FROM THE WAY IT SOUNDS, JAMES L. BROOKS' MUSICAL, 'I'LL DO ANYTHING,' MAY BE HITTING A FEW SOUR NOTES
I’ll Do Anything is giving Hollywood a case of deja vu. Like that summer turkey Last Action Hero, the $40 million musical-starring Nick Nolte and directed by James L. Brooks-has become the subject of megabad buzz. The rumblings started in August, when a disastrous test screening prompted Brooks to begin scaling back the music from his musical comedy, which is scheduled to be one of Columbia Pictures’ big-ticket Christmas releases. Undoubtedly, the hook for Anything will give listeners pause. Nolte, back from his killer 1991 turns in The Prince of Tides and Cape Fear, will sing- yes, sing!-numbers by (ne Prince) and Sinead O’Connor. If that doesn’t set off alarms, factor in the oddball three-for-one story line: the relationship / between a struggling actor (Nolte) and his precocious daughter (newcomer Whittni Wright); the romance between Nolte and a struggling studio executive (Joely Richardson); and the affair between a test-screening researcher (Julie Kavner) and a schlock filmmaker (Albert Brooks). Director Brooks, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has called Anything ”a perverse Shirley Temple movie.” But when the film was previewed on Columbia’s Culver City lot, it was the songs and dances that test audiences categorically rejected. ”It was the worst torture possible,” says one attendee. ”From the very first song (on). And because the movie is partly about movie researchers-and there were all these real researchers standing around with clipboards-I started to wonder if the whole thing wasn’t a put-on. I expected the lights to go on at any minute and for someone to tell us it was all a joke.” In fairness, the source didn’t stay until the end: She bolted the minute Nolte burst into song. His big number is an unpretentious little ditty called ”Be My Mirror.” After that fateful screening, Brooks radically altered the movie-removing most of the music. ”We wanted to strengthen our narrative flow,” says I’ll Do Anything’s producer, Polly Platt, who adds that two successful test screenings followed in San Diego and Long Beach, Calif. ”Everyone stayed in their seats, and our (test score) numbers were good.” Platt says the audience also responded positively to the lone musical number, in which the pint-size Wright warbles Carole King’s ”You Are the Best.” According to Platt, additional songs are now being folded back in. But will audiences get the beat? Cynics point to such recent musical misfires as Newsies, Sarafina, and ABC’s ill-fated series Cop Rock. ”Right now, musicals seem dead,” says a publicity executive, ”unless they’re animated.” In light of such disasters, the question arises: How did a project like Anything even make it to the starting gate? Studio executives declined to comment, but Columbia chief Mark Canton said earlier this year that ”if you can’t bet on Jim Brooks, who can you bet on?” If you’ve got $40 million to spend, Brooks might seem worth the gamble. His past films-Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News-are proven favorites with audiences and critics. And, as Platt notes, he has a history of fine-tuning his movies after unsuccessful test screenings. The Brooks-produced War of the Roses (1989), starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, went through < considerable tinkering as a result of test responses and eventually grossed $84 million. Can Brooks pull this one off? According to Platt, he has planned at least three more screenings between now and the film's release date in December. But when he's finished, will Anything be a musical without music? If reactions to the summer trailer -which drew guffaws -are any indication, the movie won't be as much of a toe-tapper as originally envisioned. Platt insists Anything will come with music: ''I guarantee this is going to be a musical! Without it, the movie would be just another father-daughter story. If we can get away with it, and if audiences will go for it, we'd even like to put Nick Nolte's singing number back in.'' Guess they will do just about anything.