Saturday, July 10, 2010
If You Can't Say Something Nice
THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is now twenty years old, but what the hell are we supposed to do with that piece of info? Am I supposed to actually try to explain who Andrew “Dice” Clay is to kids out there or have they already heard of him at some point? Shouldn’t we just forget the whole thing ever happened? The film opened during the summer, during the heat of all the controversy surrounding the shock comic, how people found him and his routines hugely offensive. Just a few months earlier an uproar occurred when he hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, an event that included cast member Nora Dunn refusing to go on with him and the night before FAIRLANE opened was probably Dice’s most notorious TV appearance ever, a spot on THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW (oh no, am I supposed to explain who Arsenio Hall was to kids now too?) where he looked right into the camera, explained himself and started to cry. The film opened the next day, July 11, 1990 and I was there at Yonkers Movieland with Twizzlers in hand to see the first show. Sure, I’d gotten sick of all those damn nursery rhymes by that point but it was summer. It did decent its first weekend (it finished behind GHOST, also released then, but ahead of QUICK CHANGE) but it soon after crashed and burned, dropping over fifty percent in its second week which was a much bigger deal then than it is now and stopping dead at $21 million. Fox didn’t release the concert film DICE RULES that August like they were going to at one point and Andrew “Dice” Clay, as movie star, was pretty much done. THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is crass, sloppy, stupid, juvenile and maybe a little offensive. It’s nothing that I can defend or even should try to defend. And yet, truthfully, against my better judgment, I’ve never really minded it. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that, but there it is.
Ford Fairlane (Andrew “Dice” Clay) is the hottest rock n’ roll detective in Hollywood living a dream life complete with a car that bears his name, swank pad out in Malibu and loyal secretary Jazz (Lauren Holly) but constantly in need of cash due to his famous clients paying him off in expensive trinkets. When old friend Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), the sleaziest DJ in the west, hires him to find rock groupie Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman) no sooner is Ford on the job than Johnny is brutally murdered on the air. When uber-wealthy Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) turns up the next day also looking to hire Ford to find the same girl he finds himself mired in a case involving the recently O.D.’s rock star Bobby Black (Vince Neil), record mogul Julian Grendel (Wayne Newton), annoyed cop Lt. Amos (Ed O’Neil), a hitman named Smiley (Robert Englund) with a habit of turning up unexpectedly and the mysterious Art Mooney who Ford believes holds the answers to all of his questions.
Renny Harlin was directing FORD FAIRLANE when Fox and producer Joel Silver decided that he was the man to helm the eagerly awaited DIE HARD 2. The films wound up opening a week apart with the film that had been shot second coming first, to much bigger box office. Gene Siskel, who went bonkers for DIE HARD 2 calling it “the best film of the summer” (not when GREMLINS 2 had come out, it wasn’t), expressed disappointment in his review that it came from the same director but, seriously, this hardly seems like an auteurist issue. It was probably impossible to ignore the furor surrounding the film’s star but I can’t help but think that critics were reviewing him more than the actual movie which really does have a fair amount of invention going on throughout. A totally fanciful look at Los Angeles circa 1990, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (Screenplay by Daniel Waters and James Cappe & David Arnott, Story by Cappe & Arnott, based on the character who appeared in stories by Rex Weiner) has about as much to do with real life as BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS did in its day and I’ll bet that film’s screenwriter Roger Ebert probably noticed, calling this one “loud, ugly and mean-spirited” in his negative review, none of which I have any real argument for. It’s a Dice vehicle through and through but even if you hate him there’s plenty of other stuff to pay attention to going on in the constantly busy frame. It’s a completely immature film, with the sequence at the I Ata Pie sorority house filled to the brim with hot college girls either the high or low point depending on your point of view and it’s safe to say that if an inanimate object like a camera can actually leer, it definitely does so during these scenes.
The tone is pretty much all over the place--spoofy but surprisingly violent, violent but pretty damn goofy, a story that never makes any sense at all. There are a surprising number of nasty deaths, the cute-as-a-button Lauren Holly gets thrown through a second story window as well as brutally punched in the stomach at various points and then again there’s the blatantly fake Koala Bear that figures into things. It’s also got its share of clever dialogue that is pretty obviously the style of HEATHERS screenwriter Waters, who I could believe was more interested in doing a Los Angeles music satire/private eye spoof (if Waters is responsible for the name Zuzu Petals, as I suspect he is, the man deserves as much praise as he can get) more than a vehicle for the guy starring in the movie, with the written material sometimes clashing uneasily with stuff (sometimes in the constant voiceover narration) that are either adlibs by Dice or just bits pulled from his routine—a gay joke, a reference to getting banned from MTV. And with lines like “I’m sorry that I made you clean the toilets and the bathtubs, who did all the work in bed?” that he asks his hapless assistant Jazz, I could believe that some of these adlibs actually make the character more unlikable than he already was, pushing him over the line from scoundrel into outright sleazoid. In an attempt by the film to not get us to totally hate him, Ford befriends a kid (Brandon Hall) who wants to hire him to find his father, with only a Fred Flintstone ring as a clue, but it doesn’t really work. And I’m not sure the film even cares, which is actually a little admirable. When the camera lingers on him during a few points as if he was just told to adlib like crazy, it’s some of my least favorite stuff in the film and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I like this film almost in spite of the guy who’s starring in it. And there are bits where he doesn’t much matter that I always look forward to like Jazz telling some bad guys, “If either one of you ever has a son, I hope his dog dies,” the chant the sorority girls make when inducting Ford as well as the ultra-sleek look it provides of Los Angeles which to me once seemed like it may as well have been another planet. Once during an appearance Daniel Waters made a sarcastic reference to ‘the comedy stylings of Renny Harlin’ and, yes, there probably isn’t a great case to be made for him as a director who understood what made something funny. For that matter, he probably took some of the action more seriously than he need to and I almost wonder if he even realized how ridiculous the action scene where characters climb down the side of Capitol Records really was, or maybe should have been.
