Woody Allen is at his querulous best in Don’t Drink the Water (1994), a made for TV version of his play, originally performed in the theater in the ’60s. Allen plays a New Jersey caterer, Walter Hollander, who finds himself mistaken for a spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Michael J. Fox plays Axel Magee, a floundering diplomat. Fox is a little fidgety, apparently beginning to feel his Parkinson’s, yet still able to deliver a charismatic performance.
Walter and wife Marion (Estelle Parsons) are vacationing in Russia. Marion’s brother recommended vacationing “behind the iron curtain.” Allen begins to rue this piece of advice bitterly once they’re suspected of being spies and in turn holed up in the US Embassy. They were merely taking pictures in the street, which aroused the Soviets’ suspicions.
In their stay at the American embassy, Hollander finds fault with everything around him, not least of which is the cooking of the in-house chef. The finnicky Hollander cannot abide the exotic sea life the chef is disposed to prepare. When Magee suggests he sleep on the cot, Hollander says:
“I can’t sleep in a cot, I’m a dignified human being, with a hernia.”
A farcical situation ensues when the Saudis arrive as guests of the embassy. Here is some cultural humor which couldn’t be possible today due to wokeness. “This guy owns the most sand of anyone,” Hollander says of the Saudi Emir. His fourteen wives in full burkas make a wild murmuring sound when they amble from one room to the next. He refers to him as Aladdin, and remarks:
“I count 14 wives-- how does he ever get into the bathroom?”
Magee and Hollander’s daughter Susan develop an awkward sexual chemistry. Meanwhile, a priest who has also sought refuge in the Embassy has a side act as a magician for some irreverent humor (though not particularly funny, especially compared to Woody Allen’s comedic genius).
Hollander and his wife have a bickering, pestering type of relationship.
Hollander and his wife have a bickering, pestering type of relationship. At one point, his wife says, “I’ve been a terribly wife.” “I wouldn’t say terrible. Terrible is, you know…” Hollander responds with his hands up, reassuring her in his understated manner. This is about as romantic as they get.
They’re about to be released in a swap for two Russian prisoners being held in America. This goes wrong, though, when the Russian prisoners commit suicide, and so the deal is off. An international incident seems imminent when the Hollanders are ushered back into the embassy. This twist of fate, however, gives Magee and Susan a chance to continue exploring their budding attraction. Susan just called it off with her fiancé, apparently due to her interest in Magee.
When Hollander learns that Susan has broken up with her fiance, a dermatologist, it seems he is more heartbroken than his daughter. “I think he’s very romantic,” he protests.
In the chaos, Magee finally takes control. He finds that he thrives under pressure, despite his father’s lack of confidence in him, and his gnawing self-perception as a failure. His plan is for the Hollanders to escape, a plan which garners skepticism from the squeamish Hollander. The klutzy Hollander is not exactly equal to Magee’s daring escape plan.
According to Wikipedia, this made-for-television comedy was “not well-received by critics.” I can’t imagine why not! Fox and Allen have excellent on-screen chemistry. Fox has his own comedic chops, and his WASPy charm and earnestness are a contrast to the hard-scrabble cynicism of Allen. As usual, the dialogue by Allen is clever and consistently funny. One senses Fox delivering Allen’s lines and he does them justice, admirably adapting the cadence and comedic timing of Allen’s masterful screenwriting.
(that’s right, A+)
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