Don’t Drink The Water

Woody Allen's first foray into television is an infrequently funny screwball comedy with Michael J. Fox and Dom DeLuise.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1994

All my talk of how Manhattan Murder Mystery might have looked like a concession to Woody Allen’s early comedy fans was a bit pre-mature. Here’s a movie that really goes back into the Woody Allen time machine. It’s based on Allen’s 1966 play (of the same name) and has the same joke-a-second dialogue and wacky, far-fetched situations that made up Allen’s early filmography. But, while the material might not have changed in 30 years, the man behind it has immensely. Allen is no longer the anything-goes comic wild-man he was in the ‘60s. Old Woody and New Woody clash unpleasantly in Don’t Drink the Water — the 1966 screenplay is bursting with zany wit, but the 1994 direction is bland and lifeless.

Don’t Drink the Water was made for television, and, unfortunately, it lives down to a lot of the ‘90s-era negative stereotypes associated with the “made-for-TV movie.” It’s Allen’s first movie in the visually unappealing 4:3 television-friendly aspect ratio, and it carries an air of cheapness — the color is washed out, the sound is echoey, there are only two or three sets, and there’s possibly less than 100 cuts in the entirety. There are also, with the exception of a handful of humorously frumpy ‘50s housewife dresses, no costumes that couldn’t have come from the actors’ own wardrobes, despite the fact that it’s ostensibly a period-piece. Imagine September filmed on a camcorder and edited on a VCR and you get the idea.

To be honest, the cheapness didn’t bother me that much (I’m willing to make concessions in the name of laughter), except in one regard. Allen’s movies (especially his comedies) typically have great, lively soundtracks, but Don’t Drink the Water has virtually no music, just dull, eerie silence greeting each scene.

Also (and I feel sort of badly pointing this out, given how surprised I was by the strength of the performances), a first look at the cast seems to suggest another common made-for-TV movie cliché: a rag-tag assortment of distractingly familiar has-beens and also-rans. There’s one-time Mel Brooks muse and Candid Camera host Dom DeLuise, the girl from Blossom, and Michael J. Fox, in the midst of post-Back to the Future/pre-Spin City doldrums.

The opening credits seem to usher away any TV-trappings by opening the exact same way as all of Allen’s theatrical movies: same font, same producers (Robert Greenhut, Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins), same production designer (Santo Loquasto), same editor (Susan E. Morse), same casting director (Juliet Taylor), and same cinematographer (Carlo Di Palma).

Then some newsreel footage starts playing, letting us know this is going to take place in 1966, at the height of the cold war. At the time the play was written, this was topical; now it’s a period piece. Afterwards, it cuts to an American embassy in Russia, where we meet Ambassador Magee (Josef Sommer), his xenophobic assistant Kilroy (Edward Hermann), and his well-meaning but hopeless son Axel (Michael J. Fox). The ambassador is on his way to Washington, seeking a cabinet position, and, fearing political competition from Kilroy, decides to pass him over and put his son in charge.

Michael J. Fox and Josef Sommer in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water
“You were hung in effigy in Panama?”
“You knew that...”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell it was by our own embassy!”

Right away I was struck by how strong the writing was, and how quickly the film grew on me. It’s firmly in screwball territory, and does a good job setting up characters and situations. It’s clear something’s going to go wrong, and Michael J. Fox is going to come up with some wacky solutions to some wacky problems! The ambassador’s going to make some angry phone-calls! Kilroy’s going to be a stick-in-the-mud! It’s expository, yes, but also witty, and Michael J. Fox is, as he tends to be, very funny, and incredibly endearing.

Then the Hollander family shows up — Walter (Woody Allen), Marion (Julie Kavner), and their daughter Susan (Mayim Bialik). They’re an average family from New Jersey on vacation in Russia, but they were caught by the police taking photos where they weren’t supposed to, and now the Communist regime thinks they’re spies.

Michael J. Fox,  Woody Allen, Edward Hermann, and Julie Kavner is a scene from Don’t Drink the Water
“Why were you taking photos?”
“I didn’t know it was forbidden!”
“What did you think the sirens were for?”
“I thought it was lunch break.”

In this scene, the movie’s faults come to light in a big way. The Hollanders burst in the door and frantically try to explain their situation while Michael J. Fox fumbles around trying to come up with a plan. This scene should explode with screwball energy, and while the jokes are funny, and the characters are broad and enjoyable, the direction and staging are incredibly lazy. You get the impression that this was not only the first take, but the cast’s first reading.

At one point in the movie, Michael J. Fox drops a pen and pauses awkwardly, seemingly expecting a cut, but gets none, so he picks it up and goes back to the rest of the scene. Actors stumble over words and keep going — once, it seemed uncannily like Woody Allen had forgotten his lines (he stops mid-sentence and looks ahead blankly, before Kavner gamely tries to fill the silence).

