A seminal cult classic the exact appeal of which has always eluded me, though most of the world seems to adore it.
I hadn’t watched The Princess Bride in years when I did so again for this review. And while I can’t say that seeing it anew really changed my point of view on it, I did at least see the film’s appeal this time, even if I’m still not wowed by it.
The movie boasts clever lines and some clever characterizations and a number of truly appealing actors doing good jobs with the material. Even Mandy Patinkin, who usually makes me wish I was within slapping range of him, gives a nice performance. William Goldman’s screenplay — adapted from his book — is filled with savvy bits of business, and even savvier lines. The best of these work on both the level of spoof and within the framework of a swashbuckling fairy tale. For instance, in the swordfight between Montoya and Westley (Cary Elwes), we have Montoya say, “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you,” while Westley replies, “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.” It’s just enough off-center to amuse, but still sufficiently like what you’d heard in the real McSwashbuckler to sound more or less right. At other times, the script goes a little further afield. My personal favorite is Westley’s assurance to his lady love, Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn), “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
In moments like these, The Princess Bride seems truly inspired. And its story line of evil princes and dastardly villains and shining heroics, et al., is perfect for its purposes, but the film is better at being comic than it is at being genuinely whimsical. Blame a lot of this on director Rob Reiner’s leaden touch — though Goldman is partly to blame with his framing story (meant to convey the sense of a bedtime tale) and the creation of characters like Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane). Intrusions like these sink the fairy tale to a level of a broad Borscht Belt routine. They may be funny in themselves (though I don’t find them so), but they destroy what little mood and charm there is in Reiner’s flat-footed direction. (Never has a fairy tale looked less magical than this — and, yes, I have seen Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword.)
The Princess Bride is one of those peculiar films that was a box-office dud when it was released and only later gained a cult following. If you’re in that cult, here’s a chance to see the film again. If you’re not, it’s certainly worth giving the movie a shot. If, like me, you don’t quite “get it,” check it out once more and you might find it’s better than you thought.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[West Asheville’s Walk-In Theatre series, sponsored by Orbit DVD and the merchants of the Bledsoe Building, presents The Princess Bride on Friday, Aug. 13, 2004. The film will be shown at dark in the parking lot behind the Westville Pub. Admission is free — but please limit attendance to human beings (leave pets at home).]