. Whether it be falling in love or saving one’s life, Ephron gives the story the crux of dramatic intent that is missing in the original French film. By doing this, Ephron has given us moments of joy that can always happen at Christmas, proving that no matter how corny it may seem, they can happen all the time.
One of the film’s strongest assets continues to be its wonderful soundtrack, filled with a diverse group of Christmas songs ranging from The Drifters to Eartha Kitt to even Carly Simon (bringing us “The Night Before Christmas” from Ephron’s directorial debut This is My Life). Add in George Fenton’s bouncy music score set in the exact same style and you have a collection of music that hits all the right notes for the Christmas season.
This entire idea of misadventures taking place in a workplace on Christmas Eve might not seem exactly ripe for a comedy like this, and for many, it might be an exercise in how much you can bear it, but Mixed Nuts is a film that is a true guilty pleasure. First seen as a young teenager, when I had only seen about 500-600 movies, it was actually my favorite film throughout middle school and the start of high school. It has since rightly dropped from that position, but because of the association it has with my life, it still retains quite a high ranking on my list.
Like many, I was saddened and shocked when Nora Ephron died earlier this year. Unlike other fans, I was hurt a little more than others. I always hoped that I could one day meet Ephron and ask her what she really thought of this particular movie. Outside of a Los Angeles Times article from the time of the film’s release, Ephron spoke rarely about the movie, and it is a shame that she is no longer with us because I so desperately wanted to have a moment to talk to her about making this movie. Sadly, that will never occur.