MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY
(PG, DEG, 95 mins., theatrical release date: June 12, 1987)
How do you go from distributing seminal films by David Lynch, Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow to declaring bankruptcy by promoting trash bags and the reconstructed London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, AZ? That is the Million Dollar Mystery of Dino De Laurentiis' eternal miscalculation. Legend has it that Dino observed a crowd lining up in New York and was told they weren't waiting to see a movie, but instead wanting to gamble on the state lottery. I believe the producers of The Squeeze were also inspired by the same procession. And who knows? Maybe they were in that very line.
Dino De Laurentiis, however, wanted to give something back to the people who forked over hundreds trying to gain millions, to make undemanding entertainment for the serfs of our proudly democratic country while dangling a Glad waste bin liner full of $1,000,000 cash in front of them (that was actually the poster). The Glad Products Company were official sponsors, and specially-marked boxes offered clues that the film may not have provided viewers in guessing where the million was hidden in the movie so that they could fill in the entry form, name that location and win De Laurentiis' personal jackpot. The final tally: 356,306 people gave the correct answer, and a drawing was held to narrow the field down to one winner. So when you get right down to it, Million Dollar Mystery was essentially Dino De Laurentiis' excuse to stage his own lottery competition.
The winner, for the record, was preteen Alesia Lenae Jones from Bakersfield, CA. You'd think that, in the spirit of showmanship, perhaps Dino would select 10 or so people and someone would broadcast their own race for the prize in the manner of a game show like Supermarket Sweep. Surely, it would've helped ease the financial loss of the movie. I don't know how many wary patrons actually slammed down the $6 to watch Million Dollar Mystery, or decided on Predator instead, or if they just stayed home with their Glad products and went from there. But multiplying the number of correct applicants times the ticket price, you get $2,137,836 in potential box-office earnings. Here's what Million Dollar Mystery, budgeted at $10 million, actually grossed in the summer of 1987: $989,033.
Can't you hear its heartbeat?
The most entertaining thing about Million Dollar Mystery in retrospect is in seeing some of the premier critics of the time shilling this branded gimmick in their newspaper columns and on TV. Consider Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who actually wrote down the P.O. Box address where one could obtain a blank entry form in her very review of the film. And get a load of poor Roger Ebert, in the very same year he'd go on to obliterate Bill Cosby, "the richest man in show business," for hawking Coca-Cola to appease his corporate gods in Leonard Part 6. Maslin rightly called the movie an "afterthought" to the contest, but tries to look on the bright side in that most passive of statements: "All things considered, it could be a lot worse." Gene Siskel, Ebert (to some extent) and the Washington Post's Hal Hinson were far less forgiving than Maslin.
Boy, they're upset. And you know, I am, too!!
That's because Million Dollar Mystery is not just capitalizing on the theatre-going public's deeper-seated needs for financial security, escapist fun and waste removal supplies, but the premise itself is one of the baldest "stop me if think you've heard this one before" knock-offs this side of the equally cynical Mac and Me. A stranger dies in front of a gaggle of goofballs, but not without asking them how they'd like to get rich off a strategically-placed bounty. Dollars dancing in their heads like sugarplums, these dopey commoners run out to their cars and engage in reckless pursuit of the loot, with plenty of property and vehicular damage along the way. And the fates will conspire to make sure none of them will discover or recover the money without various slapstick encounters and comeuppances.
Your premonition is correct. Million Dollar Mystery is the 1980s model of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which had been ripped off many times before, like in Scavenger Hunt (to be fair, that 1979 version has the best cast outside of Mad, Mad World) and some obscurity called Flush (1977), which must have been made exclusively for Keith Bailey. And as I mentioned previously with The Gumball Rally, the entire automotive subgenre of Cannonballsploitation is also in debt to Stanley Kramer's wacky touchstone. With but a lonely few exceptions, you can usually tell these comic charlatans apart from the real thing by the lack of star power, their amateur replacements, the derivative gags, their abysmal timing, the harebrained characters, their crummy dialogue, the inferior filmmaking, their complete and utter indifference towards who makes the goal first. Million Dollar Mystery, alas, is no Rat Race.
Why even talk about Million Dollar Mystery as a movie, when it's so transparently a product? [sigh] Here goes nothing. Instead of Jimmy "Smiler" Durante having skimmed $350,000 in tuna factory profits, it's Tom Bosley, the TV pitchman for Glad bags himself, as government traitor Sidney Preston, who has embezzled $4 million worth of kickbacks from the Libyans. After divvying up the bounty and secreting it in four ways, he pulls over at the Apache Acres Motel and Restaurant for a bowl of their special chili. You know the old man is in mortal danger when the cook proudly lists rattlesnake and armadillo as his choice cuts, so it makes no sense to write the phrase "faster than you can say 'Change my order to the soup.'"
