When Barbra Streisand began production on her 1974 film FOR PETE’S SAKE she stated that this was being conceived strictly as a fun film. In a way, she kept her word: it is a light, silly, uncomplicated bit of fluff that offers 90 minutes of mindless distraction. But with Streisand in front of the camera and Peter Yates behind it (working from a screenplay by comedy writing veterans Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin), one cannot help but wish it was something more than an amusing distraction.
Streisand’s character is typical of her early films: a brassy, indefatigable ball of energy that is not quite as clever as she imagines. Her Brooklyn housewife Henry (short for Henrietta) becomes determined to raise $3,000 to help her struggling cabdriver husband play a commodities market tip that could help finance his stalled college education. She borrows the funds from a loan shark, but is unable to repay on schedule. Thus, Henry’s “contract” is passed around several shady operations, where she is expected to work off her debt.
Yet Henry’s indignities create more embarrassment for everyone around her. Initially required to work as a call girl from her apartment, she accidentally breaks the nose of her first client and drives her second (and last) client to cardiac arrest when her husband returns home unexpectedly. Her next assignment finds her delivering a package for a pair of mobsters, but her mission goes thoroughly awry when she is pursued through the subways by a police dog. If that’s not bad enough, she then gets corralled into driving stolen cattle into New York in an RV.
Structurally, this is a bizarre film. The first half of the film puts too much focus on situational comedy (with some dated comedy of a politically incorrect nature). But when the situational contrivances become too forced, the second half abruptly shifts gears with big slapstick chases. While the cartoonish nature of these scenes give the film some much-needed energy and offers Streisand a chance to show her flair for physical comedy, the weird split between the two halves gives the impression that two different screenplays were uneasily grafted together.
Yet if FOR PETE’S SAKE never soars, at least it hums along with a cheery, sloppy abundance of goodwill. To its credit, the film never takes itself seriously even the cast seems to be struggling to keep straight faces and Yates somehow manages to tone down Streisand’s larger (and louder) than life screen persona to create a character that is genuinely charming in a light, kooky manner. Indeed, Streisand seems more relaxed here than in many of her films, and she even allows some larcenous steal stealing from Estelle Parsons as her insufferable sister-in-law and Molly Picon as an unlikely madam (named Mrs. Cherry!).
The one catch here, though, is Michael Sarrazin as Henry’s husband. The man is good looking, but he is so dull and indifferent that it makes little sense that she would be so enamored with him to the point of risking her own life.
Today, FOR PETE’S SAKE comes across like an old-fashioned comedy. For those who aren’t expecting too much, some entertainment can be mined from its silliness. But if anyone comes to it expecting huge laughs, it never truly delivers the goods.