Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) has made a fortune in coat hangers and has a life-style, but not much of a life, to show for it. He drives a Rolls, has a white-on-white-on-white living room and employs a psychiatrist for his dog, a lovable mutt named Matisse. Like any good Beverly Hills matron, Barbara Whiteman (Bette Midler) employs a guru and a nutritionist among the many other functionaries who cannot seem to solve her problems, which include too many migraines and too few orgasms. Their adolescent children, naturally, are having trouble with their sexual identities.
Welcome, once again, to hard times among the upwardly mobile. And welcome, once again, to Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), which Paul Mazursky has revised in the process of remaking, possibly with half an eye on My Man Godfrey, that 1936 Hollywood parable of regeneration among the pampered class. This time the bum, who is not only rescued from suicide but given bed and board by the guilt-ridden paterfamilias, is played by Nick Nolte, and he makes a good job of it, especially if one's memories of shaggy Michel Simon in the original have been sufficiently dimmed by the passage of time.
Simon's Boudu is often described as prehippie; Nolte's Jerry, it figures, is posthippie. But the effect is the same. He is gloriously rude, insufferably arrogant. He dislocates respectable convention with everything from his table manners to his sexual morality, eventually bedding every female in the house, including the maid. Having gained the Whitemans' attention and the audience's complicity in his outrageousness, Jerry manages to teach everyone a lesson or two about living a little more freely and, maybe, happily.
Mazursky varies Renoir's ending, refusing to permit his tramp to rediscover the freedom of the open road; the director seems uncertain about who finally benefits most from this strange encounter. Indeed, the old film that Down and Out most consistently evokes is Mazursky's own Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, also a nervously ambiguous but hilariously etched caricature of the bourgeois at self-improving play. In his desire to back away pleasantly from some of his tale's more critical implications, he relies too much on reaction shots of Matisse for easy, innocent laughs. Well, Disney did produce the film (its first with an R rating), and on the basically farcical level where it chooses to stay, it is a funny and likable movie. --By Richard Schickel.