All of that said, there’s a definite energy to the film the whole way through and, almost surprisingly considering how DIE HARD 2 is one of the most overcut movies of all time with numerous scenes using seemingly dozens of angles FORD FAIRLANE is much, much more fluid in this regard and the style gives a certain life to the world around the lead character. It feels like Harlin is constantly tossing stuff into shots to keep the film engaging to look at, always willing to feature a supporting character doing some kind of business on the side of the frame. For me this approach is definitely preferable to the recent rock world comedy GET HIM TO THE GREEK which at times feels like it consists of nothing but scene after scene of alternating close-ups of two people talking, making it about as dead a film experience as I could imagine. FORD FAIRLANE at least has some life to it, even if I do need to shower afterwards and what’s wrong with taking a shower, anway? There are probably more than a few topical jokes (“The Rob Lowe Channel”) that are pretty dated now but it does contain an early device of computer-disc-as-McGuffin as well as what has to be one of the first uses of a cell phone in an action movie to make things seem as high tech as possible. There are also some pretty random film references both in dialogue (CHINATOWN is the most obvious) as well as a few of the band names handled by “Fred’s Condom Company” as glimpsed on a computer monitor at one point. There are a few cameos by rock stars I didn’t care about then or now and some of the music’s actually pretty good, even if it does give me flashbacks to 1990 that I’d just as soon not have. There’s no great case to be made here for the film as a satire which hasn’t gotten its due but at least it’s not a boring film even if it is constantly all over the place—hell, if it never quite settles down into a disciplined style that makes sense at least it still feels somewhat unique . Besides, it’s hard for me to hate a film that features a party at an obscenely wealthy Bel Air estate complete with a serving of shark meat. FORD FAIRLANE may be lewd and immature and sleazy but it’s unapologetic about all those things and, while hardly perfect on its own level, is still true to its principals.
I’ll give Clay some credit—as least his portrayal as a sleaze is consistent but as an actor he’s got genuine presence and as a comic personality he’s not afraid to look (or act) totally foolish on occasion. Lauren Holly couldn’t be cuter playing the Velda figure to his Mike Hammer and she brings a genuine spark to her scenes. Maybe the actress wouldn’t want to hear this, but it’s probably the role of hers that I have the most fondness for. Priscilla Presley probably deserves some kind of good sport award for her few scenes here, Robert Englund looks like he’s having a total blast as the nasty henchman complete with British accent, Ed O’Neill is fun as Ford’s cop adversary still upset about something that happened in the past, Wayne Newton seems totally in on the joke and brings a comic edge to his character that goes beyond just playing this as camp (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby.”), but Maddie Corman, Eric Stoltz’s sister in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, damn near skips off with the whole film as the insanely stupid groupie Zuzu Petals. Diving into this role with such a lack of fear, she turns the standard ditz character into a zen kind of thing that is frankly awe-inspiring by a certain point. Kari Wührer is Melodi (“As in, a pretty girl who’s like a.”) who wears a short dress that inspires one of the film’s most oft-quoted lines spoken by Morris Day, David Patrick Kelly is a stalker Ford has to deal with named ‘Sam the Sleazebag’, Willie Garson of SEX AND THE CITY turns up as a frat guy and there’s also a New Beverly calendar spotted in one scene, so I’ll just add that I hope they run this at midnight one of these days.
Plenty of rock-oriented musical comedies that wind up feeling somehow wrongheaded in how they were conceived have acquired cults through the years. There’s probably no such following around FORD FAIRLANE and I suspect that if anyone out there does like it (after all, there’s always somebody out there who likes something) they’re probably too embarrassed to fess up. I won’t say that I like it or even think that it’s actually any good…but even though I know I shouldn’t there are a number of elements that I honestly find enjoyable. And besides, if for this film I’ll bet very few people would still know the name Art Mooney. Since it’s now twenty years old the music world that’s being spoofed has now probably become much more insane than is portrayed here—it sounds crazy to say it but it really does portray a simpler time so watching it for a little while does kind of take me back. And at its best it’s actually, so help me, kind of entertaining. But don’t tell anyone I said that. And remember to always answer your phone by saying ‘Hit Pay Dirt With KDRT.’