Paulie: Charlie Kaufman, Eat Your Heart Out

From left: Jay Mohr, Jay Mohr, and Jay Mohr.

Paulie (1998)
Directed by John Roberts
Written by Laurie Craig
91 min.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—when you’re a kid, it’s damn near impossible to know whether a movie is revered or not. You watch a thing, and if you enjoy it, it’s a part of your world. And your world is only as big as you and your parents, so if you and your parents like the thing, it’s a ‘classic’. Only when you grow up do you discover, by asking friends and scouring the internet, how many movies you thought were well-known that were really just well-known to you.

It still throws me for a loop that I’m the only person in the history of the world who has seen Little Big League. When I was a kid, it played on TV just as much Rookie of the Year, but apparently, I’m the only one who flipped to it. I must’ve watched it damn near 30 times, and I still know parts from it by heart: “Kids today are amazing—I played winter ball down in Venezuela, and they had kids half his age, every one of them speaking Spanish. That’s a hard language.” “They speak Spanish in Venezuela.” “I know! That’s my point!”

But I digress.

The point is, Paulie is one of these such movies—a movie that, for whatever reason, hasn’t had its due, despite being ubiquitous at one point in time. And like Little Big League, it still holds up today. It’s thoroughly enjoyable family fare.

But it’s also so much more.

Paulie is the most ‘meta’ family film of all time.

Allow me to break it down. First off, our lovable parrot protagonist is voiced by actor and comedian Jay Mohr, who is well known for his preternatural ability to mimic voices—he’s a ‘human parrot’, so to speak. He can leap from Colin Quinn to Tracy Morgan to Harvey Keitel to Christopher Walken to Norm MacDonald to Ina Garten with ease, nary missing a beat. In fact, Jay’s voice for Paulie is basically just him doing Buddy Hackett.

Funny story about that—Jay went to the audition for Paulie with it in mind that he’d do it as Buddy Hackett, because he felt that’d be the perfect voice for a cute little parrot. He arrived at the audition, and out of the door came Buddy Hackett himself, having just finished auditioning for the role. Jay panicked, realizing he didn’t stand a chance in hell against the real thing, but he gave it a shot anyway, and got the part. Hackett was still given a side role though—that of a pet store owner Buddy encounters along the way. And Jay was even given a second acting role in the film, playing a crook that Paulie gets into trouble with. The three characters even have a scene together in the film (as seen in the photo above) and as Jay has pointed out on his delightful podcast, Mohr Stories, if you close your eyes while watching it, you can hardly tell who’s talking.

Surely it can’t get any more meta than that, right? Wrong.

One might assume, given Jay’s talent at impersonation, that this film would be nothing more than a slapdash, phoning-it-in vehicle for him to just rattle off random famous voices ad nauseum for ninety minutes, amidst a thread-bare plot. I mean, why else cast an impressionist as a parrot in a kids’ film?

Maybe because the role of Paulie is a serious acting role, and a human parrot might know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a parrot.

The screenwriter, Laurie Craig, has given actual depth to the character, and to the story. It’s a film about the ups and downs of life as someone with an abnormal and beautiful talent for mimicry and speech. It’s about being thought of as ‘just a mimic’ when you know in your heart that you’re really so much more than that. Basically, it’s the role Jay Mohr was born to play, and quite frankly, he plays the hell out of it, treating the moments of drama as an opportunity for catharsis. He pours the sting of every time someone has thought of him as ‘just a guy who does voices’ into his delivery of Paulie’s pain.

And man is this a painful film.

It’s essentially a cautionary tale about the vultures of life who pray on good intentions and capitalize upon naiveté for their own gain. And its lesson is that going through life just trying to please others, parroting their behavior in order to be accepted, will get you nowhere good. It’s kinda like Zelig for kids in that way, and what a film to be like—Zelig is one of the greatest cautionary tales ever told. Certainly an admirable feat, bringing that clear message of self-esteem and individuality to youngsters. My hat goes off to all involved.

This film’s not all pain-filled though. It balances heavy and light quite well—and even boasts the undisputed queen of heavy and light, the late great Gena Rowlands. She absolutely shines here, dragging smiles and tears out of your face like a pro. One of her very best performances, for sure—I’m talking Cassavetes level. And the rest of the cast is solid too. You’ve got Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, Bruce Davison—and of course Hallie Kate Eisenberg cold tearing shit up. Girl is ridiculous. She gives one of the most innocent, natural performances I’ve ever seen out of a child actor. She’s one of the first characters in the film, and once you’re introduced to her, you’re locked into the story emotionally, and ready for the ride.

The reason I compare this film to the work of Charlie Kaufman is because what Kaufman proves, time and time again, is that you can go all meta and shit and still connect with your audience emotionally. Whether you like his films or not, no one can say he stacks layers upon layers just for the hell of it. He always does so with the intention of resonating with his audience at a deeper level than they’re used to. That’s exactly what Laurie Craig and director John Roberts set out to do with this film, and in my opinion, they succeeded. I can’t recommend this one enough.

4 1/2 out of 5 Codys.

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