Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project opens with the sound of a harmonica playing a country song. Harry Dean Stanton is in a bar in the middle of nowhere. “Do I know you?” he asks. Director John Landis introduces himself off camera, says he met Rickles while working as a production assistant on the movie Kelly’s Heroes. Clint Eastwood says something. There’s an old movie clip. Robert De Niro pops up. Richard Lewis says, “This is about Rickles! I’m outta here.” Gets up and leaves. What’s going on?
The pace slows to a series of portraits of Las Vegas: the Stardust, its theater, its stage, a dressing room, tux, lounge singer, and all the other chintzy vaguely classy crap one associates with that city’s entertainment.
Next, Rickles is shown preparing for his act. He is a doddering old man. His trademark mug looks like a deflated basketball. He walks on the stage to his signature matador theme and then instantly transforms into a bull, tearing into the audience with the insult comedy for which he is famous.
Suddenly it is clear what was happening with the opening segment. Landis was visually approximating the punch drunk sensation of watching Rickles perform, of being prostrate in the hands of vicious chaos.
This opening is more energizing and tells you more about Rickles’ career that anything else that follows. The structure continues to parallel the taping of Rickles’ stand-up act in Vegas, but in a much less interesting manner. When Rickles tell his life story, Landis re-tells it through pictures and interviews. It soon settles into a lull, an affectionate and pedestrian salute to one of the director’s friends and idols.
The first main section has a series of talking heads (an impressively varied swath of comics and actors) attempting to explain the comic’s identity and social perplexities, particularly the dated and crude stereotypes that are at its base. There’s a lot of dancing about architecture in trying to get at the nub of his appeal. Remarks are made about Rickles speaking the “truth” in his comedy, and not meaning any harm in his insults.
Chris Rock says, “Being funny’s like being a pretty girl, you can get away with a lot of shit…It’s like you can do no wrong.” Sidney Poitier digs a little deeper saying that he’s “a little boy…walking that edge…and everyone comes looking for it.” While occasionally repetitive and hagiographic, the many points-of-view offer a dynamic approach to grasping Rickles’ personality.
In the biographical section, Landis leans too heavily on “you had to be there” clips with Johnny Carson (who calls him “the poster child for rabies”) from The Tonight Show and recounting the thoroughly mythologized Rat Pack and Vegas of the ‘60s. After Jimmy Kimmel memorably says that Rickles was Donald Duck to Frank Sinatra’s Mickey Mouse, too many smoky-voiced habitués of the period offer their thoughts on how Rickles is the “best”. This information is given more pep on the second disc of extras, where interview digressions are allowed to play out and which includes a funny and telling segment about working at the Copacabana.
There’s an interesting parallel throughout between the early careers of Rickles and Joan Rivers, further brought out in the extras and in this Copacabana segment, and I wish Landis would have commented on it in regards to insult comedy. Where Rickles is let into the boy’s club for playing a naughty 12-year-old, Rivers is derided as an unwelcome bitch and kicked to the curb. Rivers herself would make a fascinating subject for a documentary, but that’s another documentary.
Mr. Warmth gets ever sleepier as Rickles ages and we hear about his close friendship with Bob Newhart and their travels together. The final joke is that the ironic stage nickname, “Mr. Warmth”, aptly describes Rickles softie off-stage personality. The deceleration in pace is curious, since one of the points that the documentary repeatedly and effectively makes is that Rickles’ energy level when performing has not flagged in spite of his age.
What this documentary most noticeably lacks is insightful commentary into Rickles’ career that tries to tackle his dual nature – the family man and the scrappy fighter that keeps getting back up – and how that ties his enduring popularity from New York City strip clubs to Vegas showrooms with each successive generation of comics from Rivers to Whoopi Goldberg to Sarah Silverman.
There is one observation made by Penn Jillette early on, shown in its entirety as an extra, where he compares Rickles to his personal punk icons of the ‘70s:
Seeing Don Rickles with that kind of intensity and that weird combination that you could see in the Sex Pistols of the vital need to please coupled with being unwilling to bend at all in order to accomplish that was life changing … When all the punks have mellowed out Don is still going at that 100 percent. And it’s inspiring, it makes me cry. I don’t think there’s a night that I walk out on stage that I don’t think of Don in the wings getting ready to come back.
It’s a rare moment when Mr. Warmth steps back to take in the portrait as a whole, to try and understand how this man has gotten away with telling us, for over 50 years, now, how stupid we look to him.