Michael Ontkean, Margot Kidder, and Ray Sharkey star in WILLIE AND PHIL, directed by Paul Mazursky for 20th Century Fox.

Willie and Phil (1980, Paul Mazursky)

I think I made a mistake before watching Willie and Phil. I went looking for its running time and, in addition to that information, I also found some mention of the film satirizing the 1970s, referencing all sorts of little details in dialogue and such. They were really distracting–not just in dialogue, but also in how Mazursky fits his scenes around the references. They go looking for a car and there’s a whole thing about the Volkswagen bug. It’s annoying and distracting, some fluff to disguise the film’s lack of actual content. There’s some content–of a certain kind–the content of Willie and Phil is Paul Mazursky remaking Jules and Jim, only in New York and having the 1970s as the backdrop. Obviously the stories aren’t the same, but Mazursky’s filling ten years of events into two hours. He’s constantly jumping ahead six months, a year, making it real difficult to connect to the characters.

Well, not quite.

It’s not hard to connect to Ray Sharkey’s Phil. It’s not hard to connect with Margot Kidder’s woman who gets between the two friends–though the Kentucky accent, the whole idea of Kidder’s character being from Kentucky, is a mistake. It’s also difficult to understand her after her first scene, because the character makes a drastic change to fit the story requirements. Anyway, the problem with connecting to the characters is Michael Ontkean. He’s terrible. The character’s poorly written too, but Ontkean can’t handle any of the scenes. There’s this scene with him and Larry Fishburne–three minute scene–and Fishburne doesn’t just run circles around him… I felt embarrassed for Ontkean in the scene. One was acting in millimeters, one was acting in decameters.

Then there’s Mazursky’s narration. He’s very satisfied with his narration. Thinks it’s witty to have the narration say lines of dialogue, then have the characters say them too. The narration is essential, however, because it not only charts the passage of time, it explains to the viewer what characters are feeling. Big, life changing issues are resolved in the narration as opposed to in action. The description of emotions, I’m actually not sure where I am on that usage. Ontkean couldn’t get anything reasonable across, so maybe it is necessary to make the film intelligible.

I wish I could better remember Jules and Jim so I have a nice closing comparison, but instead, I’m going to steal from a friend… oh… the years are wrong. Maybe Billy Joel did steal the idea of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from Willie and Phil, as opposed to vice versa….

The “We Didn’t Start the Fire” music video, of course, does have a better narrative.



Written and directed by Paul Mazursky; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Donn Cambern; music by Claude Bolling; produced by Mazursky and Tony Ray; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Ontkean (Willie), Margot Kidder (Jeannette), Ray Sharkey (Phil), Jan Miner (Mrs. Kaufman), Tom Brennan (Mr. Kaufman), Julie Bovasso (Mrs. D’Amico), Louis Guss (Mr. D’Amico), Kathleen Maguire (Mrs. Sutherland), Kaki Hunter (Patti), Kristine DeBell (Rena), Alison Cass Shurpin (Zelda No. 4) and Christine Varnai (Zelda No. 3).


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