Mixed Nuts boasts an impressive cast that even now, 26 years later, looks like an all-star lineup of screen legends.
Steve Martin was in the midst of a run of middling Box Office successes when he made Mixed Nuts with Nora Ephron in 1994.
Featuring established stars including Martin, Rita Wilson, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, Robert Klein, Joely Fisher and Rob Reiner as well as relative newcomers Juliette Lewis, Anthony LaPaglia, Adam Sandler and Liev Schreiber (in his big screen debut) in addition to numerous well known names in bit roles (Parker Posey!, Jon Stewart!) you’ll have to go a long way to find a film with such an extraordinary cast list.
See what happened was the previous year writer/director Nora Ephron made a little film called Sleepless in Seattle – you might have heard of it. It was a Box Office smash that cemented Ephron’s status as a director who movie stars wanted to work with. What better film to follow up the glowing success of Sleepless in Seattle than a little comedy set at Christmastime like Mixed Nuts?
So what was the end result of this seemingly unstoppable movie juggernaut? Well, unfortunately, moviegoers as well as critics at the time weren’t very impressed with the movie despite it’s bona fides. In fact, Mixed Nuts was a Box Office failure and a critical disaster. In giving the film 1 and a half stars, famed movie critic Roger Ebert said, “Leaving the movie, I felt sort of drained – the way you get when you smile politely for hours in the enforced company of strangers, madmen and bores”.
Adam Sandler appeared in a semi-supporting role in Mixed Nuts after his success on Saturday Night Live and only one year before launching into his career as a comedic leading man with Billy Madison.
Last week I wrote about Bachelor Mother from 1939. A film that is generally appreciated by critics and enjoyed some moderate Box Office success. But this week I’ve chosen a movie lost to time that is largely due to the fact that it is not well liked or well remembered – despite its incredible cast and successful writer/director. Today I submit that audiences and critics in 1994 were wrong about Mixed Nuts (of course all of this is just a matter of opinion right?) and that the movie deserves another fresh look.
I think the film was a victim of all of the combined success that I mention above. The director had just delivered a smashing hit with Sleepless in Seattle and the cast was first rate. Consequently I think the movie wasn’t entirely considered on its own merits but rather on what people’s expectations were based on these preconceived notions. Now that 26 years have passed, perhaps the movie might get a reconsideration that is a little less weighed down by these unfair expectations.
Was the promise of success for Mixed Nuts too high with such an amazing cast and after the achievement of Sleepless in Seattle?
Therefore, with a firm belief that the film deserves a rediscovery, I give you Five Reasons –
1. Set during the holidays, this is absolutely a Christmas Movie
The movie is set in California (which is perfect for the story and the zany characters), so it doesn’t feel particularly Christmas-y. But make no mistake, it’s a Christmas movie through and through. While the holidays provide a backdrop for all the wacky interactions, the time of year shines through during the finale of the picture and brings just the right amount of holiday cheer. Add to that the foibles of human interaction and relationships combined with the extra stress that comes during the yuletide season and you’ve got Mixed Nuts perfectly.
The scenes with Madeline Kahn’s Mrs. Munchnik trapped in the elevator are alone worth the price of admission to Mixed Nuts.
2. Madeline Kahn, Madeline Kahn, Madeline Kahn!
Here’s where I admit one of my personal biases that might be a big part of my appreciation for this movie. You see, I completely adore Madeline Kahn as a comedic actress. I always find her work exceptional and am sad that she died way too soon. In fact, Mixed Nuts was among her final films. I would never claim that her performance here is among her absolute best (I’ll save those for Clue, The Muppet Movie, High Anxiety, Paper Moon, Blazing Saddles and of course my favorites What’s Up Doc? and Young Frankenstein) but she still shines here as the partner to Steve Martin’s character in a crisis hotline called “Lifesavers”. Even if you are not up for an entire viewing of this movie, do yourself a favor and watch clips of Madeline Kahn trapped in the elevator. I promise it’ll brighten your day.
All your favorite Christmas icons are personified in the characters of Mixed Nuts.
3. Each of the main characters is a reflection of a Christmas icon
Writer Nora Ephron (together with her sister Delia Ephron) cleverly wrote traditional holiday icons into the main characters of the movie. An elf, an angel, the Little Drummer Boy, Scrooge, the Grinch, Santa Claus, The Virgin Mary, Rudolph? All of these important holiday icons are personified in the lead characters and bring a subtle nod to the season while telling the story. It’s a perfect example of Ms. Ephron’s sentimental style that gives this movie an extra bit of flavor and something interesting to watch for.
Mixed Nuts featured Liev Schreiber in a small supporting role which was also his big screen debut.
4. Those impressive new(ish) faces
As I wrote above, Mixed Nuts featured some actors relatively new to the big screen that would grow into major Hollywood stars. Among them are Liev Schreiber in his movie debut. Juliette Lewis fresh off her success in Natural Born Killers and Cape Fear. Anthony LaPaglia who was still far from a household name having played only small roles in a few films, and of course Adam Sandler who was somewhat well known from his days on Saturday Night Live but still a year way from undertaking comedic stardom of his own with Billy Madison. Each of them does an admirable job in what is essentially an ensemble piece but the fun part is seeing them all shine before they had become Hollywood stars.
Steve Martin brought his patented “everyman” routine to Mixed Nuts and as was usually the case, it worked.
5. Let’s face it, Steve Martin was in the middle of a pretty good run
I won’t come here and tell you that I am the world’s biggest Steve Martin fan. I do think however that his years between 1986 and 1999 yielded some pretty darn good movies. There were decent ones like Three Amigos!, Roxanne, Housesitter, L.A. Story and Bowfinger as well as some pretty excellent ones like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Father of the Bride, Leap of Faith and Mixed Nuts. Of course he generally played the same “everyman” character in all these films with just a bit of romance and excellent comedic timing, but he always delivered a quality leading man that ably led the ensemble. In Mixed Nuts Martin is his usual sweet, funny, acerbic, romantic, quirky and earnest – everything one expects from a Steve Martin performance.
Nora Ephron was still four years from her next big screen smash with You’ve Got Mail, but with Mixed Nuts she delivered an underappreciated flick perfect for holiday viewing.
So for this week’s Movie Treasures Rediscovered submission, I offer the 1994 Nora Ephron directed holiday comedy Mixed Nuts for your consideration. And just for added fun I’ll also tell you that there’s a mystery to be solved in the movie as well. It’s very easy to find for your streaming pleasure and there’s still time to enjoy a holiday flick before the season is completely over. Enjoy!