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Retro Review 1981: The Devil and Max Devlin

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Devil and Max Devlin (Original Release Date: 6 March 1981)

Elliott Gould and Bill Cosby were two of the coolest people on the planet in the seventies.  The seventies werenot the eighties, though, as any Richard Pryor fan will tell you.  The eighties managed to suck the cool out of a lot of performers, which is a real shame.  It’s hard to watch Gould being a watered down schmuck and not looking too much older than he did in The Long Goodbye, Nashville, or even The Muppet Movie.

I guess this movie was meant to be a big deal.  It’s the first Disney movie to feature “real” cursing (if you count “son of a bitch,” that is), and it deals with a satanic theme.  It also casts Bill Cosby in the Satan role (as “Barney Satin,” though he’s only a henchman to a throned man identified as “Mr. Chairman, Sir”), which, for modern actors, would be like casting Tom Hanks as Satan.  Or maybe it would still be like casting Bill Cosby as Satan.  Whatever the case, the casting is inspired, and I’m sure Disney thought it was shaking things up.

How could you go wrong with Bill Cosby and Elliott Gould?   I don’t know, but Disney does its damnedest.  It’s not enough that you cast Bill Cosby.  He needs something to do.  He needs more than a one-minute guest spot every ten minutes where he drops in to remind Gould’s character of their agreement.  He mugs a little bit while he’s dancing at a party, I suppose, but the pickings are pretty slim.  He basically plays the straight man throughout the movie, but the Devlin character is straight man enough onhis own.  (It occurred to me while watching that Cosby played straighter man to a straight man for three full seasons of I Spy, and did it remarkably well.)

What of the agreement?   I’ve seen the deal Devlin gets mislabeled on-line as a “Faustian” bargain.  It is not.  Here’s the deal: Gould’s Max Devlin is an unpitying landlord who is hit by a bus and killed while chasing down a man late on his rent.  Amusingly enough, he is hit as a result of being tripped by an agent of Hell.  (Devlin calls this Entrapment, and he’s not wrong.)

He green-screenfloats down to a Dantean Hell (note: Disney may have used a blue or yellowscreen), where he is offered a spin on the old Heaven Can Wait-like second chance.   “What we’re looking for,” Cosby’s Satin tells him, “is fresh, unsullied innocence.”  If Devlin can provide this, he will not be consigned to the fourth level (the one for the greedy, as Dante has it) of Hell.
 

 

devil_max_devlin_001

 

Devlin needs three people, chosen beforehand by the Hell committee, to sign their souls over to him in exchange for making their dreams come true.  If Faustian bargains are struck in the movie, they are between Devlin and these three.  So far, I’m still with the movie.

I liked the idea of Elliott Gould as Mephistopheles going into the movie, but I turned out not to care for how he was played.  The movie’s approach is to have him give these people what they want first, remind them periodically they couldn’t have it without him, then try to get them to sign a document with the word “soul” sneaked somewhere into the text.

This setup takes some of the drama out of it for me.  I prefer the more upfront offer in traditional Faustian texts.  Here, he’s more like a trickster or a drug dealer than a menacing presence.  He’s a woefully inefficient demon, too, always forgetting that he’s due to make things happen for one of the potential signees while he’s engaged with making things happen for another.  There are some real comic opportunities, here, and they’re all wasted.  We’ve seen the needs-to-be-two-places-at-once situation comedy so many times at this point, I think, that we’ve come to expect at least a little invention when the scenario is set up.  If not invention, then at least a constant threat of the juggler’s balls being dropped.  This movie gives us neither.

It doesn’t give us particularly interesting wish fulfillments, either.  For that matter, it doesn’t give us particularly interesting wishers.  One is a visual and vocal clone of Barbra Streisand who wants success as a singer.  (It occurs to me that Elliott Gould was married to Barbra Streisand for most of the sixties.  Would ’81 audiences have made this connection?  Would they have cared?)  One has a Motocross fetish, but he’s a nerd, and nerds, it turns out, are incapable of convincing people to teach them to ride a motorbike.  Neither of these characters is developed much, though the Streisand clone *is* shown looking all depressed in her hotel room, and we learn she misses her family.  If you want more character development than that, you’re out of luck.

These two are the movie’s small potatoes, corruption-wise.  The big potato is a kid who wants his widowed mommy to get remarried so he’ll have a new daddy to love him and take him places.  This is where most people are bound to stop rooting for Devlin, despite his being played by Gould.  He stalks the kid.  He presents himself as a stranger with candy, takes the kid on rollercoaster rides, has the kid call him “Uncle Max,” then promises to marry his mother if he’ll sign away his soul.   It’s downright creepy.

Since Devlin’s marks are all so bland, the pressure is on him to be the interesting one.  For whatever reason, no one involved with the movie appears to have any clue how to make him interesting.  The closest they come is having him wear an increasing number of tissues over razor nicks.  I figure it’s meant as a running gag, but it’s an unbelievable one, since he’s still wearing these tissues well into the night, by which time any normal person would have removed them.

What’s that?  Why does he keep cutting his face?  People from “down there” cast no reflection, we learn.  (For the second time in three weeks, a non-vampire movie has co-opted vampire lore.)  We never see him shaving.  He just starts showing up with the tissues.  I’ll be honest here and admit I didn’t put two and two together.  It is eventually explained an hour into the movie.  I’m going to go ahead and guess the explanatory scene was a reshoot.

It may be envelope-pushing for a Disney movie, but it’s still a Disney movie.  You can probably guess how it ends.  I did.  I usually don’t mind being able to guess where a movie is going as long as I am having fun getting there.  Unfortunately, there was little fun to be had.
 

Final Word: Recommended?  Are you sleepy?  Do you need to be?  This could be your solution.

Availability: In stock on DVD at Amazon.  It is also available for instant viewing on Amazon.  Unavailable on Netflix.

Standout Scene: Devlin puts on a bad fake beard and tricks the Streisand clone into signing away her soul by pretending to be a fan seeking an autograph.

Hey, I Know That Guy!: Other than Gould and Cosby, you may not recognize anyone.  “Mr. Chairman, Sir” is played by the guy who played Kurt Barlow on Salem’s Lot.  The kid, played by Adam Rich, did a lot of TV work.  He voiced Presto on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which makes him cool in my book.

Nostalgia Score: 5/10.  It gets bumped up from 4 because of Motocross.

Review Score: 55 / 100

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 38 weeks ago

Some chump on the IMDb boards dared to make the chump assertion that the Streisand clone didn't remind him of Streisand.  Chump.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 38 weeks ago

There should have been more nods to Streisand's A Star Is Born remake.  This would hold true even if there had been a bunch of nods to Streisand's A Star Is Born remake.

When you have Elliott Gould and a Streisand clone on-hand, you take advantage of it.

Quasar
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Posted: 8 years 38 weeks ago

When I looked at the poster, I thought that was Al Pacino. And I just happened to catch the end of The Devil's Advocate the other night.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline