A vacationing American family accidentally ends up behind the Iron Curtain and is mistaken for spies. [ Don’t Drink the Water credits: Dir: Howard Morris/ Jackie Gleason, Estelle Parsons, Ted Bessell/ 100 min/ Comedy/ Escape from Socialism, Abuse of Power]
Don’t Drink the Water explicitly lampoons some of the more stereotypical aspects of socialism, and even better, it puts high-handed U.S. government officials in their place.
It tells the story of a New Jersey caterer and his family on their way to a vacation in Europe. Their plane gets hijacked to Vulgaria, a communist country, and because of a misunderstanding at the Vulgarian airport they get mistaken for spies. So they flee to the U.S. embassy. As it happens, the U.S. ambassador is out of the country, and his incompetent son is in charge.
The son tries to reason with the head of the Vulgarian KGB, misspeaks, and ends up “admitting” that the family really is a bunch of spies. Now the family can’t even leave the embassy without being arrested.
Finally, the ambassador returns, but instead of helping the caterer and his family, he cynically cuts a deal with the Vulgarian KGB to hand them over — all in the interests of the U.S., of course. Further, he orders the caterer to comply with the deal. The caterer fires back: “Ordering? You’re ordering me? I think you’ve got things backwards. I’m a taxpayer. I don’t work for you. You work for me. And if you were working for me as a caterer you wouldn’t last through the first course.”
From then on, it’s open rebellion against the overtly allied U.S. State Department and Vulgarian KGB, as the family makes its escape to the West and the two governments try to stop them.
Based on a play by Woody Allen, Don’t Drink the Water has a very witty script. It also benefits from a terrific cast. The repartee between Jackie Gleason as the overwrought caterer and Estelle Parsons as his ditzy wife is consistently hilarious, thanks to a real comedic synergy between them. I especially enjoyed the amusing communist stereotypes, including a sort of Boris-Badinoff-esque head of the KGB. A few slow moments aside, this is a very entertaining flashback to the 1960s.