Oh, what times we live in, that we can enjoy foul-mouthed documentaries like The Aristocrats and F**k. I grew up equating "documentary" with "National Geographic," so any nonfiction film that uses four-letter words or would shock my mom, automatically makes me smile a little. As a result, I was slightly biased toward Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project from the moment the film's subject uttered his first profanities during a stand-up routine.
Rickles reportedly has been reluctant to have his live performances recorded until now, but let director John Landis shoot part of his Vegas show. The documentary uses the footage from Rickles' stand-up act as a springboard for a biography and filmography of Rickles, a superficial discussion about intentionally offensive comedy, and a general reflection upon Las Vegas and how it's changed in the past 40 years or so.
Mr. Warmth's high points are the scenes from Rickles' Vegas show, interviews from a variety of well-known actors and comedians, and some clips from The Tonight Show. Rickles' performance is riveting even if you are completely offended -- I had to pick my jaw up off the floor several times. It's not so much that the comedy is dirty, but Rickles' insults and one-liners are now considered racist, sexist, and any other "ist" you can think of, and maybe some that haven't been invented yet. It is a show aimed toward tye type of audience who feels that "political correctness" has ruined comedy.
Interview subjects abound, some of which seem to have little to do with Rickles himself -- but apparently everyone wanted a moment in this movie, from Sarah Silverman to the Smothers Brothers. The best are from Clint Eastwood ("Don has never lost his disdain for sensitivity") and Rickles' longtime friend Bob Newhart., and the film opens with a delightful bit at the beginning from Harry Dean Stanton. Director John Landis tends to keep himself out of the movie, apart from a brief appearance and voiceover at the beginning in which he sets up his own introduction to Rickles on the set of Kelly's Heroes. Otherwise, you can't really tell that the movie was made by Landis.
What seemed to be lacking in this movie was a more in-depth look at the types of comedy that offend people, and how they've changed over the years since Rickles first started in stand-up. The jokes he tells now are not the same as the ones he told back in the 1960s, as far as I can tell (and the movie is sadly vague on this point as well). Many of the celebrities onscreen talk about the joys of Rickles' insulting, insensitive humor but we never see the other side of the equation, or don't hear from anyone who doesn't like it or who finds problems with it. It's a big Don Rickles love-in, and while that's certainly enjoyable, I might have preferred a little more examination into his comic style.
The movie also has an unfortunate tendency to veer into irrelevancies, some of which aren't all that interesting -- I don't care all that much about the assistants and stage managers who have worked with Rickles over the years, and how they all used to work for Sinatra or Dean Martin. Sometimes this movie doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be about Rickles or about Vegas. On the other hand, it's bizarre to hear older comedians and celebrities gushing about how Vegas was so wonderfully crime-free back in the good old days when the Mob had control of everything.
Mr. Warmth has been making the fall film festival rounds before a run on HBO in December. Although it was fun to hear a large audience roar at some of Rickles' lines, I suspect the documentary will play better on TV than it will in a theater. There's no need to see it on a big screen -- find a couple of your favorite Don Rickles fans and invite them over to enjoy the comedian's unsubtle brand of humor. (I suspect the DVD extras and deleted scenes will be worthwhile, too.) As with The Aristocrats, I kept thinking how much I'd love to see this movie with my dad, who would get a kick out of it ... but we'd want to watch it when my mom was somewhere else.