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RHINOCEROS (1973).

Attempting to adapt Eugene Ionesco's 1959 absurdist masterpiece onto film is a daunting enough task, but director Tom O'Horgan (who also directed the stage version of HAIR) only added to public expectations by reuniting the stars of Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS for this misguided endeavor. Initially re-leased in a limited run, as part of the American Film Theatre (which included THE ICEMAN COMETH and Genet's THE MAIDS), this is grating when it should be comic, with an emphasis on broad physical shtick. Gene Wilder plays timid Stanley, who's disheveled, hung over and ever in need of a drink. Meanwhile, Zero Mostel (who won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance) is his neighbor John, a pompous and condescending windbag with high standards of how humans should behave. But suddenly, a rhinoceros is spotted, charging down the city's street, smashing shop windows. Even stranger, the next day, while Stanley is at work, his office in attacked by another rampaging rhinoceros -- identified as one of his co-workers! It seems that humans are transforming into rhinos, with this bizarre occurance accepted by the more complacent as just another distressing fact of life. Mostel gets to work up a heavy sweat in the film's highlight, when John becomes ill and Stanley notices that his skin is slightly gray. As John begins to howl, stomp, paw the floor, and destroy his own apartment, nearly-trampled-Stanley worries that his friend is the next in line for a species shift. Stanley eventually goes on an embarrassing bender and barricades himself in his home, unable to deal with the rhinos roaming his lobby, and refusing to join them. In addition, Karen Black co-stars as Daisy, the woman of Stanley's dreams, who's eventually torn between unhappy humankind or the seemingly-content savage beasts... The original play was a metaphor for the rise of fascism in Ionesco's Romanian homeland, but the adaptation by Julian Barry (LENNY) shifts it to the more simplistic difficulty of retaining one's individuality. Unfortunately, Stanley is a wimpy, whiny, spineless character, and Wilder plays it so well that I couldn't stomach the pitiful guy. Instead of a determined individualist, he's a schlep. O'Horgan slips in some misguided hippie-era jabs (e.g. photos of Nixon in the background) and adds a numbingly insipid musical fantasy sequence, with Stanley caged, as John and Daisy dance on the beach. At least he had the good sense not to show an actual transformation, and instead have it conveyed through actors' mannerisms. The score by Galt MacDermot (who wrote the music for HAIR) is unmemorable, and the supporting cast includes Don Calfa (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) as a waiter. The film has a cheap, backlot look, and although this might've sounded interesting on paper, on the screen it's a total shambles.

© 2002 by Steven Puchalski.