Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Present Is A Result Of The Past
There’s not much I can say about the death of John Hughes that hasn’t been said already. Yes, I was just the right age for his films back in the 80s and even now I have a real fondness for a few of them—of course, some more than others. At the time they hit just the right note for teenagers and it makes it even more of a shame that somewhere near the end of that decade—around the time that SHE’S HAVING A BABY failed at the box office followed by the more successful but awfully problematic UNCLE BUCK—he began to drift off compass from the sort of thing he did best towards creatively bankrupt kids junk like FLUBBER (as well as, yes I’ll say it, the HOME ALONE movies) until eventually…there was nothing. Not a word. He was essentially the poet laureate of Generation X and he was pretty much done before that term was ever even coined. Whatever the reason is for this, and there have been a number of them speculated lately, there’s no avoiding how it always felt as if he drove us to the very edge of the volcano of adolescence until he dropped us off there and took off into the distance screaming “So long suckers!” without even saying why.
Ten years ago Kevin Smith’s DOGMA correctly nailed these conflicted feelings about the man by seeming to deify him in how Jay and Silent Bob show up in the plot looking for what turns out to be the non-existent Shermer, Ill., where most of Hughes’s films took place, but later in the same movie Salma Hayek’s Muse proclaimed that the only one of the top grossing films of all time she had nothing to do with was the one with “the kid by himself in his house, burglars trying to come in and he fights them off…” adding that, “Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit.” So that pretty much says it all. How much of a reach is it to suggest that the reason the so-called Generation X seemed to drift for a few years in the early 90s could have had something to do with this abandonment?
The last film he directed was CURLY SUE in 1991. I never saw it. Really, what would be the point? The comedy CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, written by Hughes and released earlier that year, is the closest we ever got to an indication of the creative direction he could have gone in but interestingly, it also points towards where he did go and in the most unfortunate way. It would be a stretch to call it a good film. Maybe it’s an almost-good film, and even that is generous, but the intriguing stuff in there meant something to me at the time to a degree that I was always a little surprised by and the potential which can be found in these few scenes make it hurt even more that the guy just up and disappeared.
Twenty-one year old “town liar” Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) has just about reached the end of his rope in the small community he lives in, having been fired from his umpteenth job (for Hughes fans who care, this is not Shermer but the more working class Monroe, which appears to actually exist though the film was shot in Georgia). Reluctantly, he takes the only job he can still get working as Night Clean-Up Boy at the local Target. Though he likes to brag to the local kids about all the big deals he has going, since he’s being threatened with being kicked out of the house by his parents he has no choice but to take the job. By happenstance local beauty Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly), who Jim grew up in the same town with but never really knew is herself at wits end with her own father and, desperate for attention, is about to shoplift from the store when she hides out in a dressing room when the store closes. With the door locked from the outside, when the two of them meet they wind up addressing their pasts and the black hole of their futures in very honest terms but even though they begin to work out a plan for that future, they still have to get through the night which it turns out includes a pair of local crooks (Dermot and Kieran Mulroney) with their own plans for Jim & Josie.
Directed by Bryan Gordon the first half-hour is pretty mediocre with the exception of a fun cameo by an uncredited John Candy as the Target manager. It plays like a ‘wacky’ comedy which doesn’t seem aware that watching this cut-rate Ferris Bueller who’s a little old to still be behaving this way is actually a little depressing. The final third, in which the two robbers take center stage in the plotline, verges on incoherent and feels like Hughes never got around to taking care of a badly needed rewrite. It’s the middle section, beginning at exactly the half-hour mark, which is where the real interest lies.
The dramatic meat of the movie can pretty much be called a post-high school equivalent of THE BREAKFAST CLUB with two characters the same age who grew up in the same town and went to the same school but never had any real contact finding themselves on the right night to open up to the other person. This comes just as they are fed up with everything in their lives, still wondering when things are really going to begin and they’ve lucked into finding the right person who will force them to admit certain things deep down (After trying to say that his new job is a beginning, Connelly bluntly tells him “It’s an end,” in a way that no one else will offer him). With each one finding nowhere else to go in this town, the film suddenly becomes about looking out into that volcano that Hughes has driven his characters up to and the two of them discovering that they have to jump now into full independence or it’s going to be too late. The past which has turned into the present has to be confronted head on which means that Jim has to finally stop being such a goofball and take action in a number of ways before he can move on into a future with promise. It’s not profound, but it makes sense and with a frankness that I remember not expecting, some of this cut extremely close to the bone for me way back when which made it all the m ore frustrating how the movie refused to follow through on its promise. It’s all a fantasy, of course, but when this film came out the idea of fleeing for L.A. with Jennifer Connelly sure sounded pretty good to me.
