Monday, August 17, 2009

So I Married An Axe Murderer

Remember when Mike Myers was funny? I know it’s hard because over the years he’s done a pretty good job of trashing any good will he incurred early on in his career, with his scene-stealing bits on Saturday Night Live, by cranking out one unfunny film after another (The Guru anyone?). As the years pass, the more I am convinced that So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993) is the comedian’s magnum opus and its commercial and critical failure led to the sorry state of his career. The comedian was at the apex of his powers and popularity, fresh from the success of the first Wayne’s World (1992) film. Axe Murderer was a personal pet project for Myers even though it did not originate with him. After all, he ended up playing a character that was a tribute to his father, one of the biggest influences on his comedy.

When the film was released, articles surfaced that described the comedian as an ego maniac and hinted at personality clashes between him and the film’s director Thomas Schlamme. Smelling blood in the water, critics gave Axe Murderer mostly negative reviews. I believe, although he’s never admitted as much in interviews, that he took the film’s failure personally and has retreated behind make-up and elaborate costumed characters ever since. Sure, the Austin Powers films were very successful but the first one is the funniest with subsequent sequels recycling a lot of the same jokes. Nothing Myers has done since Axe Murderer has been as good or as funny. I would argue that it is his best film to date.

Charlie MacKenzie (Mike Myers) is a coffeehouse poet who lives in San Francisco and is also afraid of commitment. He has broken up with past girlfriends for absurd reasons. He says of one, “she smelled like soup.” Charlie vents his frustrations through his Jack Kerouac-esque Beat poetry that is as funny as it is a tribute to the famous writer, right down to Myers adopting a similar cadence when reciting his prose. He’s even accompanied by a hep jazz trio reminiscent of some of Kerouac’s poetry recordings. Charlie hangs out with Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), his best friend and undercover cop. When we first meet Tony he looks a like a caricature of a 1970s-era pimp. “I look hip,” he tells Charlie who replies, “No, you look like an undercover cop trying to look hip.” Tony longs to be like Al Pacino in Serpico (1973) but instead feels like Fish from Barney Miller. Let me just say that I wish Anthony LaPaglia would do more comedies. From his character’s introduction, dressed in a parody of pimp, he displays a knack for being funny and plays well off of Myers in their first scene together.
The film’s first major comedic set piece arrives when Charlie visits his parents for dinner. They are fiercely proud Scots and his father (also played by Myers) even has a wall of portraits of famous folks from Scotland (that include the likes of Sheena Easton, Jackie Stewart and, of course, Sean Connery). We are introduced to them listening (and dancing) to the Bay City Rollers until an international soccer match comes on the television. Not surprisingly, Myers steals the show here as he rattles off one classic line after another. Watch the bit where Charlie’s father tells Tony about his theory of a secret society made up of the five wealthiest people in the world (known as the Pentavert) and you can see LaPaglia trying not to crack up. Finally, he just loses it as Myers goes off on Colonel Sanders and “his wee beady eyes.” I always wonder while watching this scene how many takes it took and if they just gave up after awhile and used the one where LaPaglia is laughing the least.

When the actors did the first cast read-through of the script, Charlie’s father had not yet been cast and so Myers read the character’s lines. The filmmakers realized that he could play that role as well. To fit both characters in the same scene together required the split-screen process. To look the role of Charlie’s father, Myers spent over three-and-a-half hours having specific prosthetic make-up applied.

Brenda Fricker plays Charlie’s mother and is the quintessential strong-willed Scottish woman. Although, she does seem to have a rather unhealthy attraction to Tony and refers to tabloid rag The Weekly World News as “the Paper.” She even justifies its authenticity by its impressive subscription numbers. In addition to following their Garth Brooks diet, she tells Charlie about the “Honeymoon Murderer,” a woman who marries men under fake identities and then kills them.

Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher who works at Meats of the World, catches Charlie’s eye when he buys some haggis for his father. To get closer to her, he volunteers to help out around the store. They bond over a montage of them working and goofing around. While filming these scenes, Nancy Travis was chopping vegetables with a kitchen knife. She looked up quickly to react to some antics by Myers and looked back down to see the tip of her middle finger on her left hand, “literally hanging by a thread.” A local doctor sewed her finger back together. Travis described Myers as “very particular but also clever” and said that they did a lot of improvising together. The more time Charlie spends with Harriet and the closer they get, the more he suspects that she may be the Honeymoon Murderer. Is he just falling back on his phobia of commitment, or is there something to his paranoid theories?
Nancy Travis is adorable and she and Myers have good chemistry together. The actress remembered that she was drawn to Harriet’s “qualities of danger and compassion mixed with humor make her an intriguing character.” Travis is not afraid to be a goofball and yet also have an air of mystery which keeps Charlie (and us) guessing as to her true intentions.

