Sunday, September 28, 2008
Insurance Against Failure In Art
I love Dabney Coleman as much as everyone, but it seems a little strange that there was a brief period where he actually had the starring role in a few movies. Strangest of these titles was probably John Boorman’s WHERE THE HEART IS, released in February 1990. What sort of relationship did these two guys have? Did they ever bond over steaks at Dan Tana’s? WHERE THE HEART IS has to be considered a comedy and while the idea of a John Boorman comedy makes about as much sense as a Don Siegel musical, enough of his personality still manages to come through. That, of course, turns out to be part of the problem.
As New York demolition mogul Stewart McBain (Dabney Coleman) is prevented from taking down a rundown Brooklyn building known as the Dutch House, he decides that he’s reached the end of his rope with taking care of his three children (Uma Thurman, Suzy Amis, David Hewlett), each aspiring creative types. After musing about the ‘won’t-leave-home syndrome with a friend, he decides to teach them a lesson. So in spite of the protests by his wife Jean (Joanna Cassidy) he drops the three of them off at the Dutch House in the dead of night essentially telling them that they’re on their own. As the kids try to figure out a way to make the decrepit building hospitable they begin work on their own projects as well as bringing it friends and boarders into the house. Meanwhile, Stewart, still trying to deal with financial problems stemming from the Dutch House situation, finds himself confronted by a money situation he never could have anticipated.
Watching WHERE THE HEART IS for the first time in years, I was struck by how it is clearly very much an attempt by Boorman (along with daughter Telsche, with whom he wrote the script) to create a sort of light Shakespeare piece, a sort of MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT IN NEW YORK kind of thing with a touch of light magical realism. In addition to Coleman’s Lear-like lead are a number of supporting players who seem to drift through the movie as if part of a giant rep company, as well as a full-blown Fool in the form of Christopher Plummer, playing a homeless magician only ever referred to as “The Shit”. Of course, he offers life lessons to a few of the characters, lending his expertise where it is needed. To complain that the film doesn’t present a serious look at the homeless in New York is probably missing the point, since Boorman doesn’t care about that any more than he cared about THE EXORCIST while making EXORCIST II or the basic concepts of reality in most of his other films, for that matter. He doesn’t even seem to be all that interested in New York (more on that in a minute). What he is trying to create is an extended mood piece more than a comedy which thrusts its characters into this new world that they create for themselves in the form of the Dutch House. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is at times breathtaking particularly in its use of color and perfectly captures the mood they’re striving for. Most striking is the series of paintings created by Suzy Amis’s character incorporating people into paintings (she’s creating a calendar for an insurance company as part of the “art versus commerce” theme that runs throughout), credited to an artist named Timna Woollard. I would actually be willing to recommend the movie to somebody who might be interested solely on the basis of the cinematography and those paintings.
The intent and subtext is perfectly valid. The execution, as well as the actual text, is another story. Possibly because it’s a release from a Hollywood studio (Touchstone) the idea of a mood piece quickly takes a back seat to making the film a full blown comedy with people acting like they’re in a sitcom and far too much wackiness to the point where some sections feel a little unwatchable. The film was at one stage to be set in London with Sean Connery starring. Whether this would have been better is a moot point—it certainly would have been different--but it does feel like there has been some basic tampering with the idea to make it more palatable, at times feeling like someone has gone through the script adding bits to amp up the comedy. Characters can’t just turn on a film projector; they have to flail about frantically for five seconds first. A potential renter trying to enter the house falls into mud in an embarrassing bit of slapstick. When Dabney Coleman accidentally turns a stereo volume up instead of down he does a wildly exaggerated comic take. Maury Chakin, the Harvey Weinstein figure on ENTOURAGE, does some of the worst mugging imaginable. Annoying little supposed comic bits persist throughout the bulk of the running time. What results is not a funnier film but something which is neither here nor there, a feathered fish that is neither the traditional comedy Touchstone probably would have wanted, nor the light family piece Boorman presumably had in mind. It’s so insistent on this giddiness that even the background extras are annoying (it should be a rule saying that whenever you notice this sort of thing it’s a problem) and there’s a persistence to the tone which feels like the movie is aiming for an audience of pre-teen girls—all due respect to pre-teen girls, of course—but too much of the story wouldn’t interest that demographic at all.
