Starring: Ron Moody, Frank Langella, and Dom DeLuise
Director: Mel Brooks
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
A dispossessed nobleman (Moody) and a conman (Langella) in the recently-formed Soviet Union learn that a fortune in jewels has been hidden in one of twelve chairs the nobleman used to own. They team up and engage in a race against a corrupt, greedy priest (DeLuise), who learned about the jewels during a deathbed confession, to acquire the jewels first. But they first have to find the right chair... and the harder they try, the further the chairs seem to be scattered across the massive Russian nation.
"The Twelve Chairs" is, along with "To Be or Not to Be" the closest thing Mel Brooks has ever come to doing a "normal" comedy. It's a darkly comic tale, but there isn't any of the third-wall antics or anachronisms that is present in most of Brooks' films. No, what we have here are comic actors who are superbly cast and working with a sharply honed script that echoes traditional Russian comedies. (The closest we get to what one might consider "standard" Brooks in later movies is a bit where Moody's character is so fixated on retrieving one of the chairs that he walks a high wire with perfect stability, not even noticing what he's doing.)
It's hard to imagine anyone cast better than than the great Ron Moody is perfect as the twitchy, high-strung ex-noble who grows increasingly manic as his dreams of returning to a life of wealth become increasingly remote. The same is true of Dom DeLuise as the histrionic Russian orthodox priest who tries to turn in the Cloth for wealth. Frank Langella, seeming more handsome and graceful than ever when playing off the lanky Moody and rotund DeLuise, is also the perfect straight man, making sardonic observations and keeping his cool even while other characters get crazier and crazier.
"The Twelve Chairs" is perhaps the least-seen film of all that Mel Brooks has directed, and it's undeserved of the obscurity it is slipping into. I recommend you check it out. (BTW, some viewers might be put off by what seems to be a downbeat ending, but keep in mind that this IS a Russian story! And, if you think about it in the overall context of the situation the characters were in when the movie started, it's really not that unhappy an ending.)