An aeroplane is on the runway about to take off for Rome, but just as the passengers have boarded and it is closing its door, a private jet pulls up nearby and a man in golfing attire jumps out. He rushes onto the airliner and takes his seat, his only item of luggage being a briefcase he places at his feet, and when they are airborne he casts his eyes around the other passengers until they alight on a soberly dressed businessman. Getting up, he goes over to the businessman and asks him a question; after a little discussion they both venture into the bathroom and the passengers and crew become alarmed, only to see them emerge dressed in each other's clothes. Well, you can't pick up your father's body wearing golf slacks, can you?
And so begins one of the sex comedies that marked the latter half of Billy Wilder's directing career, only here he took advantage of loosening censorship to not just include nudity (granted, not much and mostly Jack Lemmon), but a plot that made us accept that it was perfectly fine to go off and commit adultery as long as you were on holiday. The implications of this were glossed over to say the least, but here there was a true charm which made you go with the laidback appeal of what was essentially a holiday in the sun, the Italian island of Ischia, to be exact. That said, Lemmon's character, the one on the plane, is about as far from charming at the beginning as he's ever been.
In a comedy, at any rate. Lemmon's corporate heir Wendell Armbruster Jr is a priggish boor, permanently agitated and a pain to everyone he encounters from the start. If ever there was a man who needed to change his ways it's Wendell, and you can tell he takes no joy in life, it's all business to him and if he ever cheers up, it's once in a blue moon. Naturally, this makes him ideal material for a life-altering experience, and in spite of his unlikeability there is someone he meets who thaws that frosty exterior: Pamela Piggott. Pamela is played with an endearing primness by Juliet Mills, although she, too, thaws as the magic of Italy does wonders for her too, acting as a catalyst for a more relaxed persona to blossom.
There are a few sticking points about Avanti! (which is what everyone says whenever someone knocks on the door), and one of them is the frequent references to Pamela's weight: she's supposed to be fat, and this makes her unhappy, but although Mills put on a few pounds for the role, she is never more than pleasingly curvy, as evident in the scene where she goes for a naked swim at sunrise. So she's not exactly enormous, but it is nice to see Pamela growing more confident in herself as the story progresses - the swim is at the end of the best night of her life she exclaims, in spite of her being left with the band at a restaurant where she was meant to be having dinner with Wendell.
The reason these two are thrown together is that Wendell's father and Pamela's mother died in the same car accident and in the same car, mainly because for the past ten years they had been having an affair, one week of the year where they could escape from their ties and be themselves. You can see where this is headed from the moment the penny drops with Wendell about what dad had been getting up to all this time, and he is outraged at first, but the carefree atmosphere of being abroad and his new friend's womanly appeal make him see what he's been missing. Clive Revill makes a strong comedic impression as the head of the hotel who does his best to make things run smoothly, both professionally and romantically (and gets some of the funniest lines), plus it's to Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond's credit that the immorality doesn't trouble you until the film is over, if at all. There's always time to enjoy yourself, says Avanti!, and it is a relaxing movie. At nearly two and a half hours, mind you, it really needs to be.