I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore: For Want of a Nail …

“In the movie [The Nutty Professor], Eddie Murphy plays a fat professor who takes a secret potion and becomes a thin person. As a fat person, he is genial, intelligent, attractive to the opposite sex, and completely lovable. As a thin person, he is an obnoxious womanizer and lounge lizard who goes berserk in nightclubs. The movie, in other words, is based on real life.”

Roger Ebert, Questions for the Movie Answer Man, p. 92

The first thing you learn about Bernie Fishbine (Jason Alexander) in I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore is that he’s fat, he’s always been fat, and no one can get him to lose weight. The next things you learn about him are that he’s kind, sensitive, intelligent, playful, and warm. Then you learn that he runs the family shoe store. You notice how he dresses like somebody with a good deal of disposable income. Then you learn that there are multiple women who find him desirable already. In short, about the only knock anyone could have against him is that he’s overweight, but that fact looms so large in his life that no one ever mentions his good qualities without adding the “but …” to them. As someone who has been significantly overweight for all but a couple brief seasons of my life, I can tell you that this too is based on real life.

By chance he meets Theresa “Tress” Garabaldi (Nia Peeples) on the bus one night. He’s taken by her immediately, and why not? She’s gorgeous and sweet. A few gears turn and Bernie shows up at the Italian restaurant run by Tress’s family, where she sings and he orders two dinners, both for himself. She invites him to come check out the gym she belongs to. Suddenly Bernie is interested in health and fitness.

Bernie begins to pursue Tress, unaware of two things: she already has a boyfriend, and she has chosen him to be the subject of a paper she’s writing for her master’s in psychology: “The Psychology of the Obese Male.” Tress and a friend come up with the idea of seeing whether Bernie eats more in response to stress. Bernie is completely unaware he’s a lab rat.

Theresa decides to invite Bernie to have dinner at her parents’ house. It’s another stress test, or at least that’s what we suspect. While there, Bernie learns that Tress has told him a fib. She said she too had struggled with her weight when she was younger. But Tress’s mother confirms that Tress has always been thin. This leads to the best scene in the movie, where Bernie confronts Tress about this. They have a brief argument wherein Tress asserts that her deception was just to build empathy in order to encourage Bernie to start losing weight. She also mentions that as someone who is naturally thin, she too is never seen as anything more than the size and shape of her body. (I’ve been married to a naturally thin woman for eighteen years and I can confirm that this too is based on real life.) In the hands of a more skilled screenwriter, this scene could have added depth to a movie that turned out to be a charming but vacant romance.

Hold onto that phrase “in the hands of a more skilled screenwriter.” It comes in handy when considering this movie.

In all fairness, this was writer Jonnie Lindsell‘s first produced screenplay, and she only had three others, all of which were small films like this one. And there’s irony in the fact that I just played up the movie’s possibility of showing how fat shaming has a nasty flip side for thin people, only to turn around and judge this movie by its own thin body — the script.

But what am I supposed to do? Everything else about this movie is so solid. The acting is great. Maybe the fact that Jason Alexander was wearing a high-quality hairpiece helped, but not once did I get the sense that I was watching George Costanza in a rom-com. This role let Alexander show depths he never even approached on Seinfeld. Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Nia Peeples prior to this movie (I’d heard her name and remembered her as someone who had been on TV). She’s excellent as Tress; I’d like to see more of her work. More importantly, the two have genuine chemistry together. The music is on point, the cinematography is good, and there are a ton of beloved character actors in supporting roles.

Of course, those roles are among this movie’s problems. Take note of the last names: Fishbine. Garabaldi. He’s Jewish, she’s Italian. Lainie Kazan plays Bernie’s mother and expresses every aspect of the “Jewish mother” stereotype. That’s okay, moms of many ethnicities are overly involved in the lives of their adult children, and chicken soup really is good for what ails you. Lou Jacobi plays Bernie’s grandfather, who is prickly but charming. Again, not really a harmful stereotype. But the family as a whole comes across as a bit obsessed with money and status — an ancient knock against the Jews that was played out when this movie came out in 1992. Today it’s just offensive. It’s minor in the scheme of things (two throwaway lines), but it’s there.

