Our Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Fans of obscure, zany hilarity will find Mel Brooks' Twelve Chairs to be a delightful throwback into entertaining filmmaking. Serious fans of classic cinema will be less impressed, but nevertheless it kept me howling with laughter late into the night, and is best served up cold.
Russia has just emerged from its revolution and become a Republic where everyone is equal. Private property has become public, and there's not a bed to spare throughout the land. On her deathbed, an old woman reveals to her son-in-law that before pandemonium ensued, she sewed her family's priceless collection of jewels into one of the twelve chairs of their ancestral dining set. Ippolit (Ron Moody) berates her for being such a fool and determines to find the current location of the jewels if it costs him everything, failing to realize that he has a fortune-seeking rival: Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise) has heard the woman's deathbed confession and, shaving off his orthodox beard and casting aside his robes for peasant attire, set out to make his fortune. Knowing the last origin of the now-precious family chairs was at his family home, Ippolit journeys there to inquire of his former inebriated and hand-kissing servant Tikon (Mel Brooks) what became of them.
He inadvertently falls into the company of a con man and opportunist, Ostap (Frank Langella), a youthful man with massive ambitions and very little interest in working for a living. The two become unlikely partners as they trace the missing chairs to St. Petersburg. They sit in a museum. Once night falls, the duo creep back to tear the stuffing out of the chairs, only to discover that seven of them have vanished. They've been shipped to different parts of the country, and our treasure-seekers must undertake a series of disguises to covertly regain them. In the meantime, they've sent Father Fyodor on a wild goose chase and he's terrorizing the owners of a similar set of chairs in Siberia.
The script is based on a Russian story written by two Soviet journalists in the 1920s, and is completely absurd but always engaging. What carries it off more than the random hilarity that ensues -- from two mature males fighting over the stuffing in an antique chair in the middle of a field, to simple facial reactions -- is the acting. It's over the top, but the audience is having so much fun, we simply do not care. The script has more slapstick drama than wit, but there are some priceless lines of dialogue. It's also quite acceptable for family viewing. At the very beginning, Ostap follows a girl home and is seen laying on top of her on a table, kissing her. She asks if he loves her, and he says it's more a case of lust. Her husband comes home and they rapidly turn it into a case of reviving her after fainting. There are two mild profanities, and one instance of a priest saying "For Christ's sake." There is an immense amount of slapstick violence, with men fighting over chairs, pushing and shoving one another, etc., but also a serious instance when Ostap and Ippolit slap one another. (Ippolit is much older and could have been badly hurt.)
Some viewers may dislike Father Fyodor being so wholly obsessed with money. Of greater concern is the characters' penchant for lying to achieve what they want. When in need of money, Ostap convinces Ippolit to pretend to be an epileptic to earn public empathy. He's also seen pretending to be a blind, lame beggar at the beginning. Ultimately the two searchers realize their kinship is based on more than mutual greed. They're a good team and eventually become friends rather than opportunists. The flaws weren't many and most adults can overlook the questionable methods the characters employ since, after all, it's a parody, and a fantastic one at that. Not for serious movie-viewers, but Langella fans will enjoy seeing him in one of his first roles, and Ron Moody is at the top of his game.