Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Power Of A Demonstration
Released in November 1983, William Friedkin’s DEAL OF THE CENTURY doesn’t seem to have the support of even the most die-hard fans of the director out there. I think THE GUARDIAN actually has more admirers and I’d be happy to say something nice about THE HUNTED (sadly, I have never seen THE BRINK’S JOB, which seems to be unreleased on DVD in the U.S.). But as for this Chevy Chase vehicle, it’s possible that Friedkin-philes don’t remember that DEAL even exists…or at least that Friedkin directed it. It’s tough to figure out even why he did. At this point it was a long three years after CRUSING, so maybe he was hurting for offers, maybe he needed the cash, maybe he was just looking for something to do. For the most part, it doesn’t even really seem like one of his movies. Shot in a way that could have come from some other director, it looks like any number of brightly lit comedies of the time and while it goes for the feel of dark satire, none of that really holds. Those who were around then might remember that it was sold just as a crazy Chevy Chase comedy and coming just a few months after the release of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, the film actually could fall in the category of comedians who were trying new things around this period, darker satires to fall in with the unease of Reagan’s recession-era first term coming out of the end of the 70s—things like John Avildsen’s NEIGHBORS and Michael Ritchie’s THE SURVIVORS certainly come to mind. There’s Richard Brooks’s own unsuccessful arms race satire WRONG IS RIGHT as well.
Chevy Chase has plenty of bad movies to his credit but whatever the quality this seems like one of the few times he tried something genuinely different--more so than UNDER THE RAINBOW and MODERN PROBLEMS, anyway. Since it’s long since forgotten it doesn’t seem to have affected his subsequent career trajectory much at all. It’s a curious film, but not very good on any level. Maybe worst of all for Friedkin, it’s simply not out there enough—it’s just too average in its mediocrity. And if there’s no level of insanity to be found in a Friedkin film, however misplaced it might turn out to be, the result comes off like there was no reason for him to show up on the set. Of course, this brings up the issue of the pure oddness of William Friedkin directing any sort of comedy, dark or light. Does he actually have any sort of sense of humor? It really just feels like an unfortunate clashing of different individuals and when it was all put together there was nothing for the studio to do but release it since there wasn’t going to be any fixing the thing.
Not to try to spend to much time on the plot, since it isn’t very much of one, DEAL focuses on Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase) arms dealer who travels the globe and while working over Christmas down in some Central American hellhole an ambush results in him losing all his money and being shot in the foot but his luck turns around when an encounter with Harold DeVoto (Wallace Shawn) also down there working on a deal causes him to luck into an opportunity of selling a new pilotless weapon from Luckup Industries called the Peacemaker. The circumstances causes Luckup head Frank Stryker (Vince Edwards), desperate to unload the faulty device, to want to make use of Muntz’s talents and expertise but DeVoto’s beautiful wife Catherine (Sigourney Weaver) takes an interest in the deal as well and there’s still the issue of Muntz’s partner Ray Kasternak (Gregory Hines) undergoing his own breakdown/religious conversion to deal with.
As Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, DEAL OF THE CENTURY “fails as a satire, partly because it seems to think that all it has to do to win an audience is to announce its good intentions, and partly because it's terrible.” That about says it all. There’s no consistent tone and, frankly, there’s no consistent anything through the running time and frankly it’s tough to know exactly what the point of DEAL OF THE CENTURY is. The darkly funny idea of weapons being offered in such a manner is hammered in pretty early on with Chase spending scenes selling weaponry like used cars which really is the one joke the film seems to have. Even when it’s told in a more elaborate way during demonstrations of the Peacekeeper it feels like we’re hearing the same punchline again and again. The pacing at least feels like Friedkin’s style in the editing (Bud S. Smith, who also cut SORCERER and CRUSING, is credited), as if stripping away the story down to its essentials, whatever that story is, but it doesn’t seem like the correct way to structure a comedy. Narration by Chase begins at his first appearance around eight minutes in, after several scenes have already occurred and it just makes things feel lopsided—why aren’t things starting there if he’s the one telling this story? It’s tough to tell from watching it if the narration was always part of the picture—maybe not and I couldn’t help but notice when the end credits rolled that Bud Yorkin was listed as producer and certainly the previous year he had been a producer on BLADE RUNNER, which itself had famous problems with a voiceover.
