Feel Like Bustin' Loose
“I think the one thing I was thinking about, is that it had to be established that we kinda started the movie six years before what you’re gonna see. It starts in 1999. I’m not sure if that gets lost in this though.” Cedric the Entertainer’s helpful introduction to The Honeymooners DVD commentary (which he shares with director John Schultz and costar Mike Epps) suggests something odd about this film. Considering that it does in fact begin with a title that says, “New York City, Autumn 1999,” you have to wonder just how that might “get lost.”
Schultz reassures him on this point, noting that the first scene that shows Cedric’s Ralph Kramden meeting the love of his life, Alice (Gabrielle Union), and “what these people are all about.” That is, Ralph’s a dreamer and Alice is survivor, and each is enchanted by the other. As all the guys rhapsodize about Union’s skills, Schultz notes in particular that she’s “smart enough and tough enough that you understand why she’d stay with this guy Ralph Kramden.” After a meet-cute moment (Ralph’s bus-driving, she’s standing on the curb), he invites her to look out on the seductive lights of the Brooklyn Bridge and makes her a promise: “Can’t you feel it, Alice? We’re on the verge of a new millennium. You need to stick with your boy, because I’m about to blow up.”
But this is The Honeymooners and he’s not going anywhere. Six years later, they’re in their apartment (introduced from the angle most often used for the tv show, Schultz reminds you), and then, the film cuts outside (the tv series did not) to show the el rattling by their window on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick. “It’s a neighborhood,” says Schultz, “that they kinda want to get out of.” Still, Ced remembers, when they were shooting, “in the hood, right there in New York, a lot of people [were] hanging out everywhere.”
For all the enthusiasm on display by the makers, the movie most often seems yet another needless movie remake of a tv series. Though the film borrows from the series an inversion of traditional gender roles, it forgets the original’s intelligent ironies (that is, Ralph is emotional and impractical, Alice is eminently sensible). While most of the target audience for the movie may not remember the tv version, Schultz’s Honeymooners unfortunately forgets what was most appealing about the show. Namely, the textured combination of tragicomic frustration and inspired resilience embodied by Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph.
As Ralph, Cedric is more cuddly than poignant, in a thinly written role that leaves his costars—Epps plays Norton, Regina Hall, Trixie—without an energetic center to resist or support. Still, Cedric is nothing if not enthusiastic about the role. Following an early argument in the film, Ralph tries to come back at Alice. “I’ll have my head examined anywhere in the United States,” he roars in reply to his wife’s suggestion. The camera cuts from Union’s face, shaped to look eerily like Meadows’ patented look when she was giving Ralph enough rope, to Ced in a fury. As Ralph speaks his punch line, you can hear Ced accompanying him on the commentary track: “And you know what they’re gonna find when they look in there? Nothing!” the commentators dissolve in laughter as Schultz admits, “Sometimes we’d lift something directly from the show to tie it back a little bit.”
Both Ralph and Alice want to do better than their paycheck to paycheck routine, but they’re stuck: he’s still driving his bus and she’s waiting diner tables along with Trixie (their orange uniforms jump off the screen). She finds the perfect Brooklyn duplex for them to share with neighbors Norton and Trixie, but conniving developer Davis (Eric Stoltz) has cash upfront. While Cedric assures you that Eric is not so ugly as his character (“We all loved him, right off the top”), Schultz observes helpfully that the idea was to make Davis the “anti-Ralph. He’s also an entrepreneur, but he’s slick and in every way possible he’s the opposite of Ralph. Yet they kind of meet at the same point of being these desperate entrepreneurs.”
This would be the film’s thematic crux, having to do with real estate and ambition. Much as Ralph wants to do well by Alice and his friends, he’s also wanting to make himself look good, to be the savior and the hero, to be rich because of his brilliance. “Ralph has always got some get rich quick schemes,” says Ced. Afraid to tell Alice that he’s spent their savings on an antique train car that remains stuck in an underground tunnel, Ralph takes up a series of machinations, several rendered in a lengthy montage where he and Norton break-dance for money, pretend to be blind on a street corner, go door-to-door in an effort to solicit money for a bogus “youth” fund. They also try to race a greyhound dog they find in a dumpster, an episode that involves dealing with an obviously dishonest but sweet-natured trainer named, appropriately, Dodge (John Leguizamo) and a corrupt owner (Jon Polito; on his first appearance, Shultz says, “We needed to put a face on dog racing”).
Careening between glib and slapdash, with an occasional turn to The Honeymooners borrows from the series cursory characterizations (Ralph’s pronunciation of Norton’s name) and situations (working class heroes want to “move on up,” and yes, the film includes the obligatory reference to The Jeffersons). But the movie doesn’t do much in the way of updating (the boys try breakdancing for money, including a whiff of riverdancing, added, says Shultz, because they filmed in Dublin). Scenes don’t hang together, Alice is distracted rather than strong and patient, and Trixie is reduced to “Alice’s friend,” as Davis calls her. Though Norton is mostly ridiculous, Epps is also the film’s most consistently comic element. Ralph is angry and bad-tempered, then learns his lesson, a few times, actually. But you hardly care.