Released in 1988, Paul Mazursky’s comedy Moon Over Parador is a film about acting. Sort of. Richard Dreyfuss plays Jack Noah, an actor who has had a few action films to his name, but still finds himself scrambling for parts. He’s just finished shooting on his latest film (complete with blond mullet wig to hide his grey hair and receded hairline) in the small South American nation of Parador, where he impresses the local dictator, Alphonse Simms, with his uncanny and amusing impersonation of him. After the wrap party, Jack intends to return home to New York to find his next part, but his retired friend Ralph (Jonathan Winters) convinces him that he should stay for Carnavale.
The few days’ delay would prove fateful when Simms dies of an early heart-attack. The Paradorian Director of National Security, Roberto Straussman (Raul Julia), knows that news of the dictator’s death would cause political upheaval at a time when the country (and Straussman’s interests) could ill afford it. You can all guess the answer he comes up with, of course.
To be honest, it’s probably the best outcome one could hope for when meeting Raul Julia in a meat locker.
The servants, led by Simms’s valet (Fernando Rey) and maid (Charo) aren’t fooled for a moment; but they’re not about to rock the boat. The same can’t be said of Simms’s lover Madonna Mendez (Sonia Braga), who starts filling Jack’s head with revolutionary ideas on how to run the country. This causes conflict with Straussman, who has his own agenda. And all the while, Jack is learning to enjoy giving the performance of his lifetime — but is concerned both with the lack of a knowing audience and the risk of being permanently or fatally typecast.
This is a witty, funny film. Dreyfuss delivers one-liners with alacrity and panache, and he and Raul Julia play off each other wonderfully. It’s kind of funny to see Raul Julia being the more deadpan character but even here he’s still very clearly enjoying his job, putting just enough ham into his acting to make Straussman seem both alive and larger than life. Dreyfuss, meanwhile, is tasked with the complicated task of playing not just one role, not just two roles, but one of the roles playing the other — complete with subtle nuances on the character’s “errors” in acting — and pulls it off skillfully. And he has great on-screen chemistry with the other actors; I mentioned Julia already, but he also works well with both Sonia Braga and Jonathan Winters. Also look for cameos by Sammy Davis Jr. and Dick Cavett as themselves; Davis’s is funny in a subtle way, as he sings the new Paradorian national anthem to the tune of “Besame Mucho” — the previous one being to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”. It’s just one of several subtle gags about Parador being just a bit off-kilter even by the standards of small dictatorships.
Two-party politics as practiced in Parador.
Moon Over Parador‘s basic premise has been used in other films, of course. It’s inspired heavily by The Prisoner of Zenda, and shares similarities with other literary and cinematic descendants of that work. But it’s one of the few to unabashedly be a straight-up comedy, not a dramedy or romantic comedy. Even during it’s romantic moments, even during scenes of serious events, the film seldom goes for more than a minute or two without trying to get a laugh out of the audience and succeeding. This is a fun film, and definitely worth watching.