Friday, April 16, 2010
Waiting To Be Discovered
Not that it matters but DATE NIGHT is a loud, stupid movie created by hacks that don’t seem to have much interest in putting any effort into the film they’re making. It seems perfectly designed to emulate what’s in the title—couples can go see this on their own date night following dinner, the thing runs under ninety minutes so they can get home by a reasonable hour and there are no messy plot complications to put too much of a mental strain on things, let alone any real dimension to it. And it’s an ugly-looking movie as well, using digital camerawork—hell, since it looks this bad let’s just call it video and get it over with—that at times makes New York look more garish than it has ever deserved to. The whole thing gets as far as it does based on the two leads (Tina Fey & Steve Carell, but you knew that) who have the talent to bring some genuine comic reality to all this idiocy as well as the always welcome sight of Ray Liotta screaming at people like a maniac. The fondly remembered ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is practically a model of intricate screenplay structure in comparison (to lift something a friend of mine said) but the people behind DATE NIGHT don’t seem interested in emulating any cleverness that film had let alone actually going for the genuinely dark comic tone of something truly memorable like, say, Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS. It’s safe to say that my favorite part of DATE NIGHT was the certain girl I was sitting next to but while she seemed to enjoy herself—hell, I laughed a few times too, I’m not made of stone—I could make a guess that she would have been happier seeing AFTER HOURS again as well.
Released in the fall of 1985 the project came at a low point in Scorsese’s career following the box office failure of THE KING OF COMEDY and the plug being pulled on his first attempt to make THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Retreating from those larger productions and looking to once again make a fast, low-budget film as he had years before the experience was ultimately a rejuvenating experience for the director and could be seen as instrumental towards him getting his cinematic mojo back that led to the career triumphs later achieved in GOODFELLAS and beyond. Several hours after sitting next to that girl for DATE NIGHT, I arrived home and slipped my DVD of AFTER HOURS into the player once again, reveling in the way Scorsese was able to suck me into his film with his masterfully crafted rhythm within minutes of hearing Mozart play under the opening credits. The girl wasn’t beside me at that point, but maybe AFTER HOURS is one of those films that you need to be watching by yourself anyway. It might induce too much paranoia otherwise.
Word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is living a dull life on the Upper East Side of New York, bored by his job, bored by his apartment, bored by all the options on cable TV. While having a quiet dinner in a small café one night he strikes up a conversation about the Henry Miller novel he’s reading with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), an attractive woman who mentions the Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweights an artist friend of her makes. Taking down the phone number in the pretense of buying one, he calls the number later that night and winds up with a date with Marcy. As he sets off for way down in SoHo to meet her things get off to a bad start almost immediately as Paul’s twenty dollar-bill, the only money he has, flies out the window of his cab. When he meets Marcy at the giant SoHo loft owned by Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino) things don’t quite go as planned almost from the start, leading to various encounters with other locals. His continual presence arouses suspicion by people angered over a recent rash of robberies and Paul finds himself thrust into a very strange evening which he may ultimately be unable to ever escape from.
Coming up on twenty-five years (!!!!!!) after it was first released, AFTER HOURS remains extremely fresh and vibrant—considering the location it’s set there’s actually not much in the way of fashions or anything else to distractingly date things. While the existence of ATMs and cell phones might make the plot moot today (they could always contrive a way around those things I guess but in 1985 that fortunately wasn’t a concern) the nightmare logic of it all remains fresh, relatable, unnerving. And I suppose that although SoHo really is a very different place in the twenty-first century (so I hear, but even back then my forays downtown rarely took me below Houston) you could make the argument that while there’s nowhere else the film could be set the film isn’t necessarily about New York circa 1985 as much as DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (which this shares a few cast members with) is or, for that matter, how INTO THE NIGHT seems to be specifically about L.A. in that year. Instead, AFTER HOURS takes a genuinely surreal approach to the odyssey of Paul Hackett, trapped in this late night world over a hundred blocks from his tiny apartment that he so desperately wants to get back to (there may as well be a giant moat surrounding SoHo to prevent him from ever leaving) and seemingly totally unaware of how he’s supposed to behave with anyone he encounters, never quite sure of the normalcy level of any of them. He’s obviously searching for something he can’t articulate but he’s not self-aware enough to realize just how much of a blank he is, not even able to maintain a conversation with Bronson Pinchot’s fellow office drone with his own dreams for more than thirty seconds. As played by Dunne, Paul seems reasonably intelligent and has enough curiosity to read Henry Miller but he clearly has no knowledge of how to behave in this environment, searching for some sort of connection even though he would barely know what to do with it if he found such a thing with any of these people beyond wondering, is that all there is? And the last time we see him, that’s all he’s really left with.
