Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) is a New Yorker who has made a fortune manufacturing hangers. He and his family live in a luxurious and spacious Beverly Hills home. But everything isn’t coming up roses in this nouveau riche household. Dave is carrying on an affair with Carmen (Elizabeth Pena), the Mexican maid, since his wife Barbara (Bette Midler) has headaches every evening. Barbara relies upon the ministrations of a guru and a therapist to keep her functioning in her hectic lifestyle of aerobics classes and shopping expeditions. Jenny Whiteman (Tracy Nelson) attends college in the East and is nearly anorectic. Max Whiteman (Evan Richards) only communicates with his parents through homemade videos; he is afraid to tell them about his androgynous impulses. And Matisse, the Whiteman’s dog, is so neurotic that he is seen regularly by a canine psychiatrist.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a robust laugh-filled humanistic comedy directed by Paul Mazursky, who obviously cherishes the eccentricities of Americans of all stripes. This comedy of manners which he co-scripted with Leon Capetanos is based on Rene Fauchois’ play Boudu Sauve des Eaux about a Paris bum who plunges into the Seine to end his life and is rescued by a bookseller. Now the bum is in Beverly Hills and the water is the Whiteman’s pool.
Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte) is a down-and-out Beverly Hills street person who is devastated when his beloved dog deserts him for a more upwardly mobile master. Trying to drown himself in the Whiteman’s pool, he is rescued by Dave and offered a chance to recuperate in their home.
Jerry seems to subscribe to a philosophy something akin to Thoreau’s: “A man is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to leave alone.” He doesn’t relish the onerous responsibilities and pressures that come with hard work and marriage. Yet he has the natural savvy and wisdom of a contemporary medicine man. Jerry dispenses comfort, counsel, and sexual favors to the entire hurting Whiteman household. Even Maltise comes around under his care.
Jerry’s highly developed interpersonal gifts eventually rub Dave the wrong way. After all, he’s the Good Samaritan who rescued this loser and gave him an education in what it takes to achieve the good life. But, in the last analysis, Dave begins to see the world around him with fresh eyes.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is filled with hilarious incidents (including several occasions when Maltise sets off the fire alarm which summons the security firm contacted to protect the household) and clever one-liners (Dave describes his daughter’s visits home as “a blur with a nice smell”). Mazursky draws out topnotch performances from the versatile cast and an especially winning one from Little Richard as the Whiteman’s next-door neighbor, a record producer who entertains a very funny party.