Getting Away With Murder

on April 12, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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One can picture screenwriter and sometime actor Harvey Miller in an off moment chatting with Penny Marshall on the set of her "Big" or "Awakenings," telling his director of a pet movie project he had in mind. What one has trouble picturing is Marshall having such an "off" moment that she would seriously entertain his idea: Producing the comic story of an ethics professor and his life-changing involvement with a former Nazi death-camp commandant. That's a laugh-at, not laugh-with, idea, but the eventual casting of the beloved Jack Lemmon as the Jew-killer is beyond even black humor. American audiences love Lemmon grumpy, but not that grumpy.
   "Getting Away With Murder" opens with an epigram, "If you seek vengeance, dig two graves." It's a serious thought, but the film's humorous intent is revealed by the epigram's stated authorship: "Someone Chinese." What follows is the tale of philosphy prof Jack Lambert (Dan Aykroyd), whose moral lectures to his students find real-world application when he crosses paths with a austere but otherwise pleasant Old World neighbor who goes by the name of Max Mueller (Lemmon). When news reports state that war files newly discovered in an East German archive identify Mueller as Karl Luger, the infamous Beast of Birkau, Lambert is faced with a dilemma: Should he let America's judicial system take its long and uncertain course (even as Luger plans to make an exit for Ecuador), or should he take justice into his own hands and kill him himself? After Lambert executes his decision, he hears a news flash: that Mueller really was Mueller, a lowly Wehrmacht cook. Now, Lambert is faced with a wholly new question of ethics.
   It's odd for a film that takes direct issue with those who claim the Holocaust was a hoax to seem to make a case for those rewriters of history for fully half its running time. (Even more so one in whose closing credits the producers thank the Holocaust Education & Memorial Centre of Toronto and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.) After the film's first third, in which he creates a real character onscreen, Aykroyd is little help; his Lambert becomes a cartoon of its early self yet provides few laughs. As Lambert's girlfriend, Hunt ("Jumanji") provides a personality that's refreshing amid so much dourness. However unfortunately, Lemmon is on-target as Luger, but--if the film has a highlight--it's Lily Tomlin's turn as Inga, Luger's ramrod-dutiful daughter (and Lambert's eventual wife). Her frownful fraulein seems a creation half by Friedrich Nietzsche, half by Mel Brooks.
   Distributor Savoy, which has been selling off many of its productions since announcing last year it was leaving the movie business (New Line recently released Savoy's "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate"), still has a number of interesting projects on its in-house slate, like "Mariette in Ecstasy," to which moviegoers can look forward. This, however, was not one of them, with a from-the-get-go aberration akin to that of Savoy's equally abnormal "Exit to Eden" (a bondage comedy that Boxoffice readers voted as one of the two worst films of 1994--and in which Aykroyd and a different Marshall, dad Garry, were involved). There might be laughs to be found in looking back at the Nazis (witness the '60s TV series "Hogan's Heroes"), but there are not enough here to fill a Krigsmariner's cap. Starring Dan Aykroyd, Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin and Bonnie Hunt. Directed and written by Harvey Miller. Produced by Penny Marshall and Frank Price. A Savoy release. Comedy. Rated R for some sexual situations. Running time: 90 min
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