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.

9 comments:

Joe Valdez said...

I've never bothered to watch Career Opportunities, so I appreciate the plot synopsis and commentary, Peter.

The second act actually sounds good, while the first and third seems like somebody was phoning it in. Only movies with major problems clock in under 90 minutes anymore.

Jennifer Connelly may be the only reason to see this movie. I liked your description of her character. Connelly's whole mystique seems to be the girl you grew up in the same town with, but would never have any excuse to talk to.

Question: Should artists like John Hughes and Michael Jackson -- whose careers died 15 years before they did -- be canonized on the blogsphere as if they still had decent work left in them? Sub-question: Is it better to burn out, or fade away?

J.D. said...

Hah, nice HIGH FIDELITY reference there, Joe.

I haven't seen this film probably since it first came out on home video but like many I was captivated by Jennifer Connelly's presence. Aside from being stunningly beautiful to look at, there was something about her that was really interesting. Maybe the way she carried herself. I dunno. But I still think that her finest work and when she was at her most attractive is in the very underrated WAKING THE DEAD. Incredible film.

Colonel Mortimer said...

I remember catching Career Opportunities in the theatre opening night back in 1991, while I was still of the right age to appreciate it, 14 at the time of release, I felt as if I was straining to convince myself to enjoy it more than I actually did, although I did love Ms. Connelly without any stipulations for all the reasons you mentioned.

Haven't revisited C.O. since the initial viewing, save for rewatching the trailer on YouTube after Hughes's passing, it does seem like the film was put together piecemeal from some of Hughes' favorite templates/stock plot points: smartass characters who talk a big game: check; long pined for romantic interest finally requited: check; people of different social status who never had any contact with one another interacting for the first time: check; bumbling robbers whose schemes our protagonist must thwart: check.

I've been reading your blog for awhile now and wanted to finally post a comment here telling you I enjoy the ship you run here, wish it was for something better than Career Opportunities.

-Kevin

Rupert Pupkin said...

I forgot about this film when i was putting together a list of favorite Hughes films. I enjoy it and have liked it for some time. Sure its a very flawed film, but I really do like Whaley's characterization. It is one that has stuck with me and when I see a character like Max Fischer in Rushmore, somehow I feel like the two have at least some sort of kinship. Not sure how much but still.

Mr. Peel said...

Joe--

Maybe check out the film sometime, see what you think. In modern times the only films the run this short without such problems are either for kids or an art-house deal like certain Woody Allen movies. Even if you didn't know anything about this film, you'd be able to tell that something happened in post. As for your question, I'd say it depends on the artist and what they have to offer, for better or worse. But did Hughes burn out and then fade away? I'm not sure.

J.D.--

I think it's because Connelly was able to give some kind of gravitas to a goofy movie like this that certain others wouldn't have been able to do. She always had something that went beyond just talent or even intelligence and it's definitely here. Hmm, I've never even seen WAKING THE DEAD, maybe I should.

Colonel Mortimer--

You're absolutely right on the checklist. Thank you very much for the nice words. I'll try focus on some better movies in the future--well, every now and then, at least. The problematic ones can be interesting to write about too.

Rupert Pupkin--

Good point about comparing him to Max Fischer, they definitely do have a few things in common. The two leads, and the two actors, really deserved a stronger film around them.

Colonel Mortimer said...

Just to clarify: I meant I wish I had chimed in earlier and for a better film. One of the joys of your blog is your equal opportunity assesment of films regardless of their reputation and the fairness and open mindned attitude you approach each viewing.

Again, keep up the good work.

Mr. Peel said...

Colonel--

Many, many thanks to you for that, it's very nice of you to say. I'll do my best to keep this going.

Scott P. Collins said...

Hello! I just discovered this particular post of yours and I needed to chime in.

I am also a major John Hughes fan and his death was the one celebrity passing that truly hurt me this year as we have lost just so many.

"Career Opportunites" is such an oddity as the opening and middle sections are strong and then...well, you know.

I will tell you that the now defunct Premiere magazine wrote a short article on the troubled nature of that film, which Hughes himself referred to as "vile."

The short version is this. Hughes apparantly fought with the director he hired quite a bit and never followed Hughes' recommendations. But, what really hurt was that due to Hughes' studio battles, the powers-that-be were not about to do him any favors. Hughes tried to fix the film in editing several times. He even requested to buy the entire film back from the studio and he even wanted to burn it! It was released out of spite and with the intent to tarnish his reputation, which it did unfortunately.

In an even later interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said that "it hurt" to even have his name on that film.

Hughes knew very well that the end result just didn't work. He knew and he didn't even want it released.

In some ways, one of his final films,a small indie called "Reach The Rock," seemed like a darker version of this material. It was much more serious, small cast, one night--a sort of situation to recall "The Breakfast Club" to a degree. You could think of that movie as, "What if John Bender and Claire Standish stayed together, she went off to college and he stayed in Shermer?"

It has its flaws but it felt like Hughes' heart was more in this one and almost a redemptive act for the Disney movies and "Home Alone" re-treads.

It will be extremely hard to find if you have not seen it. It is not on DVD and I happen to have a VHS copy.

I would be very interested to see what you thought of that film.

Oh yes, do check out the fansite, "The John hughes Files." it is quite comprehensive.

Fred said...

For me, Hughes will always be our generation's Gregory La Cava- a comedy director whose best work was specifically attuned to a period of time- the 80s for Hughes; the '30s for La Cava- and who, once that time had passed, never really has much else to say (although your review makes me want to give this film a look). It's rare that I think of the '80s without thinking of him.