For a few minutes, the degree of Hughes’ dialogue and the frankness of the actor’s performances approach a maturity that would never again be found in his work from this point on. So it seems almost metaphorical how this storyline is interrupted exactly thirty minutes after it began (and exactly one hour into a film that runs only 83 minutes) by the idiocy of the two robbers breaking into the place who seems like a rough draft of the more comical thieves who would turn up in practically every other movie Hughes would write during the 90s-- if PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES had been made just a few years later the film would have added an extra half-hour by making Steve Martin and John Candy deal with this sort of thing and if this had happened then the film wouldn’t be as fondly remembered today. It makes sense that something had to come between Jim and Josie to bring some conflict into the immediacy of the scenario but it’s as if Hughes went with the first thing that came to mind (for him, that would of course be a pair of idiot crooks, just like every other movie in the 90s that he had a hand in) and never thought there might be another option.
Even the good stuff isn’t perfect—the roller skating montages go on a little too long and that they hop into a tent together a little too quickly to fool around seems to ignore the greater depth of their connection and dilutes the impact of their first kiss. I’ve probably said before that if a movie has a guy and girl locked somewhere together, trying to figure each other out, I automatically get interested and within this unrealistic nonsense are moments here and there that seem like more than the movie deserves. Once this ends, as the two leads are held at gunpoint for very long stretches the tone gets a little too unpleasant (maybe because it feels like someone behind the camera is leering at Connelly’s cleavage—out of politeness, that’s the only time I’ll refer to the subject) and inconsistent although it should be stated that the films most iconic image—Jennifer Connelly on that kiddy horse—comes from this section and hey, it is pretty hypnotic to watch.
The final moments run over a montage which wraps up the plot threads in the most rudimentary way possible and when the credits roll at the 78-minute mark there’s not much more than a feeling of emptiness. It’s as if the film never bothered to follow through on everything that was brought up by the two leads beyond the expected happy ending. Considering the brief running time and the abruptness of numerous scenes throughout, it’s clear that there’s stuff missing but it could only be guessed at how much better it really would have been with some of this stuff put back in. CAREER OPPORTUNITES feels unfortunate not just because how it falls short but how in doing so it seems to illustrate how shallow Hughes could be at his worst. At its best it promises a film that could really address dealing with the ghosts of what happened to you while growing up but that potential is sadly squandered in favor of some pretty lame gags.
So does Jennifer Connelly hate this movie now? She’s really very good in it, giving an intelligence as well as an interior life to her character that may not have made complete sense on the page and—yes, it has to be said—is maybe more gorgeous here than she ever was before or since (some might quibble with those eyebrows, though). Frank Whaley comes very close to being too annoying but still manages to maintain some likeability in his desperation and is able to pull off the transition to more serious moments later in the film. Dermot Mulroney is a good actor, but he’s playing this character in the wrong film. Among the various familiar character actors in the adult roles, I particularly like William Forsythe in his appearance as the store custodian. Photographed by Donald M. McAlpine in Scope, the film looks considerably different from pretty much every other production with the Hughes name attached (which, at times were about as visually ambitious as an episode of DRAGNET), with expansive Steadicam shots down the Target aisles and at times extreme use of the widescreen frame.
It’s not a guilty pleasure and I’m not trying to make any claims that it’s better than it is. But if something in CAREER OPPORTUNITIES caused me to connect with it way back when then I suppose that counts for something. Yes, it offers the dream of being locked up somewhere alone with Jennifer Connelly (maybe my favorite incarnation of Jennifer Connelly ever, no less) but it also made an attempt at addressing the confusion which can be felt when you’re at a certain age and don’t quite know what you should do to cause change in your own world. The movie sadly falls short of really doing something with this notion but what’s there has always meant something to me as I go through life dealing with my own Josie McClellans. It’s possible that John Hughes hated the end result and maybe what happened with it was even a part of his decision to get out of the game. Still, within this misguided effort is something that I genuinely responded to—in a weird way, maybe more than I did with a number of his better films. So I suppose this is why during this past week after hearing news of his death I wanted to revisit CAREER OPPORTUNITIES more than some of the more famous titles and think about how far I had come since I was living my own version of the film’s first half-hour. My attachment to it doesn’t really make much sense but reactions to certain films in life rarely make sense to begin with and since this will always be part of his cinematic legacy my fondness for it is going to remain.