Wednesday, January 7, 2009
An Idea I Had That Looked Like You
It’s as good a time as any to take another look at THE JANUARY MAN, the New York-set comedy-thriller-romance that was released almost exactly twenty years ago and of course takes place during the first days of the new year. It’s never been a very good movie and hasn’t gotten much better over the years but the whole thing is oddball enough to inspire repeat viewings if only to try to figure out what’s going on both plotwise and tonally. I still haven’t come up with a decent answer to that but I took another look at it anyway. It’s a case of too many plot points left vague, too many tiny things that don’t make much sense on even a basic level of human behavior so it’s a mystery in itself exactly how the movie is supposed to be taken.
New Year’s Eve. After New York socialite Allison Hawkins spends the evening with best friend and mayor’s daughter Bernadette Flynn (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), she goes home (oddly, before mindnight—one of a number of things that don’t add up) and it strangled to death by a serial killer who has been terrorizing the city, murdering one woman per month for the past eleven months. Mayor Flynn (Rod Steiger), enraged by his daughter’s proximity to the crime, demands that police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) reinstate his own brother Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline wearing a mustache, so we know he’s ‘wacky’ in this film) who was booted from the force a few years ago in a scandal that is never quite clarified, to catch the guy. Nick reluctantly agrees, with his one condition being that he can cook dinner for Frank’s wife and his own former love Christine (Susan Sarandon). When the dinner goes disastrously, Nick begins working on the case which includes a relationship that suddenly begins with Bernadette. As Nick starts to figure certain things out about the killer’s patterns he realizes that he may be the only one who can prevent the January Man from killing for a twelfth and final time.
Buried in THE JANUARY MAN are a number of elements with a lot of potential, but nothing about it really works in a coherent way. It’s not particularly funny or suspenseful and the serious sections don’t really register either. Character relationships and histories are unclear-- at one point Keitel’s character says something unforgivable to Kline, his screen brother, but it’s never made clear where this hatred comes from and what we do get doesn’t hint at what’s unseen in a satisfying way. By the time we’re an hour into the movie so little has actually happened that it’s not even clear what the movie is really supposed to be about. It certainly takes way too long for Kline’s character to begin working on the case so we can see something of interest about him beyond living like a bohemian and annoying people. The mystery plot has possibilities but it’s ultimately so ludicrous that it’s impossible to accept what gets deduced by Nick even using movie logic—I think I remember a murmur from the audience over opening weekend indicating that they weren’t swallowing some of what was being revealed. Or maybe it was just the response in my own head. Written by John Patrick Shanley (now in theaters with DOUBT, his second directorial effort) much of the dialogue indicates that the film has aspirations to meaning something—“In a hundred years we’ll all be dead,” Mastrantonio muses at one point to Kevin Kline followed by a long speech from her about the futility of small talk, concluding with her demanding to Kline, “Shouldn’t we really be talking?” Things like this feel like a basic theme is being stated but it’s all so muddled it’s never very clear what the film is trying to say. This sort of philosophy came to the forefront a year later in Shanley’s directorial debut JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, which I haven’t seen for years, but even if that film was also a mess it was still an easier one to engage with. For that matter, so much of THE JANUARY MAN’s backstory involving police corruption, frame-ups and a mysterious canceled check is never clarified to the point of frustration. Characters yell at each other for reasons we don’t understand and by a certain point the movie just becomes a bunch of tonally confusing scenes strung together. The New York feel is ok, but not great (interiors were Toronto) and part of it may be that Irishman Pat O’Connor wasn’t the ideal director for a hard-nosed New York satire—I’ll admit that there’s my personal desire for this to play more like THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE talking—and the tone feels consistently uncertain. Of course, O’Connor did meet and marry Mastrantonio off of this, so at least it worked out for them. At times it feels like whole chunks might be missing—I saw Spalding Gray speak at the 92nd Street Y the year before it came out and though he mentioned that he would be in the film, makes no appearance in the final edit.
The cast is all over the place, but it feels more like the fault of the director. Kline plays his wacky persona, with a bit of a New York twang to it but it’s an unworthy followup to his Oscar-winning work in A FISH CALLED WANDA. Rod Steiger bellows all over the place but weirdly a few of his quietest moments are the funniest. Danny Aiello, as the police captain who hates Nick Starkey, yells as much as he can but there’s no way he can compete with Steiger in that department. Almost as if to compensate, Harvey Keitel underplays things so much that by a certain point there barely seems to be a characterization at all. Alan Rickman, just after DIE HARD, is dryly amusing but his performance also feels like there should be a little something more there. Mastrantonio, briefly topless, is very good—I always liked her, especially in THE COLOR OF MONEY--even if she’s not particularly believable as twenty-three year old. Susan Sarandon, no real surprise, does the most interesting work even thought her role is as erratically and sketchily written as the others are, maybe moreso. But she still gives the indication of her character having an inner life and there always seems to be something going on in her eyes even if it doesn’t necessarily match up with the rest of the film.
The twisted philosophies that turn up in Shanley’s script give the thing added interest, probably one of the reasons I’ve watched it a few times over the years. These things certainly help but it’s not enough since there’s never a good enough reason to care about anything. Near the end Kline’s character tells someone, “I don’t love you. I loved an idea I had that looked like you.” It’s a line that has always stuck with me and it’s too bad it wasn’t attached to a better film. It’s one of those signs that the movie was actually going for something, but I’ve never managed to figure out what that is. The movie probably isn’t worth spending this much time thinking about it, but if there weren’t anything there at all, I wouldn’t bother. Of course, that’s what happens sometimes.