29 years ago, on August 17th Herbert Ross directed a stellar cast in underrated comedy My Blue Heaven. The 1990 film starred Steve Martin as Vinnie Antonelli. A feisty mafioso in witness protection, and Rick Moranis, a straight laced FBI agent in charge of watching him.
Actually, the film was loosely based on real life gangster turned informant Henry Hill. Unlike the other movie based on Hill’s life, My Blue Heaven’s not quite as well known. It only scores 71 on Rotten Tomatoes and you don’t hear it talked about too often.
Shy of its 30th birthday next year, I implore those who haven’t seen it, or don’t appreciate it to watch this underrated comedy again.
Crime drama Good Fellas, also released in ’90 was based on Nicolas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy. Heaven is based on a screenplay by Nora Ephron, who happens to be Pileggi’s wife. So it’s clear the connection of these films is more than just conjecture.
When FBI agent Barney Coopersmith is put in charge of Antonelli a bond is created. Coopersmith is organized, and orderly. Vincent, full of intense energy and emotion. Some ill intentioned, but otherwise harmless. Though they’re vastly different, a connection forms between the two. One that evolves into a real friendship.
It turns out they both have things to teach each other. Staying in Barney’s world can teach Antonelli to settle down, and live an honest life. Coopersmith, on the other hand, could stand to open up and take risks. Like courting district attorney Hannah Stubbs (Joan Cusack) with whom he already has an angry, flirtatious relationship. While Vincent teaches Barney to relax. Barneys able to teach Hannah the same thing.
Other movies depicting Witness Protection, like Witness, or Good Fellas show a gritty side of the lifestyle. But My Blue Heaven is a light hearted one. It hasn’t aged very well (though many of its stereotypes were even problematic then).
But you can find beauty in this underrated comedy in the small, funny sequences between the two men. Like where they easily dance in unison with their dates. Or when Vincent gives Barney a necessary makeover.
It also played with narrative in fun ways. Partly including voiceovers by Martin. Other times using old school silent movie style frames to spell out parts of Vincent’s story. The effect is taking what’s mostly a silly movie and making it a little more special.
In the end, the film’s dated, but still delivers laughs. Rick Moranis and Steve Martin had chemistry (this was their third time together) and that still comes through here. Moranis shines in his evolution from typical, stiff nerd to slightly smoother, freer guy. Martin, though a Caricature of an Italian guy, complete with heavy accent is still charming.
In one memorable scene he woos Carole Kane in a supermarket’s frozen foods section. It feels more like a Nora Ephron world than a mobster’s. That fine line is part of My Blue Heaven’s appeal. It’s also what makes it an underrated comedy still.