The Linguini Incident (1991, Robert Shepard)

I watched most of The Linguini Incident’s 108-minute runtime waiting to go read the IMDb trivia page and discover what wealthy New Yorker bankrolled a movie for their kid to star in with Hollywood actors. Except there’s no such item on the trivia page, and it doesn’t appear to be the backstory to the film’s production. And now Linguini makes even less sense.

The Linguini Incident takes until the third act to reveal what the title’s referencing, and then it skips through it because writers Tamar Brott and director Shepard couldn’t come up with a compelling story. So they punt. They punt on the “linguini incident” being at all relevant, which kind of carries for the film itself. There are multiple times Brott and Shepard’s script introduces character traits as reveals (not to mention a big twist with one of the main actors), and if it were an artlessly produced vanity project, not going back and fixing the movie would make sense. But if they’re doing Linguini straight? It’s bewildering what they miss.

The film takes place mainly in a swank New York nightspot called “Dali” because the interiors are surreal. Sort of. There are some nods to surrealism like they had enough money to decorate a quarter of a wall, and then the rest of it was just a warehouse turned into a restaurant. It’s okay, Meatpacking District, whatever. Though it’s not supposed to be in a trendy area, at least not based on the street location for the entrance.

All the staff wear silver latex-y outfits, except the owners, Andre Gregory and Buck Henry (who hack and ham their way through this thing like they’re trying to find the bottom of a pit). Gregory and Henry wear big band suits. Linguini really doesn’t understand how to make quirky happen. Director Shepard’s got fail after fail in the movie—and, arguably, the direction of Gregory and Henry’s even worse than not being able to make it quirky—but still. Gregory and Henry aren’t in it very much until the last third. They’re at the opening, they’re terrible, but then they go away. They have to come back for one of the reveals. Their third act spotlight takes the movie away from Rosanna Arquette, who’s been losing the picture to every costar after the first sequence—including at one point a rabbit—but it’s still a surprise.

Okay, fine, the quirky. Let’s talk about the quirky. Outside the costumes and Arquette’s character—she’s a former Catskills tween entertainer trying to make her comeback as a Houdini-inspired escape artist, only she’s terrible at it—Shepard’s big idea for quirk is to have people utterly incapable of delivering comic lines deliver comic lines. Usually, Eszter Balint, who plays Arquette’s best friend and her ostensible rival for David Bowie’s affections. Also, Viveca Lindfors. Shepard does a terrible job directing Lindfors’s cameo as an antique shop owner. Bowie’s not quirky. He’s also better dressed when he’s not at work—he’s a bartender, Arquette’s a waitress—which seems weird, but then he also has really precise hair throughout. It’s like Bowie brought along his own costume designer and hair person, not trusting Linguini’s. I mean, rightly so. But still.

Bowie needs to get married for a green card, and he’s got his sights set on hostess Marlee Matlin. Matlin’s one of the only well-timed comedic performances, James Avery’s the other; Avery’s got three lines and better timing than anyone else in the movie. You can almost see him ignoring Shepard’s direction and just doing the delivery well.

So Matlin wants a pay-off to marry Bowie; he’s going to have to rob their place of work to get her the cash. But then Arquette wants to rob Gregory and Henry too so she can buy some memorabilia from Lindfors. No spoilers, but the robbery thing is a red herring to get the movie into its third act, which makes sense if you’re trying to appease some kid’s rich parents bankrolling your movie. For an actual motion picture where, presumably, at least one person read the script more than once… not so much.

Linguini could be worse, to be sure. What if Bowie, Arquette, and Balint were as lousy as Gregory and Henry, for example. But they’re also not unlikable. It’s hard for them to be sympathetic because they’re absurd and poorly written, but Bowie’s got some energy. Arquette and Balint run out of it quickly—possibly because they’ve got no chemistry—but they aren’t energy vampires like many other cast members.

The music—from Thomas Newman—is best described as half-ass, and the other technicals aren’t any better. Sonya Polonsky’s editing is terrible, Robert D. Yeoman’s photography is bland; however, given they’re working with Shepard’s direction, it’s not like it could be any other way. There’s no way to cut Shepard’s shots together any better, no way to light them better.

A rewrite, a better director, some recasting, The Linguini Incident would still be missing a protagonist and a point. Shepard and Brott can’t commit on Arquette, Balint, or Bowie and hand it off to Gregory and Henry instead of making any decisions.

It’s kind of incredible it’s comprehensible at all. Some of the acting’s terrible and whatnot—some of the writing—but it’s clearly all director Shepard’s fault.

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