Counterpoint: 'The Master of Disguise' is a Masterpiece
"Jack of All Disguises, Master of None" is a series that attempts to unpack the complexities of the 2002 children's film The Master of Disguise starring Dana Carvey. On Day 5, we discuss how I am probably wrong about everything.
It’s the fifth day of The Master of Disguise Week, and people are very defensive of Dana Carvey, which I understand, and very defensive of his use of brownface makeup, which I don’t understand.
Could they be right? Could I, most film critics and my furious mother who couldn't believe she spent forty dollars to take the family to see "that trash" in 2002? For today, the answer to that question is an unequivocal "yes." Here are the reasons, in no particular order, why The Master of Disguise is a classic piece of cinema.
Pathos is “a quality that evokes pity or sadness,” and it’s acritical element in the greatest stories ever told, used to heighten emotion and unlock bigger reactions and resonance with an audience. In reality, Pistachio is a tragic character with a crippling Freudian complex and deep dependency on his family, and one doesn’t need to dig much to see that he’s on the verge of a breakdown.
When we meet Pistachio, he is suffering from an identity crisis – he’s claiming to be twenty-three years old when he is visibly older and is involuntarily taking on characteristics of others around him. If it were not for his father tolerating his ineptitude as a waiter at the family restaurant, he’d be unemployable and, judging from his interactions from temptress Maria, he’s unable to hold down a girlfriend or distinguish a lover from an acquaintance. He loves kids as evidenced by his positive run-ins with Barney Baker, which gives him the opportunity to use his powers of mimicry for good, but remains in desperate need of a change in perspective.
It is only when Pistachio discovers that he can escape his own cartoonish personality to embody others with a distinct purpose that he begins to find personal fulfillment. It increases his already suction-cupped relationship to his family - not only is his obnoxious quirk justified by the "master of disguise" persona, but it connects him to his father and grandfather, as well. Sure, this discovery does not change Pistachio's inability to censor himself or understand when a woman is interested versus when she is within two feet of him, but perhaps the lack of character arc is making its own point. Perhaps he doesn't need to change because there was nothing wrong to begin with.
Movies often exaggerate the human ability to change, and the mere lack of change we see in Pistachio over the course is eighty minutes is startling. His journey brings him from gawky man who lives with his parents through the rescue mission to reclaim his parents - by the end of the film, he is the exact same person with gluten-ravaged Jennifer Esposito arm candy and (I think) still lives with his parents.
In a way, the ending to Pistachio’s story is a sad one. He cannot function sorely off his personality and charms, an insecurity he has stopped trying to overcome by TMoD's conclusion. The concept of disguise, in this way, is a sweeping metaphor for how we approach our daily lives - are we not all just desperately hiding in our turtle guys costumes to hide the inept, unconvincingly Italian Pistachio within?
In this way, The Master of Disguise is the world's most tragic story.
While Pistachio and Jennifer’s romance isn’t one that’s going to rank on any ill-conceived listicles in the coming years, is it that unbelievable that they’d be interested in each other? From his first scene with Maria, we learn that Pistachio is desperate for companionship to the point that he would assume that a woman he presumably met the night before was his “love-cake.” Sure, he has a bizarre Freudian propensity for his mother’s ass, but who doesn’t have their quirks?
Then there’s Jennifer, the single mom who can’t seem to find a nice guy. In fact, she seems exclusively able to find child-hating sociopaths in powder blue sweaters if her onscreen boyfriend Trent is any indication. The two break up when he’s caught having dinner with the “tush queen,” a scene that takes place days or possibly weeks later but Trent is wearing the same sweater. Pistachio gives him a good punch with an impossible idiot force, slings his arm around Jennifer and leaves his restaurant.
As a mother trying to raise son Barney on a Master of Disguise’s assistant salary, Pistachio may well be the best "safe" option for Jennifer – that, or she really is as turned on by being called a “fat cat mama with a red dress on” that Pistachio labels her in a troubling romantic scene. He’s well-intentioned if annoying, the heir to a successful restaurant, and I have to imagine that whatever clip masters of disguise are paid when they’re not kidnapped by farting supervillain. Plus he does a decent Shrek impression, an important quality in any prospective lover.
Sure, there’s a nearly twenty years between them in spite of the fact that Carvey’s character is masquerading as a twenty-three-year-old, but he needs to feel loved and she needs to feel stable. It seems to work for every fat guy / hot wife variation on television, so why not Pistachio and Jennifer?
