‘Pearly Gates’: Newport Beach Review

“Crazy Eyes” croons and a dying man learns the meaning of life in a musical comedy

A dire diagnosis spurs a middle-aged man to address matters of legacy and purpose in the SoCal-set Pearly Gates. Because it’s a musical, characters express their feelings in song. And because it’s an ostensible comedy, there are many jokes of the penile variety — or, rather, a couple of jokes in endless repetition. With its banal observations about what it means to be remembered, this oddity will be remembered as a footnote in the career of Uzo Aduba. For her movie debut, she takes a 180 from her Emmy-winning portrayal of prison inmate Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Orange Is the New Black, singing her heart out as a perky and conventionally coiffed medical assistant.

First-time writer-director Scott Ehrlich has somehow corralled a supporting cast that includes Lainie Kazan, Illeana Douglas, Hill Harper and Peter Bogdanovich for his adaptation of a stage show that he co-wrote, with Penny Orloff, and starred in. (In keeping with the story’s interest in doing good deeds, the three Los Angeles performances in 2011 were charity fundraisers.) Abounding in canned Jewish humor and with its big moments oversold, the screen version often feels pitched to the stage. The movie had its world premiere at the recent Newport Beach festival, and while the names in the cast might take it beyond the fest circuit, its Jewish themes and nods to the “Greatest Generation” would place its target audience somewhere around Boca Raton.

The Bottom Line

Mostly tone-deaf and flat-footed.

The brief but belabored story concerns a urologist played by Scott Grimes (American Dad!) whose name is Richard Whiner, per the credits and the door to his office. Notwithstanding the unambiguous spelling, much is made about whether the name is pronounced “wiener” — and more still about how hilariously cruel it is to be named “Dick Wiener.” Richard bemoans his name but is generally an upbeat guy, and after learning on his 45th birthday that he’s got Stage IV pancreatic cancer, he devotes his remaining months to fast-tracking his dream project, with the help of his adoring assistant (Aduba). An affordable but deluxe assisted-living complex called, somewhat passive-aggressively, Pearly Gates, it’s being designed with the help of an architect pal (Jack Noseworthy) and initially gets the green light from the mayor (Vincent Spano).

At the same time, Richard continues to run his thriving practice, which provides ample opportunity for penis jokes at both ends of the age spectrum: He’s a Viagra-dispensing urologist to the senior set and, as a mohel, performs ritual circumcisions on newborns.

On the personal front, his mother (Kazan) still laments the fact that he married a shiksa (Bonnie Somerville), his father (Sam McMurray) is slipping into dementia or just pretending not to listen to his wife’s kvetching, his three kids engage in mild teen-tween clashes, and his best friend (Harper), a fellow physician, oversees his medical treatments. Bogdanovich, looking suitably depressed, cameos as a widower (time for more Viagra talk), while Douglas breathes a bit of understated reality into her brief turn as Richard’s sister.

Ehrlich’s plunge into stage and screen is nothing if not gutsy; for most of his adult life he’s been a Southern California real estate developer specializing in affordable housing. There may be more than a bit of self-congratulation in his kvelling treatment of Richard’s Pearly Gates project. But regardless of the director’s background, the valedictory aspect of Richard’s story is one long curtain call — complete with a comedy-club framing bit set in the afterlife. Richard wants to be applauded, and even schemes to bask in the accolades by attending his own prematurely staged funeral — an awkward scene in which Larry Miller shows up as a surly rabbi. (It does, however, contain the film’s most cinematic moment, a flashback to a beach football game while Harper sings his eulogy.)

The songs, by T.D. Lind and Joshua Rich, are pleasant, if not particularly memorable, with lyrics that tend toward the prosaic and sometimes sound like expository dialogue with rhymes. The cast, able singers all, deliver the numbers with feeling. Aduba’s vocal embellishments and emoting go beyond the call of duty.

Ehrlich’s direction ranges from competent to clunky, while his writing doesn’t have enough nuance to give emotional depth to such supposed epiphanies as “The only way to really live on is in the memories of others” or the notion that self-deprecating humor is one of the keys to life. A comedy about dying could be a buoyant thing, but despite Grimes’ sunny performance, the film’s tone is too unsteady, veering between broad sitcom and earnest allegory, with assorted stops in between. DP Denis Maloney casts much of the action in a gauzy glow: the golden aura of the California coast (the effect is sometimes that of a wine commercial) and the cooler light of flashbacks and encounters that are meant to be spiritually charged but don’t quite convince.

As to that heavenly comedy club, McMurray and Kazan have some standup fun there over the closing credits, and she gets to discard the ill-conceived role of Richard’s intolerant mother. Buoyancy at last.

Cast: Scott Grimes, Bonnie Somerville, Illeana Douglas, Uzo Aduba, Hill Harper, Lainie Kazan, Sam McMurray, Jack Noseworthy, Peter Bogdanovich, Larry Miller, Vincent Spano, Jason Gray-Stanford
Director: Scott Ehrlich

Screenwriter: Scott Ehrlich
Adapted from the musical by Scott Ehrlich and Penny Orloff
Producer: Brent McCorkle
Executive producer: Scott Ehrlich
Director of photography: Denis Maloney
Production designer: Thom Ward
Costume designer: Laura Silvestri
Editor: Michael Darrow
Composers/songwriters: T.D. Lind, Joshua Rich
Casting director: Shannon Makhanian  

No rating, 88 minutes