Thursday, January 14, 2010
There Are No Truths, Only Stories
Remember the days when films released in January were obviously being casually dumped by their studios, clearly snuck into theaters in the hope that no one would notice due to the heavy blizzard outside? It doesn’t seem to happen much anymore—even the crap that comes out during the slow weeks nowadays generally has a big campaign behind it. Though I didn’t see it until it hit cable, I can vaguely remember when the big-business satire HEAD OFFICE was snuck into theaters on January 3, 1986 without the benefit of any reviews for critics, maybe because I had a reaction of ‘where did THIS come from?’ Ads at the time spotlighted a few of the bigger comedy names in the cast, though since they only appear in what are essentially cameos, the marketing people weren’t really selling what they had. There’s something strange about the film, something off, almost as if it was some sort of Canadian tax-shelter thing attempting to seem as if it was some big Hollywood comedy. Surprisingly, even though it was shot in Canada (though set in Chicago, which never really matters) the film was produced by Peter Guber and Jon Peters which makes the whole about as Hollywood as it gets. The oddness that’s present is probably due to a clashing of tones which seems to have affected the final product in an unfortunate manner, resulting in a strange film tonally and one that doesn’t even seem aware of what its best elements are. The movie is totally forgotten now except for maybe people who vaguely remember seeing it on HBO which makes it a little surprising it was even released on DVD—shot in anamorphic (Gerald Hirschfeld was Director of Photography), the transfer crops the Scope aspect ratio once the opening credits end which makes you wonder why they even bothered. The inconsistent approach makes it feel like we’re seeing portions of several different films over the course of 91 minutes, though there is some genuine cleverness in there and some unique casting choices at least means that it’s of some interest.
Immediately after graduating from business school Jack Issel (Judge Reinhold), son of corrupt Senator Issel (George Coe), is recruited to join multi-conglomerate INC International, a massive company run by Chairman of the Board Peter “Pete” Helmes (Eddie Albert) in which corruption and back-stabbing is the order of the day. After witnessing several executive fatalities on only his first morning, Jack is assigned to work under ambitious exec Jane Caldwell (Jane Seymour) in the process of sleeping her way to the top and on his first day he becomes attracted to Rachael, (Lori-Nan Engler), a beautiful young activist intent on preventing INC from shutting down a plant in the small town of Allenville and moving the plant to a Latin American the company has an interest in. Jack soon finds himself caught between accidentally stumbling up the corporate ladder and trying not to lose his soul in order to win Rachael’s heart.
I’ve sometimes said that Joe Dante’s GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, a personal favorite, has such a good cast and sharp comic tone that I would gladly see a version of that movie with just its characters and no Gremlins. In some ways, HEAD OFFICE could almost be considered an attempt at making that movie (maybe it’s the similarly metallic design of the corridors), a skewering of the 80s business world and the back-stabbing that occurs on a daily basis. The thing is, with or without the title creatures Dante’s film is sharper, more dead-on in its satire and funnier throughout. I certainly helped that it had a director as good at comedy as Joe Dante. The ads for HEAD OFFICE at the time spotlighted Rick Moranis and Danny DeVito—this was the time when I think a federal law had passed requiring DeVito to be in every movie—but they’re both gone by the twenty-five minute mark so the focus is nice guy Reinhold (also in his period when he was in most of the movies that got released) as the Jimmy Stewart type who gets caught up in all the madness as he tries to keep his sanity. Written and directed by Ken Finkleman (AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL), HEAD OFFICE feels like it began life as a comedy for adults in a Sturges vein that got transformed (I’m going to assume by Guber & Peters) into going for a more crassly funny CADDYSHACK/Ramis/Reitman/SNL kind of thing combined with elements that come in from a Capra-wannabe kind of thing. All this leads to a plot involving a toothless satire of dealings with Latin America which feels overly complicated yet is never very interesting and even tosses in a chase climax involving gunplay as if no one could come up with anything better. Plenty of comedies have the laughs take a backseat when the third act comes around but in this case it feels like the serious stuff comes in a little too soon and having Reinhold’s character stumble his way up to the top is never handled in a way that actually makes it funny. By the hour mark, it’s as if the film has decided to stop with the jokes and just take care of the plot—a shame, considering the characters it’s leaving in the dust.