How different this would have been in a London setting is tough to say, but its uninteresting use of New York is compounded by much of it being shot in Toronto, so it doesn’t really feel like Manhattan or Brooklyn even when it’s clearly shot there (Actually, the changes to Brooklyn over the past few years would probably moot the basic setup today). Unfortunately, what results is not a film that achieves its own unreal tone but simply a Touchstone comedy from that era which feels like it was made on a budget. The story makes an attempt to tie in how one reconciles the need for both commerce and art in this world, working in some financial disasters in the stock market. The plotting of this element isn’t particularly credible or at all coherent but it does make the film surprisingly timely these days. I swear, I pretty much just put it on at random. Every now and then there’s a moment or a scene which feels like it was allowed to slip through unencumbered but a moment like Dabney Coleman declaring, “Nobody destroys what I built up,” as he presses the button to demolish a building which we witness in a wide shot deserves a better movie around it.
Trapped among all this chaos is a bunch of very good actors who you could almost believe look troubled by the fact that they signed up for the chance to work with somebody on the level of Boorman and then realized they had to play this material as a sitcom. They’re all capable and certainly deliver during the more serious moments but there’s no way the two tones can exist together without the movie feeling like a huge jumble. Part of the problem is how much of the film seems to be dubbed which gives a feeling of unfortunate disconnect with many of the performances. Dabney Coleman plays things amped way up with lots of exaggerated behavior. Even in a comedy, he doesn’t really have the weight for playing a Shakespearean king in a modern-day context (I guess that's where Connery would have helped). Joanna Cassidy, usually a terrific actress, seems miscast in her role (it makes for a nice BUFFALO BILL reunion with Coleman, though) and seems to compensate by playing things so frantic much of the time that the behavior actually seems beneath her. She even plays one scene with more of an upper-crust accent than the rest of the film, the sort of tiny inconsistency that seems to pop up throughout. Uma Thurman shows that she clearly had huge talent this early on though even she seems unsure at times of the tone she should be going for (but seriously, what a vision she was back then). Suzy Amis looks way too old to be a ‘kid’ being kicked out of the house, but she’s not bad—she also looks weirdly like Judy Davis in some shots. Surprisingly, the actor who works best here is actually Crispin Glover playing the gay clothing designer friend with a secret--you’d expect the actor to be off in his own world but more than anyone his performance feels modulated at the tone the whole film should be going for. Sheila Kelley, who became a regular on L.A. LAW around this time, also hits the right vibe as a student reserarching speaking in tongues for her Master's ("The karma here is...major"), floating through her scenes seemingly commenting on the events without even saying anything (now married to Richard Schiff, she was last seen onscreen saying “Join the club,” to Tony Soprano/Kevin Finnerty, which for some reason makes me think of this role). Christopher Plummer is unrecognizable both in face and voice (another dubbing issue?) as The Shit (“At least I’m THE Shit, you’re just A Shit,” is one of his better lines) and NIP/TUCK’s Dylan Walsh has a really bad late 80s/early 90s haircut as the stockbroker friend who moves in. He plays things at an annoying sitcom level too.
Because of its insistence at being more of a wacky comedy than it really should be, it’s not even as lightly enjoyable as it would like. The worst scenes of supposed comedy are annoying enough that they actually make the whole experience less likable than it would be otherwise. The film is a mess, but at least it’s an interesting mess. Every now and then there’s a moment, a shot, a flash of color, where everything briefly seems to come together. Sadly, these moments are far too brief and soon enough we get a character doing something overly frantic, killing the mood. Boorman’s been all over the map in his long career (I’m one of those people who openly worships POINT BLANK) and his most recent film, shot in 2006, hasn’t even gotten a release in the U.S. But an interesting failure is more preferable than a piece of hackery any day of the week and if that’s going to be how WHERE THE HEART IS gets considered, at least it’s something.