In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “I loved Mr Wonderful: The Don Rickles Project as a study of a man who I already found fascinating, I also loved it as a history lesson on a period of show biz that just doesn’t exist anymore.”
“This about Don Rickles? I’m outta here.”
In the 50s, Don Rickles starred alongside legends Clarke Gable and Burt Lancaster in the submarine classic, Run Silent, Run Deep. In the 70s, Don Rickles starred alongside legends Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes. In the 90s, Don Rickles starred alongside legend Robert De Niro, while being directed by legend Martin Scorsese in Casino. But despite these decades acting in A grade movies alongside A grade talent, Don Rickles has dedicated his life to acting, he’s dedicated half a century to the art of insult comedy. Half a century commemorated in Mr Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.
A nightclub comedian who has basically used the same act for decades, Don Rickles should be the epitome of hack. But when generations of comedians, from Billy Crystal, to Sarah Silverman, wax lyrical about the man and the legend it’s obvious that he’s more than just his jokes. An insult comic who deals in making fun of race via the broadest and most dated cliches, Rickles’ act shouldn’t work in the modern world. But as this documentary tells us over and over again, he somehow gets away with it.
But that’s also the one downside of this documentary. Director John Landis seems a little too determined to make sure the uninitiated know it’s OK to laugh at the dated, racist humour. Interviews with Chris Rock and Sydney Portier let us know it’s OK to laugh at the black jokes. Shots of Asian audience members let us know it’s OK to laugh at the Japanese jokes. It’s almost like the kind of person who lets you know he has a gay mate before he tells a “poof” joke. I almost think Mr Warmth would have been better if it showed less justification and defence of his jokes, and more of the actual jokes in the wild, with Don living his life so we could get to know him as a guy who means no malice, he just wants to tell jokes.
Having said that, the talking head sycophancy is undeniably entertaining. Watching comedy stars like Silverman and Crystal, along with Bob Newhart, Robin Williams and Christopher Guest is fascinating. They’re brilliant comedians who I find really hilarious. So even if I had no idea who Rickles was or what his comedy was about, I could watch he these greats talk about their love and respect for him all day.
In the 70s, Johnny Carson may have only been a TV talk show host, but he was arguably more famous, more popular and more influential than even the biggest movie stars of the time. One, single anecdote that takes up maybe four minutes of Mr Warmth’s running time perfectly sums up Rickles, his impact on showbiz, and that period of showbiz in general. Watching the great Johnny Carson think he holds all the cards, only to be shut down by a lightning fast reaction from Rickles, shows the genius of the man, and why his legacy is so enduring.
With the passing of Joan Rivers, and Jerry Lewis trapped in his own prison of pretension and pomposity, Don Rickles might be the last man standing from a very specific and legendary period of show business. He represents a time when you dealt with mobsters to get stage time in Vegas and you wore bow ties that needed to be tied, not clipped on… If ever worn at all. I loved Mr Wonderful: The Don Rickles Project as a study of a man who I already found fascinating, I also loved it as a history lesson on a period of show biz that just doesn’t exist anymore.