Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Nobody Has Cream Soda In Their House

And now, a few words about the movie that inspired one-half the name of this blog.

When Alan Arkin was interviewed for L.A. Citybeat shortly before his recent Oscar win, writer Andy Klein asked the actor about BIG TROUBLE, a 1986 comedy that reteamed him with THE IN-LAWS co-star Peter Falk. The film was not a success and even though Klein mentioned his fondness for the film, Arkin wouldn’t say much about the troubled production and the final product beyond saying, “It’s a long, turgid story.” In fact, the one time I ever met Arkin and asked him about the very same film he simply replied, “I don’t know what the hell we did on BIG TROUBLE.” Over twenty years after its aborted release in theaters, the only thing anyone who ever saw it seems to remember is Arkin’s now-legendary response to a sip of sardine liqueur, a scene even Arkin admits to taking some pride in. But BIG TROUBLE has always had its own sort of strange charm.

The plot, for those who have never seen it: Arkin plays Leonard Hoffman, an insurance salesman with three musical prodigy sons who have all been accepted to Yale. No matter how much his wife (actress/screenwriter Valerie Curtin) tries to convince him how important Yale is to their education, he can’t come up with a way to make it work financially. After unsuccessfully asking his Yale Alum boss (Robert Stack) for help, he makes a sales call to one Blanche Rickey (Beverly D’Angelo) who informs him that her husband Steve (Falk) is near death and the two come up with a plan to sell him a policy with a double indemnity policy that will pay double if he dies by falling off a train. Any resemblance between this film and DOUBLE INDEMNITY is purely farcical.

The facts, as far as anyone can tell: IN LAWS screenwriter Andrew Bergman, who at this point had already helmed 1981’s SO FINE, was set to direct. Several weeks into production he left/got pushed off/asked to be relieved of his duties and was replaced by John Cassavetes, presumably due to his friendship with Falk. A Cassavetes bio I’ve skimmed contains some quotes from Bergman which indicate that he had certain personal issues going on at the time and, apparently feeling he wasn’t doing a good job, asked to be relieved from the picture. Some of what’s recounted here indicates that the script went into production without solving various third act problems, but this is contradicted by an Arkin quote in the LA Times from 1998 where he says, “Making films can be difficult for different reasons. With 'Big Trouble,' for instance, Peter Falk and I were given one of the funniest scripts I'd ever read, but as we were shooting, director John Cassavetes rewrote it on a daily basis…”

The Cassavetes book indicates that the new director was trying to get the actors to dig deeper with their characters, something that may not have been necessary with such a farce and Arkin didn’t exactly respond well to this method of working. As it is, Bergman took his name off the film, using the pseudonym ‘Warren Bogle’(presumably a relative of the oft-used W.C. Fields pseudonym ‘Charles Bogle’), and the credits list no producer or even production company beyond the Columbia Pictures logo. (For a bit of minutiae, the logo contains the Columbia-sunburst musical fanfare that seems to have stopped being used around 1980 or so.)

Filmed during the summer of 1984, TROUBLE bounced around the release schedule at various points during 1985. As far as I can tell it didn't get a release until May 30, 1986 when it opened at Cinema 1 in New York. Vincent Canby in The New York Times gave it a surprisingly positive review saying it “displays a level of comic intelligence that's very rare in any movies these days.” This was followed by an opening in L.A. about a month later, just days before the similarly-titled BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. This, in turn, was followed by the video release just a few weeks later.

Signs of a troubled production pop up throughout. Probably a result of Cassavetes’ involvement, the film has a loose, almost improvisatory feel. Arkin even acknowledges the camera at one point, which is kind of distracting. Paul Dooley, playing what is almost the Porter Hall role, gets prominent billing but appears for about as long as it took to type this sentence. Some settings, especially the exterior of a doctor's office (the doctor is played by IN-LAWS alum Richard Libertini), are pretty obviously shot on a backlot—I’m guessing it’s the Warner Ranch, or whatever it was called back in the 80s. Plus, without getting into spoilers, close to the hour mark the plot begins to go off the rails, like it doesn’t know where to go...then there’s a point where it really begins to go off the rails, spiraling down a cliff. What happens in the climax seems to come not from left field, but from left field of a stadium way across town. And in the final shot, which runs over the credits, it's tough to tell exactly to what degree the actors are bothering to stay in character.

While BIG TROUBLE never achieves the heights of insanity of THE IN-LAWS, there’s still a lot about it I like. The skewering of the DOUBLE INDEMNITY plotline is good for some laughs and both Falk and Arkin are extremely funny throughout. Charles Durning is very good in what is basically the Edward G. Robinson role, but the film is easily stolen by Beverly D’Angelo who is simultaneously extremely funny and sexy. I can’t think of anyone today who could play the role half as well. When the plot starts to spiral out of control and she has less to do, the film suffers for it. I’ve had a mad thing for Beverly D’Angelo for years and years—this film is the main reason why. Also, she plays “Blanche Rickey”, undoubtedly a spin on the old Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, which is probably my favorite character name of all time. All these years later I still remember maybe one guy in the back of the theater laughing hysterically when the name was first uttered. I can only assume it comes from the New York-born Bergman and would be the first thing I ever asked him about if I got the chance. Maybe it's the likable performances of the leads, maybe it's the unique comic tone it maintains throughout, BIG TROUBLE holds up pretty well. And it goes without saying that the film is way funnier than anything in the lousy remake of THE IN-LAWS.

"A Mrs. Rex All on the line..."


chris soth said...

Think I rented years ago for the cast, then was shocked to find "THIS IS DOUBLE INDEMNITY...!"...but remember little else...

Jeremy Richey said...

Bravo for writing on a Cassavetes film that is rarely talked about.
Your blog is looking fantastic and I added a link to it over at mine. Keep up the great work.