**/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Tom Hanks, Shelley Long, Alexander Godunov, Maureen Stapleton
screenplay by David Giler
directed by Richard Benjamin
by Bill Chambers Many comedies are padded by slapstick--here's slapstick padded by jokes, every single one of which bears the tang of a warm-up act. There is dialogue that advances a scene and there is dialogue that fills a page count, and David Giler's screenplay for The Money Pit toils almost exclusively in the latter. On the one hand, that's exactly the right approach, as it relegates stars Tom Hanks and Shelley Long to the status of Chachi and Joanie whilst elevating the titular house to starring role. But "the money pit" can only fall down and go boom so many times, thus making The Money Pit a stop-and-go feature that would kill as a short. I've often toyed with doing my own edit of the film.
Hanks plays a lawyer, a curiously morose Long a symphony musician. They're a poor couple despite his wealthy career representing rock stars and her divorce from a famous maestro (the late Alexander Godunov), and when they're booted from their temporary residence, they, without asking enough or the right questions, purchase a million-dollar house in the country for a bargain price that indeed proves too good to be true.
What seems to have attracted executive producer Steven Spielberg to the project is not its obvious synonymity with a fitfully entertaining Cary Grant outing called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, but its strangely canny inversion of his 1982 production Poltergeist: In The Money Pit, a damned abode is ultimately healed because it was built on a strong foundation (this also becomes a metaphor for the picture's trite infidelity subplot), while in Poltergeist, a humble abode is damned because it was erected atop sacred burial ground (something of a metaphor for suburban colonialism).
Were The Money Pit only directed by Spielberg. The party line is that he grabbed the reins on Poltergeist from Tobe Hooper, and, pitting that film's slickness against the rest of Hooper's oeuvre, I'm inclined to believe it. Yet for some reason, a similar rumour never leaked out about The Money Pit despite the ever-diminishing pedigree of actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin, the man responsible for My Stepmother Is An Alien, Milk Money, and The Shrink Is In, to name a few. Could the same guy have possibly helmed both The Money Pit's ingenious Rube Goldberg set-pieces--each a pre-CGI marvel of precision timing that doesn't just ape the stunts of the silent greats (Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin), but belongs in their class--and its pedestrian, overlit (by Gordon Willis, of all people) scenes of banter?
As I watched the film's centrepiece--wherein Hanks goes to fetch a pail of water as Long unplugs a tablesaw, concurrent actions that lead to the collapse of the scaffolding around the manse--shot-by-shot, I remembered a Spielberg interview in which he said that last-minute close-up inserts of screws coming undone made all the difference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind's alien-abduction sequence, spiking its tension to excruciating levels. The good parts of The Money Pit were executed with this mindset--they evoke the rigged lunacy of Spielberg's 1941, to be more specific. The bad parts are strictly the domain of the erstwhile Portnoy, and that's my complaint.
Universal offers The Money Pit in a handsome 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD. The mucky grain of early segments dissipates once renovations to the house are underway, and the film more or less looks younger than its sixteen years. This does not hold true of The Money Pit's soundtrack, which is presented in 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital options of little differentiation. Audio is clear but, aside from the occasional over-the-shoulder voice, lacking in rear-channel activity, and nothing that collapses ever does so with the expected oomph. The disc includes a pocket of extras: a banal 7-minute making-of featurette (directed by Les Mayfield, late of Flubber) from the film's year of release that finds Hanks comparing the money pit itself to Jaws; a page of Hanks-themed Recommendations (Apollo 13, The 'burbs, Dragnet); and The Money Pit's theatrical trailer. Originally published: February 22, 2003.