What if, after the fairy tale is finished, star crossed love isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be? That’s what The Fantasticks blithely asks of its young romantic leads, Jean Louisa Kelly and Joey McIntyre. I’m a staunch believer that the only thing good about Mr. Holland’s Opus is young Jean Louisa Kelly, particularly her renditions of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”, despite the fact that her entire storyline is relegated to being incredibly creepy (she falls in love with Richard Dreyfuss’s Mr. Holland, and he seriously considers it).
She went on to star in the sitcom Yes, Dear, and is probably best known for playing the archetypally shrewy wife on the show. Thus, there’s the impression that her musical theater skills were all but forgotten. But here’s Twilight Time to revive that memory: Ms. Kelly plays the female lead in the film adaptation of the Off Broadway show The Fantasticks, a movie about a carnival and a scheme two get two “bickering” neighbors’ kids married off to one another.
I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal the fact that the respective fathers – Luisa Bellamy’s (Kelly) played by Joel Grey and Matt Hucklebee’s (Joey McIntyre) played by Brad Sullivan – are the ones who concoct this ridiculous age old family feud, to create the facsimile of a Shakespearean grudge, and thus create star crossed lovers. The fathers go as far as to seek help from a phony clairvoyant to play the villain in this imaginary love story.
The Fantasticks wants to be The Princess Bride, a deconstruction of a particular kind of story, but its self-awareness is as illusory as any that Seth MacFarlane and Patton Oswalt claim to have. It is, in fact, a very earnest musical that doesn’t work very well as a satire or examination of the genre it’s trying to play with. It explicitly invokes the name of Romeo and Juliet, and its desire to poke fun at its numerous copycats is admirable, if not especially good.
The primary reason none of this works very well is that satire shambles along in a very rickety way if it’s earnest. Satire is very rarely presented in an earnest manner; it needs a wink of self-awareness, the cognizance to know that it’s doing what it’s doing. The Fantasticks does not seem to know what it is doing. It’s sort of amusing since I don’t especially care for The Princess Bride, a film that not only knows what it’s doing, but rubs your face in it for the bulk of its running time. It only ever bothers to ask the question posed at the beginning of this piece an hour into the film, making the first two acts setup.
The artificiality of its sets, from the deep, bolds colors of its sunshine to the more lurid palette of the carnival are cute, but fails to really mean much when the film fails to balance a seriousness about real world disillusionment and an appropriate knowingness about its satire. Its photography is as lovely and is as equally disappointing because of this.
Perhaps the root of its issue is that the film isn’t very funny. Satire and deconstruction, I feel, require a certain amount of humor in order to effectively break down the elements it wants to examine. Even if it’s a cutting sense of humor that doesn’t even overtly exist as “funny”, such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, are still effectively over the top to analyze its primary theses and ideologies. But The Fantasticks is too preoccupied with being conventionally fun and charming for it to ever work satirically. Charming and fun aren’t mutually inclusive to humorous.
It its effort to be a satire of Shakespearian romances, it falls more into unimpressive parody, and as minute passes, the film becomes increasingly more unpleasant. “Love is an illusion” is cynical, and I’m fine with that, but it’s been done much more skillfully and honestly than it’s done in The Fantasticks. Here, it’s all a trick.
The Fantasticks is available on limited blu-ray release from Twilight Time. Special features include audio commentary with director Michael Ritchie and actress Jean Louisa Kelly, as well as an isolated score track and original cut of the film in standard def.