In the late 1980s, a weird thing happened: Hollywood became enamored of a government bureaucracy. The Federal Witness Protection Program was created in the mid-’60s in an effort to encourage legal testimonies against the leaders of organized crime; formally established in 1970, it soon became the basis for a number of feature films, from Witness to The Client to Goodfellas to Eraser to Bird on a Wire to Sister Act. The program’s appeal, as an instrument of entertainment as well as justice, is pretty much self-explanatory: Implicit in the witness protection conceit is a fish-out-of-water tale that finds people and cultures rubbing up against each other, sometimes awkwardly and often quite hilariously.
At the height of witness-protection fever—25 years ago, in August 1990—came My Blue Heaven. Related to its 1950 predecessor only in the song both took their names from, the movie concerns a witness who’s made to live not in a convent or on a farm, but in a closed environment of a different strain: sunny suburbia. Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli is set to testify against mafia kingpins; in the meantime, he’s obliged to wait out his court appearance under the watchful eye of the fastidious FBI agent Barney Coopersmith. Both of the men’s wives, in short order, leave them; hijinx, if not hilarities, ensue.
Written by Nora Ephron, just coming off her success with 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, My Blue Heaven stars the early-’90s power-actor trio of Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Joan Cusack. It does not, however, live up to the talent collected in that roster. On the contrary: The movie sags under the weight of the many stereotypes it relies on for LOLs. Coopersmith (Moranis) is Nerdy and Wimpy. District Attorney Hannah Stubbs (Cusack) is Frustrated and Frumpy. The characters, as they fight and dance and avoid hit men dispatched by the mob, interact pretty much exactly as you’d expect them to.
But the worst of it is Vinnie—who, as played by the decidedly not-Italian Martin, spends the film effecting an accent that is 80 percent Don Corleone, 15 percent Arthur Fonzarelli, and 5 percent Super Mario Brother. He utters lines like “a-RU-gala—it’s a VEG-e-tab-le.” He sports a sharkskin suit that he wears while mowing his suburban lawn. He also sports a hairdo that suggests a closer-cropped, grayer-scaled version of the ones preferred by Troll dolls. The whole effect, a contemporary review of the movie put it, is of “a comedy-sketch mutant—a WASP soaked in garlic.”
It’s sometimes said that Nora Ephron was an excellent writer of dialogue, and a much less excellent writer of characters. You can, for other works of hers, quibble with the charge, but My Blue Heaven certainly bears it out. The characters here read more as caricatures than as people, and the ethnic stereotyping, in particular, is blithe and unapologetic. Martin, who was originally slated to play Barney in the movie, was a last-minute replacement for the role of Vinnie. Who was originally supposed to be played by … Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The latter left the project to star as John Kimble in Kindergarten Cop.)
There’s one good thing about My Blue Heaven in 2015, which is that this kind of glib stereotyping is, for a variety of reasons, much rarer today. It’s not just that Hollywood has gotten (relatively) more inclusive when it comes to conceiving and writing and casting films; it’s also that audiences today tend to expect more from their characters than dull caricature—more richness, more depth, more relatability. If caricatures are afoot, we want them to be purposeful and ironized and otherwise justified in their caricature-hood—to diagnose cultural problems rather than advancing them. My Blue Heaven is dated, definitely, but that has very little to do with its age; it has more to do with its ignorance of the fact that the best way to make a movie whose characters endure is to make a movie whose characters are, above all else, human.