Scorsese takes the dialogue and characterizations within this world to bring a frighteningly askew look at every single location filled with people who you can’t imagine actually existing during daylight hours—what is Teri Garr’s job at that copy place really like? Scorsese can be spotted at one point in the Club Berlin literally shining a light on the hero and the way things throughout make an impression down to the smallest details it feels like he totally relates to Paul Hackett’s fear in this scenario, trapped in this world with odd, unexplainable elements throughout from the endlessly ringing phone in Marcy’s room or the subway attendant (played by Murray Moston, who years earlier got his fingers blown off in TAXI DRIVER) rationalizing his refusal to let Paul have a subway token after the fare goes up by explaining that somebody might find out, saying, “I could go to a party, get drunk, talk to someone. Who knows?” The fare goes from 90 cents to $1.50 in 1985 New York and Paul never heard anything about it ahead of time? Only in a nightmare.
Even the music sets us on edge with Howard Shore’s score seemingly tapping on our brains as we keep imagining how much later it’s getting and some doo-wop music heard in John Heard’s bar that feels like it’s wandered over from the days of MEAN STREETS in nearby Little Italy as if it’s trying to lure Scorsese himself back to this world, one that Paul Hackett doesn’t belong in, that he’ll never belong in. The final result is so brazenly original and maintains a balance that few other dark comedies have ever managed to achieve that it was a shock to me several years ago to learn that the script written by Joseph Minion may very well have had its origins in a monologue performed by Joe Frank several years earlier. For details go here and what you choose to make of all this is up to you but in all honesty this was a pretty disappointing thing to learn about one of my favorite movies. And yet, with every swoop taken by Michael Ballhaus’s constantly moving camera as each bizarre event races by AFTER HOURS seems to get more and more under my skin each time I see it. It feels made by someone with feels completely, totally free with how they want to create this piece of genuine cinema and deep down there are few Martin Scorsese films that I love, that I relate to, that I feel quite as protective of as I do this one. It still feels as fresh, as new, as it did the night I first saw it all those years ago at Yonkers Movieland. The laughs maybe catch in my throat than they did way back then but I still love every nervous frame of AFTER HOURS even as I continually wonder how close I am on certain nights to it coming true.
Griffin Dunne, in the best role he ever had, makes for a perfect anchor in all this unexplainable madness, making Paul Hackett totally and completely relatable but never seeming to worry for an instant about making him likable. He’s backed up by a supporting cast who makes every single character completely vivid and forever unreadable at the same time including Rosanna Arquette’s temporarily beguiling Marcy, Teri Garr’s beehive-sporting Julie who wants Paul to touch her hairdo, Verna Bloom’s strangely sympathetic June, Catherine O’Hara’s truly frightening Mr. Softee truck driver, Robert Plunket’s nervousness as a street pickup who misunderstands what Paul wants as well as the Shakespearian fool crooks played by Cheech & Chong (Cheech talks about watching the painter George Segal on THE TONIGHT SHOW playing the banjo). Linda Fiorentino as Kiki Bridges is so absolutely hot that I find it intimidating just to watch her scenes and Dick Miller, in his second of two Scorsese appearances, is the one truly likable person in the entire movie during his brief role in the diner which is no real surprise. Victor Argo works there too. Wouldn’t you go to a diner run by Dick Miller and Victor Argo?
Watching the film now, I realize that I live in an area of L.A. that might be a Soho equivalent—maybe more gentrified than it once was, but whatever—and as I somehow try to figure out what that girl I was sitting next to during DATE NIGHT really thinks of me each time I see her I feel like I’m another version of Paul Hackett who has managed to convince some people that I fit in around here. Actually, I probably haven’t—I’m sure they’ve long since caught on to me. But it’s now too late for me to make my escape via subway, taxi or otherwise and I just find myself here, faced with a computer that I seem to be carrying on a never-ending conversation with. Which I guess really does mean that AFTER HOURS can’t happen anymore. Or that is always is happening, which seems more likely. All these years after it was made, maybe both worlds really have combined to make one.