I’m undecided on how to discuss The Princess Bride’s second act. It’s a misstep but an intentional one. Instead of being the story of reunited lovers Robin Wright and Cary Elwes, the film becomes an action comedy for Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant, which is fine; they’re great. But the film entirely ignores Wright’s experience, with her scenes instead being from her antagonists’ perspective. Meanwhile, Elwes becomes a rag doll. Having not read the William Goldman source novel—Goldman adapted it himself—I don’t know if it was always the plot.
Again, it works out fairly well because Patinkin and Andre the Giant are wonderful. Patinkin’s performance is phenomenal; Bride’s got four great performances—Patinkin, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, and Chris Sarandon—though in descending weight. Patinkin’s got a tragic backstory, while Guest is an affected-less sadist with funny lines. Shawn’s got affect and funny lines, but he’s also got the least to do in the main cast. Finally, Sarandon’s a Disney cartoon villain—the good-looking, bad one—come to life without the aid of CG, just presence, delivery, and costuming.
Princess Bride’s got great costuming all around—Phyllis Dalton does terrific work. Bride’s a swashbuckler: an odd mix of movie serial tropes, which it ably disassembles through the first half only to reassemble in the second. There’s just no room for the ostensible heroes in the reconfiguration. However, Wright’s just helpless in a locked room. She’s way too ultimate a damsel.
But in the first act, with the masked pirate (doing a classic Hollywood riff) chasing after Wright and her kidnappers, Bride is sublime. The kidnappers are Shawn, Patinkin, and Andre the Giant. Shawn wants to start a war between two countries; Wright’s about to be the princess of one, and he’ll kill her and frame the other. Patinkin and Andre the Giant are troubled by the plan (Shawn didn’t tell them about the killing), but they never have to make a decision on it. The pirate—presumably after the princess—interrupts their plan long before.
Now, Bride has a framing device. Sick kid Fred Savage wants to play video games, but grandfather Peter Falk wants to read him a book instead. It’s a family tradition, making the book in the movie from the 1920s (as I try to couch the plotting problems). Falk’s very cute as the grandfather, and Savage could be more cloying, but he’s still way more cloying than he ought to be. And then there’s the whole male entitlement thing.
The frame occasionally breaks up the actual story, with Savage bored or scared, or worried. Or disgusted at the kissing, which—admittedly—isn’t a weird reaction to your grandfather telling you about lusty kisses.
Elwes was Wright’s first love, who went off to sea five years before. Wright got news he’d been killed by pirates and, so, when prince Sarandon came knocking, looking for a commoner to promote to royalty, she said sure. Shawn’s trying to prevent such a union, but he didn’t expect someone else coming for Wright.
After three boss fights, the pursuer reaches Wright and reveals what’s happened to Elwes, just in time for Wright and Elwes to do a runner from Sarandon and Guest. Elwes and Wright have a charming reuniting adventure sequence, hinting at the potential for a road movie, as they’re now on the run from multiple parties.
But then it becomes Sarandon and Wright’s wedding preparation story. Sure, he’s forcing her to get married while torturing Elwes in a secret lair, but it’s also just the bridging section of the film. They need to get Patinkin and Andre the Giant somehow back in to save the day and encounter other big-name cameos.
The ending’s way too rushed, both the fairytale and the frame. Bride is done on a budget and singularly charming, so it can get away with a lot. Sometimes director Reiner, cinematographer Adrian Biddle, and editor Robert Leighton can make the limitations work for them. For example, the first act’s action sequences always have some obvious budgetary constraints. Still, it works—they’re doing a swashbuckler, complete with Mark Knopfler’s score, which makes numerous nods to action sequence music tropes.
They just aren’t doing a swashbuckler by the end, which makes the fairytale’s finish awkward. It’s too quick, especially for Elwes and Wright, whose romance never regains the spotlight after losing it in the second act. Then the frame finish relies on Savage before realizing Falk’s the real star. It’s muddled.
So when the end credits come up playing over scenes from the movie—good scenes, sometimes out of order to showcase their likability—it’s an apparent attempt at a save. And it works all right.
Technically, Bride’s best in the first half. Leighton’s action editing—and Reiner’s action directing—is more impressive than their medievally-tinged light action comedy in the remainder. Biddle’s photography’s excellent throughout, but he’s got very little to do in the second half. Lots of scenes take place indoors with bland lighting.
And Knopfler’s score. It’s got a pretty theme, a lot of self-awareness, but is lacking. Especially when Reiner wants the score to carry a scene, which happens a lot in the second half and makes no sense since the score’s better in the first.
Still. It’s delightful, with some phenomenal performances, and when Goldman’s not ignoring his female protagonist and whatnot, the writing’s on.
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