Finkleman displays some genuine talent throughout in his dialogue (he went on to do some well-regarded work on Canadian television) but it’s such an odd combination of tones that it’s not particularly clear who the audience for this is supposed to be—I guess that explains the January release date (this is as good a place as any to note how at one point Reinhold looks through his empty appointment calendar when trying to set up a date with Engler and jokes that he’s “free through 2010.”) The whole Allenville subplot has potential but the film focuses way too much on it at the expense of laughs, killing the momentum and leaving such promising subplots as Wallace Shawn’s midlevel exec with eight months to live in the dust, forgotten along the way. The third act is pretty much forgettable and the ending feels patched together by some last-minute voiceover narration in order to shove the credits onscreen as quick as possible. There are some very good things throughout that I genuinely enjoy, making me wish I actually liked it better, such as the symmetry of how certain characters are paired up in twos and threes allowing these combinations to play off each other in interesting, clever ways. One particularly droll restaurant scene is written, played and paced in all the right ways but as the film goes on the film feels like it’s more interested in the annoying 80s soundtrack (dated synth score by James Newton Howard) and nightclub scenes, while not making nearly enough of an effort in making any sort of satirical point. By the time it’s clear that the whole Allenville thing has become the plot of the movie, it feels like a missed opportunity has taken place.
Reinhold was always likable and he still is here but his character isn’t given much to play beyond the understandable hesitancy to getting sucked into this world, leaving him to be overshadowed by everyone around him. Fortunately, one of the most intriguing things about HEAD OFFICE is some of those people he plays off of. DeVito and particularly Moranis (presumably doing a Joel Silver impression) are hysterically funny during their brief minutes of screentime but there are also some genuinely unexpected casting choices which include SNL legend Michael O’Donoghue in the largest acting role he ever had as one of the main company men. He’s very good, bringing a smooth, steady nature to every second of his performance (appearing in a few scenes with George Coe, someone who was also in the very first SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ever) and he would have fit right in to a Sturges-like ensemble piece, particularly during his moments opposite Ron Frazier, also particularly funny as another company prick. Underused but making every moment count are Wallace Shawn and Bruce Wagner (author of the bitingly funny Hollywood novel FORCE MAJEURE), with normally upbeat Shawn mistakenly confiding in pessimist Wagner how he’s learned that he has eight months to live—Wagner’s moment when he lies to Shawn’s face about spreading the truth saying, “If I’m lying my wife and kids should be tortured and killed today,” is the single best line reading in the entire film.
Jane Seymour looks gorgeous and brings a definite spark to her scenes but there’s nothing really to her role other than being, as she puts it, the “A-1 bitch” sleeping her way to the top (and given a large, blatantly phallic sculpture in her character’s office) who later muses how she’s lost her soul, with no shadings to it either way. It feels like more a fault of the thinness of the material than Seymour who gives the role more dignity than was probably intended. Eddie Albert, playing a CEO so nasty that he personally goes over customer’s late phone bills to make the decision to disconnect, is always nice to have around but he’s portrayed as a little too much of a straight villain for a comedy. Even if he is seen eating Cocoa Krispies at one point there’s not enough of a cockeyed twist given to what he does to place it in more of a Sturges vein, which would have helped. With not enough to counteract that feeling, his scenes wind up dragging things down as the plot proceeds in the latter section. Likewise, Lori-Nan Engler (no credits after this film) in what is basically the role of “the girl” is cute but her character is so serious about the whole Allenville issue that in the context of a comedy she winds up coming off as kind of a wet blanket. Couldn’t Judge Reinhold show some interest in Jane Seymour instead? Richard Masur’s relaxed nature as Reinhold’s seen-it-all mentor is something to look forward to all the way through, Don Novello has funny bits as Sal the limo driver, Merritt Buttrick (STAR TREK II’s David Marcus) is a junior company weasel, William B. Davis (Cigarette Smoking Man on THE X-FILES) is a University Dean and Don King is in there somewhere too for some reason. I’m not sure why, but there are plenty of things about the 80s that can never be explained.
With genuine laughs scattered throughout, HEAD OFFICE feels like an almost-good movie, but one that is damaged by the feeling that it began life aimed at a certain audience then somewhere along the way was forcibly altered in an attempt to appeal to someone else altogether, not satisfying either group as a result. It makes the film just good enough to be frustrating, since its potential can constantly be seen but the tone is too inconsistent and the overall feel is too thin to take hold. The best moments—coming from Moranis, O’Donoghue and others—make it absolutely worth a look for someone who might be intrigued but it still feels like something was missed along the way. Some of what is portrayed is still relevant today and as of late I can certainly related to working in an insane environment with fear of getting the axe—yeah, that turned out really well—and all the talk of lies versus the truth seems to also resonate in today’s world. It’s just too bad that the weaker elements wind up taking over to such an extent. As far as movies that got buried on release in January and have rarely been seen again go, HEAD OFFICE doesn’t fully work but at least it has certain ambitions as well as an admirable amount of comic intelligence so it certainly gets credit for that.