Amanda Plummer is quite good as Harriet’s eccentric sister Rose and delivers an off-kilter performance as only she can. In addition, there all kinds of celebrity comedian cameos from the likes of Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Michael Richards, Alan Arkin, and Steven Wright, who were attracted to the opportunity of working with Myers and the rest of the cast. Phil Hartman, in particular, is a real stand-out as Alcatraz Prison tour guide John Johnson, “but everyone here calls me Vicky,” and who proceeds to tell a funny yet also creepy story about one of the inmates.
One of the strengths of Axe Murderer is how it conveys a real sense of place. The city of San Francisco is featured rather prominently, so much so that it is like another character. The opening credits appear as the camera flies over the San Francisco Bay and through the city (we briefly see the Ferry Building) before finally descending onto Jack Kerouac Alley and the Roads coffeehouse (actually the Vesuvio Cafe located very close to the famous City Lights bookstore). The camera enters the busy place and settles on a serving tray with a big mug of cappuccino, which recalls the early to mid-1990s when coffeehouses were all the rage. In addition, there are shots of Charlie driving through Diamond Heights with accompanying music (conducted by Bruce Broughton) reminiscent of the classic cop show The Streets of San Francisco. In addition, other notable city landmarks that are on display in the film include the Fog City Diner, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and a great shot of Charlie sitting on the roof of his place overlooking North Beach.

The filmmakers picked San Francisco as the film’s setting because it seemed like an ideal place for a poet like Charlie. Myers was attracted to its “coffeehouse culture, with its clothes and music and its whole sensibility ... people aren’t going to bars as much. They tend to go out and have coffee.” Several sets were built in warehouses near Candlestick Park and the filmmakers used these soundstages for many weeks. The Dunsmuir House and Gardens in the East Oakland foothills were chosen as the destination site of Charlie and Harriet while on honeymoon. Additional special effects and Matte paintings created the illusion that this location was secluded among mountains. The production replicated the mansion’s rooftop at ground level so that the actors could do their own stuntwork for some of the film’s climactic chase sequence.
So I Married An Axe Murderer originated in 1987 when producer Robert N. Fried met with writer Robbie Fox to discuss story ideas. They ended up talking about the problems they had with women and agreed that “most women appeared to be out to destroy us!” Fried recalled. Producers Cary Woods and Fried formed their own production company in 1992 and Axe Murderer was their first film. They heard about Myers’ work in Wayne’s World before it was released and asked him to play the role of Charlie. On the night of the 1992 Academy Awards, Myers agreed to do it because he liked the screenplay and “the concept of fear of marriage.”

Myers wanted to rework Robbie Fox’s screenplay in order to allow himself the chance to do some serious acting while still doing some Saturday Night Live-style comedy. Myers rewrote the script with friend and fellow comedian Neil Mullarkey which became the shooting script. Myers petitioned to give himself and his friend credit for their work but in arbitration the Writers Guild of America decided that only Fox would receive credit.

Behind-the-scenes troubles included in-fighting among the principal cast members, rewrites, reshoots and lengthy release delays. The media described Myers as a control freak. Director Schlamme disagreed with Myers on a few occasions over the shape of the film. Schlamme said, “Michael was taking a stretch beyond his usual stuff and was playing outside himself. Personality clashes were bound to happen. We struggled.” However, Schlamme disagreed that Myers was the “control freak that the media has painted him to be,” but acknowledged that it was a difficult shoot. Producer Fried admitted that it was not “a smooth movie” and there were on-location “difficulties” with Myers but that “it was good for the film.” Despite early press reports claiming the film was unfunny and over budget, it scored high at test screenings.
So I Married An Axe Murderer was featured at a screening to benefit the San Francisco film office on July 27, 1993 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Its world premiere was the next day with Myers, Travis and LaPaglia attending. The film ended up making only $11.5 million in North America, well below its $20 million budget.

Critical reaction was mixed. Roger Ebert criticized it for being "a mediocre movie with a good one trapped inside, wildly signaling to be set free.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers felt that "Juggling mirth, romance and murder requires a deft touch – think of Hitchcock’s Trouble with Harry. Axe is a blunt instrument.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and said, "In some perverse way, So I Married an Axe Murderer seems to be asking us to laugh at how not-funny it is.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson had a mixed reaction to Myers' performance: "Everything he does is charmingly lightweight and disposable and reasonably impossible to resist. And in the end, because the character is so easily within reach for him, you may come away feeling a little cheated, as if you hadn't quite seen a movie at all.” However, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that it came as "a welcome surprise that So I Married an Axe Murderer, which might have been nothing more than a by-the-numbers star vehicle, surrounds Mr. Myers with amusing cameos and gives him a chance to do more than just coast.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “The movie’s a trifle, at best – but it’s so full of good spirits, and so rich with talented actors having a marvelous time, that its flaws tend to wash away.”

Mike Myers delivers his most relaxed, naturalistic performance approximating an actual human being in So I Married An Axe Murderer. He manages to keep his shameless mugging to a tolerable level – something that would get exponentially worse with subsequent films. This may be due to the fact that he’s allowed to cut loose as Charlie’s dad, playing a much broader character, and this allows him to play Charlie more down-to-earth. Sadly, Myers hasn’t played a character as restrained since, instead opting for more annoying caricatures.