And does Tress come from a large family? Does anyone other than her have an indoor voice? I’ll give you three guesses, etc., etc. The characterization of everyone except the two leads could have come out of a 1930s screenplay.

Still, Bernie falls hard for Tress and decides to give her a nice surprise which appears to fall out of the clear blue sky. The buildup to that moment is meant to be heartwarming but because the script hasn’t told us whether Tress’s feelings have changed or whether she’s still just leading Bernie on, our reaction is “No! DON’T!

Then comes the cringe-worthy scene where Bernie goes over to Tress’s apartment to surprise her. She’s just getting out of the shower, so he has to wait for her. This is the point where he discovers her paper and everything turns to crap. He storms out of her apartment. She breaks down crying. You don’t immediately know if it’s because she has hurt someone she loves, or if she’s just upset that she got caught. The movie tells you pretty quickly that it’s just a misunderstanding, but because there has been so little to their actual relationship (it appears they’ve been on at most three dates), it comes as a surprise to us too.

The movie finally ends where it began, back in the candy store where Bernie has always gone to buy the chocolate kisses that give the movie its wonderful title. Bernie’s mother and grandfather have previously gone to the Italian restaurant to find a clearly dejected Tress and encourage her to get back with Bernie. She goes to the candy store and confesses her feelings in a very deliberate and unreserved way. Initially he will have none of it but in the end, of course, True Love Wins, cue the cheesy pop ballad, and roll credits.

This was a frustrating movie because it gave me too little of what was good (the scenes between Alexander and Peeples) and too much of what wasn’t good (Bernie’s family, who were just plain tedious). There was a small cue that, for Tress, this was now a real relationship, but it was so underplayed and delayed that it felt insincere. Bernie got it, though, because it was right after that scene that he started to work on the surprise (I won’t tell you what it is; why spoil the whole movie?). It’s not a good sign when a character knows more about what just happened than the audience does.

Those flaws accentuated other things in the movie that just didn’t work, other ways that it could have been better. It could have kept us in the dark about Tress’s paper, since Bernie didn’t know about it either. It could have played up Bernie’s physical transformation more. It could have had more comic moments like the very funny scene where Bernie has an impromptu, jealousy-driven disastrous dinner date which is observed by Tress and her friends.

And it could have done a much better job letting us know Tress had changed her mind. But as far as I could tell, this was the second time Bernie had caught her being deceitful, and that’s what he thought too. So there could have been a good point made about the consequences of even a well-intentioned lie … or how surprises, even pleasant ones, are often unwelcome.

In the end, I couldn’t quite believe what Bernie did at first to set the disaster in motion. I couldn’t quite believe how Tress tried to fix it. And I couldn’t quite believe that Bernie would get over his anger as quickly and easily as he appeared to. But dangit, I was rooting for those two, because I liked them both and I thought that, all else being equal, they belonged together. Flaws and all, this is another small movie that brought me considerable joy. It captures very well the general aesthetic of the very early Nineties, a period for which no one may ever feel enough nostalgia to make a new movie that captures it. It truly is well-acted and pleasurable to look at, even if the script is full of shopworn stereotypes and logical roadblocks. That may be a bridge too far for some people, but it wasn’t for me.

(I predicted in my preview that the trailer overplayed the importance of Tress’s boyfriend. I was right, he’s a complete cipher and she drops him with hardly a second thought. So instead of Tress using Bernie’s attempt to break those two up as her moral leverage to get him to take her back, she has to resort to his use of a Velcro weightlifter’s support belt as a corset to show how he was deceptive too. I think my way would have been better!)

How I watched this movie: While it apparently has been available to stream in the past, as of September 2020 the only way to watch it is to buy the DVD like I did. It set me back $27 on Amazon. I’ll probably watch this one again if there are any ice storms this winter, but you might not want to sink that kind of money in this enjoyable but deeply flawed movie.

Next week: David Lynch’s strangest movie.

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