Director: Anthony Newley
Writers: Anthony Newley, Herman Raucher
Score: Anthony Newley (with others)
Key Grip: Anthony Newley
Hieronymous Merkin....Anthony Newly
Polyester Poontang....Joan Collins
Thaxted....Sasha Newley, Anthony Newley
Mercy Humppe....Connie Kreski
Goodtime Eddie Filth....Milton Berle
The Presence....Georgie Jessel
Uncle Limelight....Bruce Forsyth
The late Anthony Newley, crooner, songwriter, actor-- fresh from contributing to the Oscar-winning score for Dr. Doolittle-- produced, directed, co-wrote, co-scored, starred in, and cast his wife and children in this semi-autobiography. I don't know if he ever forgot "Mercy Humppe" or found true happiness, but he was in an excellent position to receive the blame for this film.
The plot itself is staggeringly conventional: a self-centred performer becomes famous, womanizes, wonders if he truly loves anyone but himself, and worries about his mortality. Newley attempted to invest this story with new life by taking what might have seemed at the time a daringly unconventional, psychedelic-'69 approach to telling the tale. Consequently, we have not just the forgettable, mundane film it could have been, but a laughably bizarre bomb.
Newley leaves no psychedelic/art film cliché unturned. Circus sets, Sgt. Pepper costumes, obtrusive symbols, gratuitous nudity, and, of course, stock footage, all make their requisite appearances. He also treats his audience to multiple metafictional interruptions, which increase in frequency as the film progresses. We have Heironymus telling the story of his life to his children, an off-screen narrator interrupting with deliberately pompous commentary, and the movie's producers, writers, and critics barging in to condemn and question the oddness of it all.
Now, films can be "odd," if the oddness serves some purpose. Consider the pioneer example of experimental mise-en-scene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Early distributors tried to ease the minds of confused filmgoers by explaining that:
...the screen could be made something more than
a mere medium for the exact photographic
reproduction of conventional stories... They
have told a thrilling and
fantastic story in somewhat the same manner
in which an artist transfers his own emotions
upon canvas-- in vivid and unusual strokes of
colour and composition.
In short, you can depart from convention, if you get a desired effect by doing so. But in Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? the effects are often pointless and stupid. Take, for example, the scene where Merkin's first wife ("Filagree Fondle" Please, let us not get into the subject of women's names in this film) delivers his first child, while he has sex with another woman. Now, this could be played for its emotional intensity. It could be played for twisted laughs.
But the actors aren't up to playing this for any effect, and, more to the point, they aren't assisted by the unconventional setting. Both the birth and the sex-scene take place on the same surreal beach where most of the film is set. Why? Did Newley need to save money? Did he really like this beach? Or did he believe the oddness would distract the audience from the fact that a potentially potent scene is wasted thanks to dubious acting and direction?
As for the multiple narrators-- they become very, very annoying, very, very quickly. As many people have noted, a bad story told from multiple perspectives doesn't become a good one. Likewise, as many later-season episodes of The Simpsons have made clear, celebrity cameos can't redeem something which has little intrinsic value.
Newley's connections mean that a number of famous names embarrass themselves in this picture. Joan Collins, Newley's second wife, has the plum role of Polyester Poontang, Merkin's second wife. I'm surprised to hear that the fact wasn't raised in their eventual divorce. George Jessel appears as a white-clad character known as "the Presence," who materializes periodically and tells stale jokes very badly. Most intriguing is Milton Berle, appearing here as Satan, aka "Goodtime Eddie Filth." Watching Uncle Miltie preside over a Black Mass, and seeing him give Newley psychedelic drugs, nearly makes a case for Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Blah Blah Blah. I'm not certain, however, that these things justify sitting through all 90 minutes.
Connie Kreski plays the young "Mercy Humppe." The object of Merkin's hebephiliac affections, she appears either dressed as Alice in Wonderland or not dressed at all. What we see of her, however, does not entirely reconcile with the question posed by the title. Initially, Merkin treats her as he does every other female, and only later, for reasons not explored, does she re-enter his thoughts. She isn't really a "mercy hump," either. Since the film can't really engage us enough to explore the tragedy of their relationship, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget the Needlessly Longass Title for this Dumbass Film? uses it to provide a few of the film's rare laughs. One of Merkin's breathlessly-read love-letters, for example, advises Mercy on a story problem from math class.
So much for comedy, celebrity, and romance.
The film is also a musical.
Can Heironymus Merkin's Ego and the Rest of this Title Fit on a Marquee Anywhere? is filled with gloppy songs: some obviously ironic, and others, apparently, intended seriously. We get Merkin, standing on a cliff, singing about how he only needs himself. Fast-forward please. If Merkin represents Newley, who made this film, he desperately needs the help of others. Another treat: one of the less cloying, annoying of the songs elaborately retells an old-time bar-room joke. I suspect all many people will need to know is that the film's best moment is a mini-musical about a princess who has an affair with a donkey.
The rest is a cheesily-acted ego/acid trip about a dull and unoriginal cad. Certain bizarre features give it a kind of "road accident" appeal, but really, there are better ways to get your kicks.
If you want to see a film about self-obsessed, immature gits who can sing, The Rat Pack is passable. If you want proof that sentimental crooning and psychedelia don't mix, dig up a copy of "Morning Girl" by the Neon Philharmonic. If you want to see excessive, Fellini-style images, rent 8 1/2. If you want to see people with pretensions of cinematic knowledge indulge their egos, keep reading online reviews.
You probably won't find true happiness, but you'll be happier than you would be watching Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?
A variation of this review, by this author, appears at Bad Movie Night