SOURCES

Frook, John Evan. “Axe Murderer Fete to Benefit Frisco Film Commish.” Variety. July 15, 1993.

So I Married An Axe Murderer Production Notes. Tristar Pictures. 1993.

Stanley, John. “Choppy Waters for Axe Murderer Crew.” San Francisco Chronicle. August 1, 1993.

12 comments:

  1. I always wondered if this was any good or not. I never saw it. I heard a lot of people talk crap about it. Plus I know it was a dud at the box office.

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  2. Yeah, I'm not a huge Mike Myers fan by any stretch, but he's really good in this film and it has some insanely quotable dialogue. Plus, it makes me nostalgic for the 1990s.

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  3. I'm going to give this one a chance. I've seen the end on cable, but none of the bits with his Dad that my co-workers quote endlessly. It may end up as a "whats wrong with the '90s" post but maybe its failure was what was wrong with the '90s? We shall see.

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  4. Tommy Salami:

    I am really curious to see what you think of this film. Personally, I love it and have watched it more times than I can remember. Ah, when Mike Myers was still funny...

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  5. This brings back good memories - I used to play this movie all the time in the mom and pop video store I used to work in. When Austin Powers was about to come out, I assumed it would be another IMAAM - a film I'd love but that would tank at the box office. And in a way, I wish it had - I bet Myers would still be making funny movies. Once Austin Powers became a franchise, it was all over for him.

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  6. Jeff Allard:

    I know how you feel about the first AUSTIN POWERS film. It had cult film all over it and then became this surprise hit and that was it for Myers. He never looked back but I wish he would go back and do something like AXE MURDERER.

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  7. So gratifying to see someone showing some love for 'Axe Murderer'. I'd definitely take this one over any of the Austin Powers films. The beat poetry scenes are absolutely hilarious (as someone who's attended and, on occasion, performed at poetry recitals I've witnessed this kind of spaced-out self-importance first hand).

    I also love the stoner pilot. When Myers challenges him to demonstrate his ability to fly an aircraft by pointing to one of the controls at random and asking him to name it, the answer comes back "That's the artificial horizon. I kinda prefer it to the REAL horizon." Priceless!

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  8. Neil Fulwood:

    Yeah, the beat poetry scenes are hilarious. As someone who is a HUGE fan of Jack Kerouac, Myers really nails the man's style of poetry reading while also making fun of pretentious poetry reading in general.

    And I do love Steve Wright's cameo as the stoner pilot. Perfect casting! Altho, I was kinda disappointed by Charles Grodin's bit. I guess after the brilliance of MIDNIGHT RUN I was expecting something a bit more memorable. Still, a great film.

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  9. I saw this at a test screening in Lincoln, NE. The theater was packed and everyone laughed at all the right parts. After that, I never saw it appear in the theaters again.

    You're right on that it's Myers' best work, and I can't believe that a negative review of this could exist. Especially one that says it's unfunny. Wha?

    Jane, get me off this crazy thing... called love.

    Excuse me... I believe I ordered a large... HELLO!

    And then of course there's every scene with his Dad. LET's GET PISSED! Some of this might have to do with the fact I'm Scotch/Irish, but I doubt it.

    It's all wonderful and you're right it pay it proper.

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  10. PIPER:

    Argh! I'm insanely jealous that you got to see this a test screening. Very cool. I do remember seeing this on the big screen but I don't think it lasted in theaters very long. Fortunately, it has enjoyed quite a new life on home video. Altho, I'm still bummed that Sony has refused to give this film the deluxe treatment it deserves.

    So many great, quotable lines, as you cited... "HEAD! PANTS! NOW!" I still incorporate some of them in every day conversations.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

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  11. Watching the "Wayne's World" movies on TV last night reminded me of a dear friend who worked as crew with Mike Myers on the set of "Axe Murderer." My (late) friend was a Teamster, a good, funny guy. When I learned he was working with Myers, whose comedy I've enjoyed, I asked what Myers was like. I was truly surprised when my friend sneered and stated, "He's an arrogant little creep." I'd never heard my friend say anything mean about anyone before or afterward. In contrast, he had praise for Debbie Reynolds, who my friend drove to and from the set when she filmed "Mother" in Sausalito. She asked my friend about his 90-year-old mother, and asked to go to his Mom's house. Her visit thrilled his mother. I guess someone could state the visit was to do "research" for her role, but I'm sure Ms. Reynolds knew other non-celebrity moms before and had a take on how to do her role before she arrived on set. I wish Myers had given a pleasant work experience to my friend and others working on the film. It's a shame he's inconsiderate. I felt let down when I learned of his overbearing personality, and it affects how I view his performances.

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  12. Anonymous:

    Interesting story and from what I've heard about the filming of AXE MURDERER, not surprising. Just a shame. Thanks for sharing. Good to hear that Debbie Reynolds is a nice person.

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