Faster than you can say "Change my order to the soup," Preston has a fatal heart attack and everyone else in the diner swarms around him as he hips them to the four million-dollar placements, "each one is in a bridge." He won't tell them where to begin until the redheaded waitress he's obsessed with gives him a kiss goodbye. George Kennedy in Bolero had smoother moves than the former Mr. C. A newscast on TV validates his story by declaring him a wanted man likely hiding out near his hometown of El Puente, and awaaaayyy we go!
The abovementioned hostess, Dotty (Pam Matteson), and her brother/chef/co-owner Tugger (Royce D. Applegate) lead the charge. We get Eugene...erm, Eddie Deezen and Wendy Sherman as four-eyed newlyweds mad with consummate lust. There's Rick Overton, wife Mona Lyden and moppet son Douglas Emerson, who is such a dead ringer for Peter Billingsley, I was anticipating Stephen McHattie would arrive to stalk him and kill him. I knew that was my heart's desire when, watching the nerdy nymphomaniacs suck face in the diner, he quips: "Can you imagine what their kids are going to look like?" I'm guessing they'd all resemble Ronny Howard from Village of the Giants, just like Douglas Emerson. Even more annoying are three blonde Bananarama wannabes and their handler, played by who could care less (I‘m told one of them is a Playboy centerfold).
Along the way, they encounter Rich Hall, a one-season wonder on SNL in the Carl Spackler mold; H.B. Haggerty as a pro wrestler once again, but without the fatherly twist afforded him in Blake Edwards' Micki + Maude; Mike Farrow as P.I. Tommy Sledge in a noir parody which, as Tugger is quick to proclaim, "looks right out a 1940s movie," but is still not ready for prime time even if your mind doesn't drift to Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid; and Kevin Pollak playing a deputy officer in his screen debut, wearing out his welcome fast with gong-banging impressions of Dudley Moore, Ronald Reagan and Peter Falk. That he comes across as a nightclub performer is no surprise, but his preferred destination isn't the Comedy Store, but the Bomb Shelter from Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life.
This was 71-year-old Richard Fleischer's glum finale, the dismal capper for a slump in the ‘80s that began with Neil Diamond as The Jazz Singer and encompassed additional De Laurentiis productions Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. I got the impression that this decade wasn't kind for a lot of Old Hollywood royalty when you find out that Diamond's co-star was Laurence Olivier (next stop: Inchon) and that Stanley Donen had gone from Charade and Singin' in the Rain to Saturn 3 and Blame It on Rio. Fleischer, meanwhile, had done Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, 10 Rillington Place, and Tora! Tora! Tora! among many others. His loyalty to De Laurentiis is touching, but just like Donen in his last movie, dumb comedy is a depressing means to bolster your retirement funds. And Million Dollar Mystery is the lowest of the low. Red Sonja is a great deal funnier accidentally than this one is purposely.
It's a bad, bad, bad, bad film. Since the talent pool in front of and behind the camera is practically non-existent, the shrill, stupid characters aren't worth enduring even for the now-hypothetical cash prize. It's so unpleasant, you feel like a hostage taken at ransom by the world's worst comedy improv troupe. Stanley Kramer's 1963 prototype escalated the absurd jeopardy to suspenseful extremes and pushed its greedy characters past the point of civil obedience amusingly. The hoary Fleischer and his writing team go at justifying De Laurentiis' gimmick with no invention or investment. The great Jack Cardiff is wasted as cinematographer, the music consists of bland boogie songs and a synth-pop cue which is a shameless nick from The Art of Noise's "Paranoimia" (where's Matt Frewer when you need him?) and the Southwestern setting makes an unintentional parallel to the barren landscape of humor on screen.
But what else can you say? Million Dollar Mystery only exists because of the contest, and while you'd never see Golan & Globus pony up a fortune in cinematic reparations ("combat pay"), the slapdash feature it spawned isn't even as rewarding as the best/worst of Cannon. Please offer a moment of silence, though, for Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson, who died on set November 23, 1986, the result of a motorbike leap which went awry. His name pops up in the credits while Mack Dryden & Jamie Alcroft, who are the federal agents trailing the money-hungry mob, try to pad out the "It's up to you!" reveal with more third-rate shtick. Unfortunately, Dar Robinson's dedication isn't saved until the end and is also bracketed in quotes, as if it were another glib line in a movie that is nothing at all if not artificial.