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‘The Super’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1991

The sinks and toilets don't work, the boiler's busted and the halls stink of urine. There's not even electricity, yet every month Kritski, the building's owner, is there, snatching the rent money out of his tenants' hands and laughing at their complaints. Every month he pulls up in his lipstick-red Corvette, kicks the rats out of the way, tosses off a few choice racial slurs and begins his shakedown. Just how cold is this cat? So cold that he makes Old Man Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" look like Santa Claus.

This is where "The Super," Rod Daniel's shamelessly crude and terribly predictable new comedy, begins, with this scuzz-bucket landlord doing his money-grubbing shuffle. Kritski (Joe Pesci) is a slumlord and proud of it. The Kritskis are slumlords from way back. His father, Big Lou (Vincent Gardenia), who's been gouging the poor blacks and Hispanics in his buildings for decades, practically has it down to a science. "What are you?" the father asks.

"A Kritski," his son dutifully answers.

"And what does a Kritski do once he gets a piece of property?" prompts Big Lou, waiting for an answer he already knows.

"Nothing," the son responds.

One day, though, an ardent young housing inspector named Bensinger (Madolyn Smith Osborne) drags him into a Harlem courtroom, where the judge sentences him to house arrest for 120 days in one of his own apartments. And it gets worse. If, after 120 days, he hasn't brought the building fully up to code, he will do real time in a real prison. Whether he likes it or not, it seems that he's going to have to comply. But no, Big Lou says, applying Kritski's First Law of Slumlord Management. If his son changes so much as one lightbulb in that dump, he's out of the will and not a single cent of papa's millions will be left to him.

If you were expecting a moral lesson, you were right. Naturally, once Kritski gets a taste of the barbaric conditions he's imposed on his tenants, his head is turned around. At first, he makes changes out of sheer selfishness. If there's no electricity, he can't play his boombox, right? Or plug in his space heater? And one eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a rat is enough motivation for him to exterminate the whole building.

Soon, though, the scales fall from his eyes. Before, he had seen his tenants as animals; now that they're his neighbors, he begins to see them for what they are, real people whose suffering (brought on largely by his own greedy self-interest) is real too. Ashamed of himself, he decides to defy his father and, to atone for his sins, fix the place up. The oppressor, having mingled with the oppressed, finds his heart. Actually, it's the filmmakers who should be ashamed of themselves. Almost all the humor in "The Super," which came from a script by Sam Simon, is based on race-mongering of some sort; virtually every stereotype -- white, brown, Jewish and black -- is exploited without conscience or hesitation. We're supposed to laugh, for example, at Pesci (who has a true gift for comedy) when he tries to get down with the brothers, or gets cleaned out at three-card monte or basketball. But the laughs stick in our throats because we know we're being set up. And it's okay that the tenants exploit this Park Avenue fish out of Perrier water because he's so blatantly exploited them. His evil behavior, by the movie's standards, justifies any evil in return.

The movie gets its laughs anyway, largely because of Pesci, but that it's actually effective only makes matters worse. You hate yourself for laughing, for giving in. "The Super" is a wretched piece of work, but it pulls a nifty stunt; it manages to be morally reprehensible and moralistic at the same time.

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