Then there’s Edward Hermann — Hermann has been great in dozens of movies and countless television series, but in this opening scene, he seems lost. He’s off to the side of the screen, and seems like he’s inadvertently wandered into the shot. At first he looks lost and confused, then he starts consciously trying to act natural, at one point picking up some document and flipping through it. Most bizarrely of all, part-way through the scene he puts his head down and just slinks off-screen. He was clearly given no direction, and Allen clearly lacked either the interest or the budget to do a second take.

Edward Hermann looking confused
Edward Hermann looking confused
Edward Hermann looking confused

The entire sequence consists of a single, 6-minute unbroken shot, and cinematographer Carlos Di Palma — who’s done such beautiful work in Hannah and her Sisters, Shadows and Fog and Husbands and Wives, among many others — seems as lost as Hermann. The camera moves unsurely around the room, sometimes randomly zooming in and out of peoples’ faces.

I realize that many of these elements — long shots, improvised dialogue, responsive camerawork — are Allen trademarks. They are, and they’ve worked well for him before, but combined with the apparent lack of rehearsal, it’s deadly to this material. Don’t Drink the Water has a tightly wound script of set-ups and punchlines; timing is crucial to it success, and this movie’s loose, casual feel just comes across as sloppy. Often, a brilliant joke would land awkwardly, or it would land but you’d barely be able to hear it as other people were talking over it, and, instead of laughing, I would find myself musing over how hard I should have been laughing at something so clever.

The cast helps out a lot, though. Fox and Kavner are strong as you’d expect. Mayim Bialik (the afore-mentioned “girl from Blossom”) is very nice, although she seems nervous and self-conscious a lot of the time. She’s also a bit miscast — her character is a 20-something, engaged Philosophy graduate, but Bialik looks like she’s about 14 (she was actually 19 at the time). She and Axel fall in love, and it’s a good thing that Michael J. Fox also looks like a teenager, otherwise the romance would come across a bit predatory.

Mayim Bialik and Michael J. Fox in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water

The cast’s real stand-out is, surprisingly, Dom DeLuise. He plays pretty much the same character that Kenneth Mars did in Shadows and Fog — a large, flamboyant magician with an ambiguously European accent. DeLuise, however, gets the added bonus of being a Catholic priest as well as a magician, and he’s profoundly, hilariously terrible at all of his tricks. He cuts a man’s tie off and then forgets the part where you put it back on, kills his dove, and even accidentally lights his bible on fire when he tries to do both of his jobs at once.

Dom DeLuise and Woody Allen in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water
“I only have with me my small items, but it’s enough for the first few hours of the show.”
Dom DeLuise performing a wedding in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water

I’ve only now started to notice a recurrence of magic and magicians in Allen’s movies. It’s definitely something with a large comic potential — he’s exploited it here, in Shadows and Fog, in Oedipus Wrecks, and even briefly in Annie Hall and Stardust Memories, each time to different effect. Allen said that scenes with DeLuise were the hardest to film because the cast kept cracking up, and it’s hard to blame them. In a movie where so many of the actors seem to be self-conscious, DeLuise is wholly invested, accent and all. The lack of direction didn’t seem to phase him; he slips comfortably and seamlessly into his absurd, hilarious character.

Dom DeLuise in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water
“The milk is gone, but the milk was here! How about a nice big cheer!”

Woody Allen’s performance is nothing special, but it’s interesting to note that this is the first time he’s played a truly middle-aged family man. He’s played married characters before, and he even had children in Hannah and her Sisters and Manhattan Murder Mystery, but the kids were always peripheral. He also, by playing a caterer known for his mashed-potato sculptures, returns to the working-class-guys-with-weird-jobs character stable he spent most of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in.

When the play was originally produced, Allen was 31 years old, and would’ve been well-suited to the Michael J. Fox role (although he actually didn’t act in the play at all). That part is the romantic lead (he falls in love with Susan Hollander), and he’s a goofy, nebbish man desperate to prove himself — in other words, he’s right out of a Woody Allen early comedy. The role of Mr. Hollander, on the other hand, was written based on Allen’s father. I think it’s an important part of the Woody Allen timeline that we’ve finally arrived at a point where Allen has opted to remove himself from the movie’s main romance by a generation.

Anyway, the plot marches on. It turns out, the Hollanders had unknowingly photographed a secret Soviet base. The Russians do not accept this as coincidence, and plan to break into the embassy and kidnap the Hollander family. The embassy staff, along with the Hollander family and crazy Father Drobney, devise an escape plan that ultimately finds them dressing up as the veiled wives of a visiting Arab King, and escaping to freedom as a part of his harem.

Woody Allen and Julie Kavner dressed up as Arab women in Don’t Drink the Water
“He’s gonna notices us for sure. His harem was 12, now it’s 14. Who doesn’t count their harem?”

