We gave it a B-
Watching I’ll Do Anything (Columbia, PG-13), the new movie written and directed by James L. Brooks, I kept thinking of a friend who’s become a convert to the brave new world of trendy low-fat cooking — you know, healthy food that’s every bit as delicious as the old high-calorie decadence (or so the recipe books tell you). With a satisfaction bordering on mania, my friend whips up pasta with just a dab of olive oil, desserts bereft of butter or cream. Is it my imagination, or does this stuff all taste like it was made for astronauts (or gerbils)? Sitting down to a dinner of the new lean cuisine, I often feel trapped in a benign science-fiction nightmare: Invasion of the Taste Snatchers. And that’s pretty much how I felt during this pleasant, sort of funny, strangely bland dramatic comedy.
In I’ll Do Anything, Brooks, the creator of Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987), once again casts his affectionate eye upon a crew of jittery middle-class romantics. Throughout the movie, there are flashes of his meticulously observational, higher-sitcom style — a trenchant wisecrack here, a surge of empathy there. The actors are a genial, feisty lot. Yet something is missing: the spice, the highs — the dramatic flavor. Conceived and produced as a modern-day musical, I’ll Do Anything was shorn of all but one of its songs after a disastrous test screening. I tried hard to watch the film as if I knew nothing of its turbulent history, but the truth is that a musical without musical numbers is just what I’ll Do Anything feels like. The picture isn’t bad, exactly. It’s doughy and innocuously sweet, a cake that never quite rises.
The central character, Matt Hobbs (Nick Nolte), is a middle-aged film and television actor of obsessive dedication whose career has been in a slump for more than a decade. After years of feuding with his ex-wife (Tracey Ullman, doing what appears to be a shrill impression of Holly Hunter), he is suddenly entrusted with the care of their 6-year-old daughter, Jeannie (Whittni Wright), a beautiful but staggeringly obnoxious child who, never having been disciplined, has been tacitly encouraged to scream out her every whim and displeasure. When it turns out that Jeannie’s spoiled, manipulative temperament makes her a natural actress (she can turn on the sweet-faced charm as readily as the brattiness), she ends up getting cast in a sitcom.
Matt’s career may be taking off as well. He auditions for the high-concept mogul Burke Adler (Albert Brooks), head of Popcorn Pictures, and begins dating one of Adler’s junior executives, the rapaciously bubbly, long-stemmed Cathy Breslow (Joely Richardson), who wants him to star in a remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Meanwhile, Adler, a grouchy SOB who prides himself on the fact that his movies are just empty thrill machines, commences an affair with Nan Mulhanney (Julie Kavner), who runs his test screenings and is everything Adler isn’t: nice, earthy, sincere.
This is the first time a James Brooks film has felt blatantly derivative. Nolte gives a sturdy and moving performance (he has on teary breakdown that lays bare the fragile egos of Hollywood actors), but the way his noble, beleaguere Matt comes alive by embracing the responsibilities of single fatherhood adds up to a bald retread of Kramer vs. Kramer, as well as recent adult-kid buddy comedies like Life With Mikey. Adler, the Joel Silver-style action hack producer (played by Albert Brooks as a rambunctious cartoon), might be a gloss on the Steve Martin character in Grand Canyon. Even the film’s freshest, most wide-awake performance — Joely Richardson’s as the deceptively sweet Cathy — ends up seeming a little secondhand, as Cathy’s relationship with Matt rehashes the intertwined themes of romantic and professional integrity explored with far greater finesse in Broadcast News.
For all that, I’ll Do Anything wouldn’t be nearly as musty if it had more emotional vitality. Many of the scenes don’t quite track, and I can only guess that’s because their intended crests — the musical numbers — are now on the cutting-room floor. I often found myself inventing lyrics for songs that were clearly meant to be there — like, say, when Adler abandons Nan at a restaurant table so that he can glad-hand the local players (cue music: ”Is it love that I feel or doom/When I see him work the room?”). What Brooks has given us is a light-fingered confection trying to pass as subtle realism. Tellingly, the climax hinges on whether little Jeannie can produce sitcom tears on command, making this the second Brooks film in a row (after Broadcast News) to pivot on an act of fake crying. As an entertainer, Brooks has always melded the synthetic and the genuine. With I’ll Do Anything, he finally seems to have mistaken one for the other. B-