Editor’s Note: My Blue Heaven was released on August 29, 2017 on Blu-ray by Warner Archive.
Vincent “Vinnie” Antonelli (Steve Martin) is moving into a lovely single-level home in a darling little California neighborhood that looks right out of The Wonder Years, or maybe Poltergeist. Vinnie and his wife are there courtesy the Federal Government who expect him to testify against a major New York crime lord, but they both hate the place. His wife immediately packs up and heads back to New York, leaving Vinnie, a stereotypical mobster if there ever was one, alone to acclimate to his new life. He steadfastly refuses to do so, even though he needs to avoid attracting the notice of hitmen wanting to prevent him from ever making it to court. Meanwhile, the FBI agent assigned to him, Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis), heads home to find his own wife is leaving him as well. Soon Vinnie and Barney become pals of the Odd Couple variety, the uptight FBI agent learning how to live and laugh from the mobster, and the mobster learning how to fit into society without committing multiple felonies every time he gets behind the wheel.
My Blue Heaven (1990) is a heavily fictionalized account of the real-life Henry Hill, a former mobster who testified against his colleagues in exchange for immunity. Screenwriter Nora Ephron, married to Wiseguy author Nick Pileggi at the time, had picked up quite a bit about Hill’s life as her husband worked on his own project. As Martin Scorsese turned Pileggi’s book into Goodfellas (which opened almost exactly a month after My Blue Heaven), Ephron wrote her own script about Hill, one that, intentionally or not, picks up where Goodfellas leaves off, just as Vinnie starts a new life as a “schnook” in a small, inoffensive California town.
Panned on its release and considered a flop by many critics, you don’t have to go far to see fans who look back on the film with a great deal of fondness. Some of that surely must be due to the non-stop rotation of the film on cable in the early 1990s; yours truly spent the better part of 1992 watching My Blue Heaven every time it aired. No regrets. My Blue Heaven is entertaining, eminently quotable, and features some of the finest ass-grabbing meringue choreography to ever grace the silver screen.
Production of My Blue Heaven didn’t exactly go smoothly. Director Herbert Ross told Movieline in 1993 that he only did it because he “needed the cash” for his new wife, Lee Radziwill. An unnamed producer interviewed for the same piece recalls that Ross was “one of several directors who, based on their own fear, insecurity and inadequacy, pick out females and torture them to death to the point of making them weep. He did it to…Joan Cusack on My Blue Heaven.”
Changes were made to Ephron’s script that she felt all but ruined the feel of the film, one that was apparently intended to be more of a dark comedy than the inoffensive family flick it became. Evidence that My Blue Heaven was originally envisioned as an edgier R-rated film can be seen in a hastily written (or maybe just hastily filmed) feel-good finale and truncated plot lines. We never know what Vinnie was up to when he escaped from custody in New York, for instance, and Daniel Stern as the borderline abusive ex of D.A. Hannah Stubbs (Joan Cusack) has all been cut from the film. There’s also the noticeable dubbing over of several f-bombs and a joke about a puppy with a naughty Italian name, obscured enough that you can no longer really hear it, though I’ve always asserted (with no evidence whatsoever, mind you) that it must surely have been “Dog Fongool.”
It’s a shame no one enjoyed the making of the film, because the cast has a fantastic chemistry together that, had they not been dealing with an ever-changing script and a miserable director, could have made Heaven a full-fledged American classic. The whole rotten experience did, however, lead to Nora Ephron directing films herself. “I looked at My Blue Heaven and thought, ‘Well, I could have screwed that up just as badly as Herbert Ross did and he got paid 2 1/2 million dollars,'” she said later in an interview, “So I might as well think about directing.”
As it is, My Blue Heaven is a fun — and, just as importantly, funny — film. It’s one of those films that suffered on its release from a host of problems that were a big deal in 1990 but hardly important at all 27 years on. It had to contend not only with the dismissal of critics but the ambivalence of Steve Martin as he promoted the film; in one interview with an Oklahoma newspaper, Martin’s only positive words for Heaven were that it visually “looks beautiful.”
He’s not wrong. Heaven features gorgeous settings and even more gorgeous Italian suits, but it’s more than just lovely to look at. Martin responds well under direction from Ross — they had worked together on the fantastic Pennies from Heaven several years earlier — and captures both the absurdity and the depth of his character, even if he doesn’t really capture the accent. The film’s buddy-comedy-with-heart plot is somewhat cliché, though the jabs at the government, suburban life, marriage and loyalty aren’t. When Hannah tries to arrest Vinnie after an illegal search and seizure, she protests that Constitutional rights don’t apply to someone like Vinnie. He replies that those rights were made especially for men like him: “I am the worst case scenario of Thomas Jefferson’s dream.”
My Blue Heaven has just been released by Warner Archive on made-on-demand Blu-ray with subtitles and the original theatrical trailer.