As I said, the script is sharp, and the plot developments are silly, but mostly funny. The best running joke involves Mr. Hollander’s futile quest to get some “normal” American food. After being served octopus brain, he loses it and literally tries to kill the chef. As a going away package, the chef leaves him “cuttlefish served in the ink of a squid, with the seasoning of Mr. Hollander’s favorite antacid.”

Dom DeLuise and Woody Allen in a scene from Don’t Drink the Water
“No more snails, no more tripe, no more brains, no more horse meat... you got it?”

Don’t Drink the Water apparently had a total production turn-around time of 2 weeks, which means it beats out A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy as Allen’s hastiest production. That explains the film’s cheap, unpolished feel, but it’s too bad Allen didn’t have a chance to transcend the stereotypes and make a truly great television movie. Especially since this might actually have been one of his most-watched films of the ‘90s. Woody Allen’s box-office grosses were now averaging around $10 million. At 1990s ticket prices, that’s approximately 1.5-2 million people seeing each of his movies. For contrast, Don’t Drink the Water aired as part of ABC’s Sunday Night Movie — I don’t know the exact ratings for this particular broadcast, but that program averaged over 18 million viewers per week in the ‘94/95 season.

Alfred Hitchcock said that a director should play the audience like a piano. With Don’t Drink the Water, Allen is sort of hitting haphazardly at a piano with one hand while the other hand flips through a newspaper. As a made-for-TV movie from the mid ‘90s, it’s better than you might expect, but in the right hands, I bet it’s an amazing play.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “Years of insanity have driven this guy crazy.”
  • “I like my food dead. Not sick, not wounded, dead.”
  • “He’s a wonderful man, a great partner, I have tremendous respect for him, but he’s a total abject imbecile.”
  • “I’ve got arch supports the size of barbells.”
  • “Even my bald-spot has gone grey.”
  • “I’m not in love with him.”
    “The man bought you an expensive electric razor, how could you not be in love with him?”
  • “Now I have this confidence, this sense of optimism...”
    “Maybe you’re really a manic-depressive.”
  • “Even that draft-dodger was better than this guy. At least he succeeded at something.”
  • “My grandparents were Russian. They loved Russia. They just left because they heard there was going to be a coup and they had just bought new dishes.”
  • “I’m an American citizen, I pay taxes!”
    “You cheat on your taxes.”
    “What does that matter? Even with my cheating I still over-pay.”
  • “I love your cooking, it was great. And don’t worry about the board of health, they’ll never catch you.”
  • “I can’t sleep on a cot! I’m a dignified human being with a hernia.”
  • “Twelve wives? How do you ever get to the bathroom?”
  • “I can’t watch baseball, I can’t go to the theatre. And you know I’m lost without my urologist.”
  • “A lot of woman would consider me moderately flawed. A case could be made for that.”
  • “He’s not romantic enough.”
    “I find him very romantic.”
    “You’re not the one he’s holding in his arms.”
    “So, if he was holding me in his arms, then you’d marry him?”
  • This is what our government is doing with its money? And they wonder why I don’t vote.”
  • [Describing his vacation]
    “$6000 for 3 weeks of uninterrupted diarrhea.”
  • “Your broad outlook appeals to both psychotic liberals as well as militant fascists. Something for everyone.”
  • “I majored in Philosophy at Rutgers, so I don’t feel equipped to do much of anything except think about the universe. Maybe I could open up a philosophy shop and sell concepts.”
  • “Whaddya mean I’m not brave? Remember at the palisades, when that sailor whistled at you? I gave him a shot in the teeth. Remember that?”
    “Yeah. He fell out of his wheelchair.”

Fun facts

  • Allen’s original play was made into a different movie (also called Don’t Drink the Water) in 1969. It starred Jackie Gleason and Woody Allen was not involved in any way. Allen eventually saw it and described it as “abysmal” and “a textbook way to buy a play and completely ruin it.” I had actually planned to review the original movie as well, but I could never track down a copy.
  • Before the Gleason version was made, Allen had planned to adapt the play into a movie with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role.
  • The original play ran for 598 performances at the Morosco Theatre. It was produced by Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins, who also produced this film.
  • As I mentioned above, Woody Allen did not act in the original play. Mr. Hollander (who he plays in this version) was played by Lou Jacobi, who was also the cross-dressing husband in Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and Tony Roberts was in the Michael J. Fox role.
  • This version originally aired December 18, 1994 on ABC. It was later released on DVD.
  • Allen’s next movie, Bullets Over Broadway, was released into theatres just a month later.
  • Ed Herlihy provides the narration.
  • Despite the fact that the movie is set in Russia, the Russian police are clearly speaking Polish.
  • This is actually Allen’s second Russian-set period piece (after Love and Death).
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