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January 8th, 2019

About Mostly Inadvertent Offences

The Robber and the Rabbi of the Old West 11:02 am


In theory a Western comedy starring Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford doesn't seem like necessarily a bad idea. But 1979's The Frisco Kid stumbles primarily on the conceptual level; in never finds a good tone for its initial idea. Mostly the ingredients are fine, particularly the stars, and I found myself liking the characters played by Wilder and Ford. And I found myself regarding the screenplay as the film's true villain for what it was doing to such a nice couple of guys.



Wilder plays a young man named Avram Belinski who leaves Poland at the beginning of the film to be the new rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. His naivete and inexperience quickly get him into trouble and he's robbed on the road in Pennsylvania, the three crooks leaving him stranded in his underwear. It's a scene that seems like it was meant to be funny but just comes off as sad.



Avram's relieved to find most of his possessions abandoned on the road; he's especially happy to find his Torah, and I was happy he got it back, too--it seemed a particularly sadistic thing for the thief to take. Already I was pulling for Avram even as the energy of the scenes seemed to imply I was meant to be laughing at him.



He comes across a group of Amish farmers (it's hard to remember this is supposed to be Pennsylvania from the landscape) and he mistakes them for Jews. Certainly their attire is similar but this was another thing that seems like it was meant to be funny but works out to be just mildly interesting and very quickly I wondered why the film was dwelling on this.



When Avram finally meets Tommy Lillard, the bank robber played by Harrison Ford, the film continues its theme of Avram and the people he meets being surprised by differences and commonalities between Jews and everyone else. There's a particularly lame joke about horse tucus.



But the two actors have so much charisma that their friendship becomes genuinely sweet. Tommy knows his way around the wild west better than Avram but in his own way he clearly needs guidance and I liked the conclusion of the film which was very much about what being a rabbi can mean in the wild west. It's a nice sentiment if positioned in awkwardly contrived circumstances.



It was nice seeing Wilder in such a low key role, too. His face often seems like its ready to burst forth with some barely contained emotion so it's really effective when it doesn't, his eyes just water and his face turns red. And then a moment later he pulls it all back in--he's really good. Harrison Ford, of course, has that rough charm which mixes well with a quality of innocence I don't think I've seen in any of his other roles. If only the film didn't waste so much time trying to make jokes that simply weren't there.

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