A REFLECTION OF OUR TIMES!
The Master of Disguise was released the summer after 9/11, a time when Americans needed to laugh. In the same way that Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy series lifted the spirits of the youth during The Great Depression, TMoD targeted itself to kids at a time where the nation was vulnerable.
Case in point: TMoD was shooting one of its most iconic scenes on September 11, 2001. The “turtle guy” gag was well underway that fateful morning, clinching classic catchphrases like “turtle, turtle” as the heroes barged into a club in ‘disguise’ and accomplished nothing except "biting a man's nose off, then spitting it back onto his face."
Then, the news hits. The cast is shocked, share a moment of silence, then continue to shoot the scene not because they want to, but because America needed them to.
After all, The Master of Disguise is a quintessentially American story. Three generations of Italians, all with the same incorrect accent, build a live for themselves in accordance with the American dream, from their successful restaurant to their secret lives dressing up as celebrities. They are hot-blooded men with drive and talent, ready to give it their all so long as they’re rewarded with ass.
What's more, we don't know if Dana Carvey's George W. Bush impression was filmed before or after 9/11, meaning its inclusion could either be scathing satire or a poor decision! Sometimes the wonder lies in not knowing. God bless America.
THE META-TRAGEDY OF THE SLAPPING DUMMY!
In the notorious sixth ending to The Master of Disguise, the fourth wall is shattered irreparably when a forgettable prop that hisses "You slap me, I slap you!" at its opponent turns out to be a Chekhov's gun. If you put the Slapping Dummy in the room, the midget in the Mario costume will eventually be extracted from it.
In the final moments of TMoD, we witness what appears to be either enslavement of a handicapped man or the most bizarre display of volunteering ever committed to film. The Slapping Dummy’s motivation is simple but strong – he wants to slap, and will not let his own physical limitations nor common sense stop him from doing so. He is everything that the mild-mannered, people-pleasing Pistachio isn’t.
Though Pistachio is highly eccentric, he's still caught in the same trappings of responsibility, obligation and societal pressure that we are. In the restaurant and disguise business there he feels a need to impress his family and make them proud; he takes on responsibility for Jennifer and her child; he is repeatedly hampered by his own insecurities, panicking when his parents disappeared before enlisting the help of his grandfather. He’s like us, if we had a trunk full of costumes we found in a basement.
The Dummy is trapped inside of the wooden robot for the majority of the film, so his reveal presents the viewer with an interpretive challenge. Will they see him as a circus freak as he’s being portrayed or, just maybe, can they read the meta-context?
Though the Slapping Dummy is physically trapped, he is the only one who is truly free. He chases his stupid passion with obnoxious vigor, a viewpoint he endorses once again when he sits down with Pistachio for the seventh and eighth endings. I like to think he dropped out of law school to slap.
THE PERFECT MOVIE FOR KIDS!
I loved The Master of Disguise when it was released, as evidenced by this glowing review scrawled in a fuzzy notebook my aunt bought me at Old Navy:
TMoD is stuffed to the gills with things kids love – it’s got farts, pop music, skateboarding dogs and no remorse for how silly it is. There are plenty of movies like this out there, but Carvey’s project takes special precedence over other dog-on-a-skateboard movies (see Cats and Dogs or Tom and Jerry: The Movie) because of its lack of condescension.
In most children’s movies, you’re compelled to learn a lesson by the end – there’s no place like home, true love overcomes everything, always trust a gay animal couple that eats bugs. In The Master of Disguise, there is no lesson whatsoever, unless you can count the unlearning of a tried-and-true kids movie trope.
An easy preach for TMoD is to be yourself. Pistachio has the world at his fingertips when it comes to disguises, but he doesn't seem to value himself over any particular persona, negating the lesson altogether. He does win Jennifer over with his own personality, it’s not once suggested that he’d be better off being himself exclusively – in fact, the relative success of his disguises suggests the opposite.
The closest thing we get to a lesson in TMoD is in an alternate ending in which Pistachio bellows to a group of big-assed women, “Love is thicker than your behinds!” Take notes, kids, because that’s the only clear takeaway you’re gonna get. It’s like getting a night off from homework.
I love this stupid movie. We’re the most critical of the ones we love the most – that’s why my mother is asking me to please stop writing thousand-word pieces about The Master of Disguise and please consider going to grad school.
Next: The Master of Disguise vs. The Master ... Even a Contest?