"DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS" is a posh, palm-fringed comedy of manners, a relocated French farce in which cinema sociologist Paul Mazursky examines the California bourgeoisie.
Here we find a family of nouveau riche Californians replacing the '50s French family of Jean Renoir's original "Boudu Saved From Drowning." And while there is really little difference between the people of one wine- producing region and the other -- they share grapes, chauvinism, cuisine minuit -- "Down and Out" offers a change of venue, no subtitles and glitz galore.
So slick and shallow that Neil Simon might have penned it, the movie is saved by cowriter-director Mazursky's social consciousness and patriotic whimsy. His cause is nothing less than the reclamation of America's wretched refuse -- street persons and yuppies, too.
David Byrne's existential lament "Once in a Lifetime" is the well-chosen opening theme, which underscores the contrasts between the protagonists -- a transient with a shopping cart and a businessman with a Mercedes convertible.
Making the best of miscasting, Richard Dreyfuss is an underappreciated hanger manufacturer, the head of a vaguely Jewish family called the Whitemans. Icons of the upper tax brackets, if not the upper class, they have an overdecorated Beverly Hills manse, a Hispanic maid, an Asian gardener, Arab neighbors and a large, inviting pool.
Nick Nolte costars as a Beverly Hills bag man, Jerry, who tries to drown himself in the chlorinated lagoon. "Barbara," yells Whiteman to his wife. "Is that the new pool man?" Despite the near tragedy, Barbara bustles off to aerobics class.
Bette Midler is Barbara, a dissatisfied housewife with no orgasms and a guru. All of Midler's energetic trashiness is pushed into the tiny, troubled mind of Barbara, a wiggler and a sufferer who putters about Rodeo Drive in her out-sized Rolls. Complacent and vaguely miserable, she speaks Spanish to the maid and pampers her miserable kids.
In a not so surprising, but effective storyline, the family finds salvation in Jerry, who moves in after his suicide attempt. He starts by curing the neurotic dog, Matisse, a border collie with his own shrink.
Jerry is a down-on-his-luck former concert pianist who once dated Linda Evans, or so he says. Nolte, in an amiable role for a change, is like a big friendly sheep dog himself, with his bulk and shaggy, dirty blond hair, just taking the handouts from the Arab neighbors and peeing on the bougainvillea.
Since this is a French farce, Jerry beds all the women in the family -- the wife, the daughter and the maid, who is also Mr. Whiteman's mistress. Dad avoids burnout after a drunken day at the beach with Jerry and his street pals, who sing a chorus of "We are the bums, we are the homeless."
Sometimes it's a little coy but then what's a farce without a little forcing? A family that's into karma, gurus and firewalking adds up to one big cliched, but clever, California joke.