Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Aiming Too High
I’ve always had a slight soft spot for SWEET LIBERTY, Alan Alda's comedy about filmmaking, which probably has mostly to do with a pleasant memory of seeing it way back when it was released way back in May of 1986 (the same day as TOP GUN, for those who care about such things). Combined with that is a genial tone through the whole thing, giving it a feel of a film that was pleasurable for everyone to work on and everyone in front of the camera seems happy to be there. This doesn’t make it good, just pleasant—looking at it again after many years I don’t get much out of it other than that pleasantness along with a few smiles here and there. There are far worse things than that, but it would be nice if SWEET LIBERTY had maybe a little more bite, as well as more laughs.
Michael Burgess (writer-director Alda), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Revolutionary War tome “Sweet Liberty”, is about to have a film made from his book in the small burg of Sayville, North Carolina (actually, the film was shot out on Long Island) where he lives and works as a college professor. Though his life is already preoccupied by his relationship with girlfriend Gretchen Carlson (Lise Hilboldt) and crazy mother (Lillian Gish, in her nineties when this was made), things are made more complicated when no sooner has the production arrived and he has met screenwriter Stanley Gould (Bob Hoskins) he realizes that the film made from his book is actually going to be a teen comedy because teens love defying authority and, after all, the American Revolution “was the ultimate rebellion”. Michael does his best to change the film, dealing with jerk director Bo Hodges (Saul Rubinek), chameleon leading lady Faith Healy (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose resemblance to the real person causes him to be attracted to her instantly and egotistical leading man Elliott James (Michael Caine, in the second of two ’86 releases in which he is named Elliott), among other distractions. As Stanley tries to teach Michael the reality of how movies really get made, all of these different forces battle for attention in his life until finally, as the Wikipedia plot summary tells us, “Michael is forced to sabotage his own film to try to gain some truth in his life.” Which means that whoever wrote this summary got more of this plot development than I did.
That’s the thing. Though it’s a very mild, genial piece of work, SWEET LIBERTY never seems to have much of a point or opinion about anything that’s going on beyond just a smile and a shrug from Alan Alda who seems happy that everybody has turned up and seems to be enjoying themselves. There’s a valid satirical idea in the reasons why this book is being turned into a teen romp but the tone is all wrong for that satire and never makes much sense on a comical level either (it reminds me that I need to watch S.O.B., a film where the joke would make sense, again). Alda the director seems to get a kick out of how phony moviemaking is, by tilting up at the end of a take of the movie being shot to show where the fake snow is coming from, a joke that was probably hackneyed back in the fifties. And very few of the details he presents about the process make very much sense whether it’s how the cast and crew, even the big names, all arrive in town on a single charter bus or the complete lack of any studio executives overseeing the shoot. Compared to this, the recent SMOKEJUMPERS arc on ENTOURAGE is a model of realism. If it’s a teen comedy, why is there a love story between the characters that Caine and Pfeiffer are playing? Would such a hack director really want to make this book into a movie (in fairness, Saul Rubinek is pretty funny in the role, even though his part never makes much sense)? Why do we spend so much time on the pointless rivalry between the stuntmen and the townsfolk who reenact the battles? Why is there an entire subplot about Michael’s crazy mother looking for her long-lost boyfriend? The way scenes are arranged feels pretty haphazard much of the time with little sense of pace or rhythm to them. Alda doesn’t really bring much style to any of this—showing the local marching band which welcomes the production by playing “Hooray for Hollywood” gets smaller and smaller as the musicians get more interested in the celebrities is as close to an actual cinematic idea as the film gets. There’s also Bruce Broughton’s incessantly peppy score, very 80s, which sounds like it was designed to play under bouncy montages more than it has anything to do with this movie. You’ve probably heard it before and still haven’t gotten it out of your head. I know I haven’t.
I could go on with lots of criticisms, but I still don’t really mind the film. It’s breezy enough, I smiled at a few points watching it even now, like when Caine tries to get Alda to switch seats with him on a rollercoaster so he can sit next to Lois Chiles, which I remember being the one clip always shown on TV. Overall, it goes down easy. But if Alda wanted to make something lighter than THE FOUR SEASONS it’s almost as if he went too far in the wrong direction because there’s nothing more to take away from it in the end other than, “Oh, those wacky Hollywood folk,” even though every now and then there’s a slight indication that he may have had something more in mind. When we see Alda’s character lecturing a class at the beginning he asks them, “How do you discipline a large, freedom loving society?” and I suppose what the film might be about is the struggle to maintain discipline in your own life against what the madness of the world offers (the sweets of liberty, as it were). It almost feels like something could have been done with the idea but instead everyone involved preferred to just hang out and have a nice time off in the Hamptons instead. There seems to be so little conflict in the principle love story that Alda doesn’t even bother to drag out a crucial moment at the end. Everything’s going to turn out all right and he’s not going to make you sweat for it.
At least everyone seems to be in a good mood, which helps a lot. Alda’s character never seems all that upset by what’s being done to his book, no matter what he says in dialogue, seeming perfectly content to go get ice cream with his girlfriend instead. I guess when you think about it, there’s not very much at stake anyway. No surprise, Michael Caine gets the biggest laughs as the lecherous star, given some particularly good dialogue (“The perfume of their skin, it’s so intoxicating. I told my wife I’d never even look at other women if only I could cut off my nose.” “What did she say?” “She said I was aiming too high.”) and running with it. Pfeiffer does a good job as well with a difficult role, making her much more likable than she might otherwise have been. Bob Hoskins seems determined to steal every scene he’s in and is very enjoyable to watch. Lois Chiles of MOONRAKER, playing the wife of the college president, brings an added comic spark whenever she turns up. Linda Thorson of THE AVENGERS pops in for a few scenes as Caine’s suspicious wife. Familiar faces John C. McGinley, Dann Florek and Leo Burmester play a few of the townsfolk. As the main love interest Lise Hilboldt (probably most recognizable as Perry White’s secretary in SUPERMAN) never seems to stop beaming, even when she’s supposed to be upset. She’s not all that good, but as a person she honestly seems nice enough which kind of sums up my response to the entire film.
“Not a bad time, huh? A pleasant little interlude. A dance. A diversion,” offers Bob Hoskins near the end, which pretty much describes SWEET LIBERTY as well. I suppose I should be more hostile to it but a film this good-natured is sometimes difficult to get all that worked up over. There are scraps of material here that could have been part of a better movie but it’s not much of a surprise that it didn’t do very well at the box office (a shocker, but TOP GUN actually did better). I paid only five dollars for the DVD, a full-frame job by Universal who clearly didn’t care about this title very much. I don’t really feel like I wasted my money and maybe some spring afternoon off in the future I’ll want to see some of it again. It’ll probably still be just as pleasant and underwhelming but there are some days in life when that’s just the sort of movie you want to be reminded of.