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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Nick Nolte upends a bourgeois household in Down And Out In Beverly Hills

Illustration for article titled Nick Nolte upends a bourgeois household in Down And Out In Beverly Hills

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Brian De Palma’s Passion, based on the French thriller Love Crime, has us recalling other American remakes of foreign-language movies.


Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986)

Like Boudu Saved From Drowning, the 1932 French comedy on which it's based, Down And Out In Beverly Hills concerns a wealthy family that attempts to civilize an uncouth vagrant, only to fall under his influence instead. To express preference for this Hollywood remake over the Jean Renoir classic it updates is to risk seeming as uncultured as the film’s derelict protagonist. Believe it or not, though, Down And Out may be a sharper satire, in part because it allows its characters to be just a little bit more than culture-clash punchlines. Cast in the Boudu role, Nick Nolte plays a bearded bum who attempts to drown himself in the backyard swimming pool of a Los Angeles clothes-hanger magnate. The rich industrialist (Richard Dreyfuss) rescues the suicidal hobo and takes him in, much to the initial chagrin of his family. Determined at first to make life better for his new friend, Dreyfuss can only watch with growing dismay as a clean-shaven Nolte proceeds to seduce his wife (Bette Midler), his live-in maid/mistress (Elizabeth Peña), and—in an extra twist of the knife added by director/co-writer Paul Mazursky—his college-age daughter (Tracy Nelson).

Adapted from the same René Fauchois play, Renoir’s movie found gentler humor in the collision of polite society and liberated anarchy. Down And Out, on the other hand,is a bona fide comedy of comeuppance, taking to task its bourgeois protagonist (literally named “Whiteman”) for his phony altruism. Dreyfuss nails the part, beaming with self-righteous pride as he grooms his social inferior and slums it with vagabonds at the beach, before losing his cool once his pet project becomes a nuisance. (Later scenes play like a dry run to What About Bob?, especially as the other Whitemans warm to the “strange wisdom” of their homeless houseguest.) Nolte, too, is superb. While Michel Simon played Boudu as a boorish tramp, incapable of behaving even remotely like the other half, Nolte is a survival-at-all-costs chameleon, feeding his benefactor wild, romantic fabrications and pinpointing—with sociopathic ease—the needs and desires of the house’s other occupants. He’s not so much a wise fool as a fool capable of making himself look wise. Down And Out only really falters in its final moments, with an ending that’s a bit more sentimental than the loopy one Renoir concocted. That it’s possible to speak of the film in the same breath as its celebrated predecessor is an accomplishment worthy of Nolte’s gate-crashing outcast. Sometimes Hollywood, like this character, bumbles into success.

Availability: Down And Out is available on DVD, for rental or purchase from the major digital providers, and to stream through Netflix.