Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Someone's Always Getting Rich
In case anyone would want to be reminded of this, today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of SUPERMAN III. Break out the cake and ice cream! I saw it that night when it opened and even as a kid I knew it was no good. All kids knew it was no good. We wanted to see Superman, not a Richard Pryor comedy. And even the stuff in there which was supposed to be in a SUPERMAN movie didn’t thrill us like the Phantom Zone villains did. How was a billionaire who wanted to corner the world coffee crop going to measure up to that? And wasn’t WARGAMES, which just come out, a more enjoyable example of a movie that focused on computers? And, not that it really needs mentioning, the comedy part of it wasn’t any good either. SUPERMAN III lives on, however, as a textbook example of how not to make a sequel to one of these things, but also as a pop-culture punchline, especially in OFFICE SPACE where the embezzling of half-cents gets mentioned by Michael Bolton (memorably played by Dave Herman), referring to it as “a very underrated movie”. Maybe somebody really does think of it as that but I know I don’t. Even so, I find myself watching it every now and then almost because I think that just maybe I can spot the good movie that’s hiding in there somewhere. So far, I’ve failed. I think I always will.
Part of the reason for this nagging feeling is the genuine skill brought to the film by director Richard Lester who is at least smart enough to have an approach to the film he makes. Of course, for this movie it’s the absolute wrong approach. In the footage he shot for SUPERMAN II (another subject entirely) he came close to going too far with some of the gags but here he seems to have been given free reign on that point and as a result he’s ran with it. As a result the tone feels off and confused right from the get-go. The general feeling on the Metropolis slapstick ballet which plays under the opening credits is that it’s funny, but it has no business being in this movie. That’s partly right and the sequence is fairly well-constructed but it’s really only funny in a clinical sense. I get the gags and why they work but I don’t crack a smile at any of it. It’s also sloppy--even as a kid I wondered why Clark Kent was buying a copy of the Daily Planet and Superman never bothers to catch the gun-toting bank robbers who are focused on at one point (we do get an appearance by PINK PANTHER regular Graham Stark in here, however). But while these credits and much of the film for that matter seems to aspire to a Frank Tashlin vibe, there’s nothing particularly likable or charming about any of it. As a matter of fact, much of the film is rather ugly as well. Not in how it’s photographed, but in its approach to the characters. Lester seems to genuinely dislike most of the people onscreen in this film, whether they’re the people work at the Daily Planet, Richard Pryor’s Gus Gorman or simply extras in Metropolis and Smallville. As far as I can tell, the difference in the two places as presented in this film is that city seems to be populated by buffoons, the small town by rubes. It’s kept interesting throughout in the continued emphasis on computers and technology in the mise-en-scène (I wish there was a non-pretentious way to make the point) and it actually makes the film play as a surprising companion piece to Lester’s 1968 masterpiece PETULIA. Feel free to try this double bill sometime. But while in the earlier film there was the feeling of despair at what modern society (or is it American society?) was becoming, here the tone feels like anger at everything in that society. I don’t believe that Lester likes being in these places, I don’t believe that he likes these people. Does Jimmy Olsen have to be no more than a rube who bores Clark Kent with stories about his aunt’s stuffing? Does Superman look down his nose in this way at the people of Earth?
I don’t feel like going over every Richard Pryor-related point to express why his presence doesn’t work. You’ve probably seen this movie before. But even to this day it’s not very clear to me if Gus Gorman is supposed to be a computer savant or a computer genius. The film doesn’t seem to care either and Pryor sure doesn’t seem to. I don’t want to go into the other actors since they seem to be doing the best with what they have—I actually like when Robert Vaughn drops the phone after saying, “I asked you to kill Superman and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one simple thing?” Pamela Stephenson doesn’t seem to have a chance, since she’s playing a bimbo who is secretly a genius. After a few brief nods at this joke it’s simply dropped with no payoff and the bits which were left in feel like somebody forgot to remove them. Reeve, no surprise, is the film’s saving grace, but even he can’t always save it. Everyone seems to like the junkyard fight between the good and evil halves of Superman and it is an ok scene but watching it again it made me wonder, why is the bad half represented by Superman and the good half by Clark Kent? What does that have to do with the character of Kal-El, which is who he is anyway? Is it just so the kids in the audience will be able to tell them apart? That confused feeling, along with how the sequence seems to be missing a slam-bang conclusion, makes me think that the junkyard fight isn’t all that it could be. But it is an ok scene. The only stuff in the film that feels genuine on any level is the interplay between Reeve and Annette O’Toole’s Lana Lang in the scenes where there are periodic mix-ups in what the other person is talking about. It’s nicely written and played by the actors, with not too much of a thing being made of it. It never approaches how well Reeve went with Margot Kidder (please allow me Kidder as Lois Lane) but in this film you take what you can get. As for Kidder's few minutes onscreen, there’s very little to say about her small part except that when we hear about her Bermuda vacation at the end of the movie (“I knew I was onto something when the taxi driver kidnapped me!”) it always made me think of the Disney comedy TRENCHCOAT that she starred in shortly before this was released. But no one remembers TRENCHCOAT anymore.
There’s very little else to say about this movie since I don’t have it in me to go over everything that doesn’t work point by point. I’m sure somebody else already has anyway. In addition to the focus on computers there are other jokes which feel like they came from early-80s topicality, but what must have seemed oddly outdated at the time of release is the oil subplot of the second half, probably inspired by the shortage of the seventies. Weirdly, it seems strangely current looking at it now and as one bit player observes, “You can’t tell me there’s no oil. And you can't tell me someone’s not getting rich off this. Someone’s always getting rich.” It just proves that sometimes these things do become topical again. They just don’t get any better.