Last night, I caught the Austin Film Festival & Screenwriters Conference special screening of John Landis’ new documentary, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. An avid fan of both Landis and Rickles (on their best days), I was more than a little curious to see what the project was all about. The doc, which just screened at the New York Film Festival, has the right ingredients: funny, nostalgic, and comprehensive. We get to know about Rickles the man, the actor, the husband. We hear from an array of fans and friends (among them Bob Newhart, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, and Clint Eastwood).
While the documentary is exhaustive in its appreciation for Rickles and his legacy, it never dives beneath the surface. Rickles is widely known for his unfiltered commentary on race and religion. Rather than just offer up defensive testimonials (Chris Rock: “It’s like being a pretty girl. If you’re funny, you get away with anything.”), there is never a moment when Rickles or anyone else comments on the backlash. What about the people he HAS offended? In addition, there’s never an ounce of conflict in his life’s history, as depicted in the doc. Other than the rags-to-riches story, that’s it? No drugs? No booze? No women? No nothing? What about the influence of Jack E. Leonard? What about the insult comedians that came after him (Andrew “Dice” Clay, for example), possibly mucking up his legacy? The documentary never even begins to explore these topics.
Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining film. The doc is primarily talking-head interviews about the good ol’ days, mixed with archival footage from home movies, TV shows, and film appearances. In these moments, I found myself appreciating more and more, the era on display. And, in that sense, Mr. Warmth is something very special. It’s a look back at the golden age of Las Vegas, a time when showmen were kings. Rickles is one of the last from that period when live comedy was on par with being a movie star. And, after watching all the classic Rickles moments from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I found myself longing for the exhaustive documentary about that. Why didn’t anyone make a Carson doc while he was still alive? What a missed opportunity there.
What it lacks in cohesive storytelling (the timeline jumps in every direction for no good reason), Mr. Warmth makes up for in capturing some great entertainers, being very entertaining. It appears that every great comic loves Rickles, but they also long for the days when performers like him, were the toast of the town. I have no doubt that this will be a small hit when it finally airs on HBO in December.