Ultimately, there’s not very much good I can say about it—it’s not funny or subversive in any way that sustains interest, the characters aren’t likable (or even appealingly unlikable) and there’s no real story to latch onto. If the script by Paul Brickman (RISKY BUSINESS) had one, I can’t get a hold on it and all I feel left with is the unusual site of a lead character who spends most of the film with his leg in a cast. There is an idea there in how both Muntz and Kasternak discover in their own ways how to save their soul but the film doesn’t seem to be aware of it. Even the sections that work relatively well don’t have much of an effect--cutting from a ceremonial plane launch to the guys in the control booth taking the place apart as they try to fix a problem (caused by washing the plane the night before) has some twisted appeal and it’s not a bad sequence even if the effects aren’t that great—I like the appearance by the star of the hit sitcom “One’s a Crowd”—but it’s too isolated from the rest of the movie, so no momentum ever comes from it. Every now and then there’s a glimmer of imtelligence but it never has very much effect--any darkly comic film that chooses to roll the credits with the Chipmunks playing has to make it clear what it’s about. Maybe Friedkin just thought that it would signify something, even if no one would ever be sure what.
Since we’re a number of years past Chevy Chase being a bankable movie star it seems safe to say that his biggest hits were mostly in Chevy Chase-type roles with people he was comfortable working with. Here, he feels too much out of his comfort zone, maybe an indication that he was never going to be able to move into character roles in a Murray or Aykroyd kind of way. Throughout the film Chase seems miscast, vaguely uncomfortable and he doesn’t even look very good, with a pasty, pale face and bad haircut, all things that seems to have more to do with him than the character he’s playing. Sigourney Weaver, by contrast, does look pretty great (and, for the record, at times she looks amazing and Chase looks terrible in the same shot—Richard Kline was cinematographer—so it’s fitting that they have little chemistry) but she doesn’t seem to have received much direction with a character who never really registers—they go from her pulling a gun on Chase to them being a couple in short order but we never can tell why, beyond that they’re the two leads. The film doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of her character either based on one sequence in particular and it feels like some punches were pulled in editing to soften some of this. She does have one great moment out on the dance floor at the Arms For Peace trade show that allows her to finally cut loose and for a few seconds it almost feels as if everything is about to come alive. Gregory Hines seems to have a handle on his character somewhat better, making me believe his interest in planes and coming off as likeably cracked, battling with his own demons culminating in a scene involving a minor fender bender and a flamethrower. It’s a scene that partly because of how he plays it goes to a dark place the rest of the film seems unable to but sadly doesn’t resonate because nothing around it does. Vince Edwards is nicely oily, but Wallace Shawn is pretty damn near brilliant in his one scene, nailing the tone of the hoped-for dark satire better than anyone. Robert Cornthwaite from the original THE THING has a great moment as a General giving a speech explaining how the United States can survive a first strike from the Soviets “and retaliate, inflicting more damage on them than they inflict on us,” adding V.P. Bush has said that “far more than five percent of our population will survive.” It looks to me like that Tracey Walter is in there playing a computer technician as well even though he’s not listed in the credits. We even get a few shots of Reagan seen on TV sets (hey, just like SPIES LIKE US!) including one point which seems particularly pertinent that looks like it comes from at least several years earlier.
There seems to be considerable research involved with the weaponry which seems a little like the Friedkin approach. He probably did a lot of work on that but there has to be something more to the joke of the sickness of all this and we never get it. It just becomes a bunch of scenes of either people shouting at each other or, in the case of Chase & Weaver, simply leering at each other. Just about the funniest thing about the film is that three years after its release, when the Iran-Contra scandal was beginning to heat up, CBS scrapped a planned airing of the film due to “its relation to recent news events.” I kind of doubt anyone would have cared. DEAL OF THE CENTURY seems to acknowledge the seriousness of its subject but it has no idea how to navigate the perversity of all that for comedy. If there are any Friedkin fans who want to defend the thing, by all means go for it. But if anyone does, frankly, I’d be surprised.