Friday, October 10, 2008
Blind To The Darkness Within Themselves
I don’t know if anyone else looks at it that way, but I’ve always thought that the weekend of October 13-15 1995 was a pretty crucial weekend in the development of Hollywood in subsequent years. That weekend saw the release of three films: William Friedkin’s JADE, Roland Joffe’s THE SCARLET LETTER and Kathryn Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS. Three films that were R-rated, aimed at adults, very expensive and each one was essentially a box-office disaster. It also didn’t help that at least two out of those three were pretty terrible (I feel like I need to see STRANGE DAYS again) and that was a period where the only films that really were hits were SEVEN and GET SHORTY but it still seems like it was a small step towards movies like that never getting made anymore.
That doesn’t mean I have a good answer why I once purchased a VHS tape of JADE, but that did help me laugh maybe louder than anybody when Seth Rogen referred to the movie in dialogue in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (“Be David Caruso in JADE”). That tape I bought was the unrated director’s version, expanded by 12 minutes, something which never got released on DVD, and I think the movie seemed to leave enough unanswered questions that I wanted to see if the longer version dealt with that. The answer: not really. Actually, enough time has gone by that I’m not even sure of all the differences, outside of longer sex scenes and an alteration to the ending which, instead of clarifying, adds an extra element which just seems to bring up a few more queries as to what will happen once the credits roll. And not necessarily in a good way. How much screenwriter Joe Eszterhas should be blamed is unclear since in his autobiography “Hollywood Animal” the scribe attacks Friedkin essentially for mutilating his script. What Friedkin did to it and how much better or worse the script really was remains a mystery and all I can really judge is what is in the actual film.
An erotic mystery very much in the vein of BASIC INSTINCT, also written by Eszterhas, JADE stars then-rising star David Caruso as San Francisco ADA David Corelli, investigating the brutal murder of a prominent millionaire. His investigation leads him to a sex-and-drug ring that involves the Governor (Richard Crenna) but, on a more personal level, leads him to old flame Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino) a successful psychologist married to his best friend, high-powered attorney Matt (Chazz Palminteri, in that period when he was appearing in about half the movies released) and the identity of the mysterious prostitute known only as Jade.
JADE is a mess and, like other Friedkin films good and bad, there’s an elusive feel to the whole thing of being a movie which refuses to clarify exactly what’s going on. This works fine in certain films where there’s a genuine weight to what’s happening but JADE never feels like it warrants this treatment. The story just feels too slim, too much like other erotic thrillers and Friedkin’s refusal to make it more like one of them, while understandable on a certain level, doesn’t mean he’s made it more interesting. The meat of the story (at least, what I think it’s supposed to be) doesn’t even seem to kick in until pretty close to the 90-minute mark, just in time for the climax. I think the film is supposed to be about the tragedy of friendship and how romantic entanglements can cause that but way too much time is spent focusing on police investigations, sleaze, collections of pubic hair, cut break lines, red herrings, lesbian subplots that involve Angie Everhart, David Caruso getting mad at people (or, I suppose, just being David Caruso in JADE) when the more interesting triangle of Caruso, Fiorentino and Palminteri never seems to get enough screen time for it to make any sense.
It’s one of those weird cases where while watching it again I found myself sitting there and actually enjoying the film anyway. Maybe I just liked seeing a sleazy mystery set in San Francisco and making good use of the locale with adults and chases and twists, almost populated by people who seem oblivious to the fact that this doesn’t work. Since it’s a Friedkin film, of course there’s a car chase, much of it spent on an odd detour through a parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which I assume is another example of Friedkin tampering with expectations. Considerably better is a foot chase with informant Angie Everhart being pursued by Caruso—she offers no evidence here that she could ever act but it is impressive to watch her run. Some of the films best moments are bits that feel like Friedkin is choosing to linger on something for no particular reason, such as when Ken King (a real-life police inspector, giving one of the film’s best performances in his only screen appearance) pauses to dryly read the instructions on a Harmony Pillow. As Caruso looks over the beach house of the murdered man he looks at the contents inside a mini fridge, saying, “Cristal, Baluga, Wolfgang Puck…It’s a fuckhouse,” but sadly the movie doesn’t cut to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. At another point he examines the mutilated body at the crime scene and determines, “This is rage.” Gee, I could’ve told you that. If more people knew this movie somebody could put together a fun montage of him saying various lines from this movie followed by a shot of the Miami skyline. He isn’t quite doing what he does every week on CSI: MIAMI, but he’s definitely on the way.
The three leads were poised to break out at the time of JADE, but it never really happened (Caruso, at least, became a big star for other reasons). Maybe the film was part of the reason why. Linda Fiorentino, who unfortunately hasn’t made a film in years, was always an interesting actress but considering this was supposed to be her big role after the critical success of THE LAST SEDUCTION it’s seems odd that the movie doesn’t do more with her. Her character goes out of town on business for much of the first half, almost as if she has to finish shooting on another movie before fully taking part and it’s a problem since she is after all supposed to be one of the leads. Without that focus, it’s not fully clear what the movie’s supposed to be about, unless it’s just a dive into sleaze. Fiorentino looks great and one of the few emotionally valid moments comes from holding on her face during a passionless fuck with husband Palminteri. The actress does the best she can with the problematic role, written with enough issues that other actresses may have had trouble as well. She’s also not a screamer, something that becomes evident in the climax—Fiorentino doesn’t seem like the type and she doesn’t have the pipes for it. Either way, the expected sexual fireworks never really happen and the sex scenes we do get, even in this unrated version, don’t feel like they pay off—maybe because they’re with an unnamed extra instead of Caruso or someone else we might care about. The dissatisfaction JADE provides, even on its own level of badness, makes it sort of the film version of ANNIE HALL’s “Terrible, and such small portions.” At least BASIC INSTINCT, whatever you think of it, feels like it delivers on what it promises.
Friedkin pulls out the old subliminal tricks that he famously used in some earlier films as well but the most effective of these moments is a quick, not-subliminal shot of one of the Jade sex tapes before we cut to a close-up of Caruso, just to give us an idea of what’s in his head. The actual subliminal shots look to be things like random flashes of light, fertility masks that may or may not have thematic relevance, but nothing to rank with Captain Howdy in THE EXORCIST. A few days before the film’s release there was an article in the Los Angeles Times speculating on how potentially dangerous this could be for viewers. Clearly, somebody was hoodwinking somebody. There’s a shot near the very end (I think it was in the theatrical cut too, but I could be wrong) giving us a view of a character unlike what we were privy to before and this one glimpse is a tantalizing taste of the secrets the character in question has kept, what this person never allowed to be fully revealed. The idea of secrets that people keep from us should be what the film is about are but the effect it has is to make us wish we could see the movie behind that secret instead. Whether it’s the script Eszterhas had written, I cannot say. William Friedkin has directed films which at times have made him seem more than a little batshit, but even he needs to find an outlet to correctly display that mindset. Maybe with JADE he was just looking in the wrong place.