Is the new bartender Monte a secret agent? Is he a human cannonball? Is he a fugitive from England? These are the questions the waitresses ask themselves at the opening of Richard Shepard’s The Linguini Incident (1991). The tone of the film is light, and seems to explore the genre of screwball comedy with a hip early nineties twist.
Monte (David Bowie) is a new bartender at a trendy restaurant managed by Cecil & Dante (played by Buck Henry and Andre Gregory). But Monte isn’t all he seems to be. He’s a compulsive gambler, and he’s made a bet with the two restaurateurs that he can get his green card in a week by marrying one of the waitresses they employ. Lucy (Rosanna Arquette) is that lucky waitress. Lucy is obsessed with Harry Houdini, and makes several attempts at being an escape artist herself. She aggress to marry Monte if he holds up the restaurant with her and her friend Vivian (Eszter Balint), so that she has enough money to buy Harry Houdini’s wedding ring from an antique shop. Needless to say, things go wrong, and Monte loses his bet and Lucy doesn’t get her ring. However, Monte is able to make a new bet that requires Lucy to perform one of her escapes. Staying true to the genre’s narrative structure, the bet pays off. But Shepard does not end the film with Monte and Lucy running off together. Partly because it would be too easy, and partly because of a subtext I have only eluded to in my brief synopsis of the film.
The key word is obsession. Monte, like all gamblers, lives for the adrenaline rush of very nearly losing what would be a life-altering bet. It is the journey to the outcome of his wager that holds all which entices him. In the film, he very quickly settles on Lucy as his bride to be once he discovers her aspirations at being a magician. And grows even more fond of her the more he comes to depend on her to win his bet. It’s a strangely sexual relationship born out of complete codependence. As I stated earlier, Lucy needs Monte just as badly to obtain her goal. Throughout the film, Shepard allows Lucy’s magic tricks, the imagery of straps, handcuffs, etc to reveal the sexual subtext of Monte and Lucy’s relationship.
Lucy has no real affection for Monte; he is simply a necessity for her to achieve her goal (and he does give her the ring at the films conclusion). She is suspicious and wary of Monte. That is until their heist is complete. Now there is a romanticism deriving from the heist film genre itself, which will later allow the two to consummate their strange relationship.
It is their obsessions that negate the traditional ending of the screwball genre, they have used and exploited one another throughout the entire film, and Shepard is smart enough to know that it would be unrealistic, even in a comedy, to bring the characters together.
The Linguini Incident is not a mere rehash of an old Hollywood genre though. It blends into that narrative structure the sub-genre of thrillers known as the heist film. The mishaps and misadventures that populate the rising action and build into a crescendo at the films climax are not of the domestic kind like in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These incidents have been replaced by the narrative developments and plot points of a traditional heist film. The effect Shepard achieves is that the audience is more concerned with the films characters and their relationship than with if the heist goes well. In fact, the heist itself becomes a superficial source of entertainment in the film. But it breathes a new kind of energy into the screwball genre, making the approach fresh and new to audiences familiar with films like the Hawks titles mentioned above.
I’ve discussed the genres at length, but not so much the casting. In the early 1990s, casting Bowie in anything was strange. Bowie was doing his Tin Machine project and hadn’t appeared in a film since Absolute Beginners. Even his earlier parts in films were as aliens, homosexuals, POWs, and goblin kings. But in The Linguini Incident, Bowie is playing the part that Cary Grant would have played in the thirties and forties. Shepard wants to defy expectations, though I would argue that such casting also aids in illuminating for the audience how Shepard intends to rework the genre in which his film is set.
The Linguini Incident has a dark subtext and a genre bending narrative, two complex devices for a filmmaker’s debut. Richard Shepard’s work has been consistently original, often toying with genre films and the star as signifier (Pierce Brosnan in The Matador). In his filmography, The Linguini Incident is probably his most coherent execution of this style.