Friday, July 30, 2010
Just A Bunch Of Moments
I sometimes remember it as just about the worst Friday for new releases that I’ve ever encountered. July 26, 1991. Not the best summer ever and not the worst either but that weekend was particularly bad. All huge flops and three of them about as bad as any group of major studio releases that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. The first I saw on opening night--MOBSTERS. Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey and various others doing YOUNG GUNS during the gangster era. You could tell that even the Friday night Yonkers Movieland crowd didn’t think much of it. But on Saturday evening I went early to the nearby Yonkers Central Plaza where I spent the night theater hopping and seeing each of the other three—ANOTHER YOU (Gene Wilder and a visibly unwell Richard Pryor in their final teaming), V.I. WARSHAWSKI (Kathleen Turner in a godawful adaptation of the Sara Paretsky mystery series) and, closing out the evening at midnight, the Mel Brooks comedy LIFE STINKS. A film with a miserable reputation, it has a storyline that is fairly problematic and yet I have to say that even now I have a fond memory of sitting in that giant, nearly empty theater late at night laughing almost in spite of myself. But this is a Mel Brooks film that we’re talking about, after all. Wasn’t laughing almost in spite of myself what I was supposed to do?
Powerful billionaire Goddard Bolt (Mel Brooks), CEO of Bolt Enterprises, has a plan to tear down much of the slums of downtown Los Angeles with a plan to build the massive Bolt Center but his plan runs into trouble when he realizes that the other half has been bought by his main rival Vance Crasswell (Jeffrey Tambor). So to settle their differences the two make a bet: Crasswell will give up his half if Bolt is able to survive living on those very streets of skid row that he wants to tear down with no money and no help for 30 days. Taking the bet, Bolt suffers the indignities of living on the streets and even befriends Molly (Lesley Ann Warren) a homeless woman who helps him out. But as the 30 days draw to a close, Bolt is in for a big surprise.
It’s no SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, that’s for sure, but that much is probably obvious and I suppose there are far worse things you could say about any movie. One of Brooks’s few directorial efforts which is not an outright parody of some other film genre let alone attempting any sort of fourth-wall breaking, the relatively straightforward LIFE STINKS (screenplay by Brooks & Rudy De Luca & Steve Haberman, story by Brooks & De Luca & Haberman & Ron Clark) is an attempt to be a broad comedy about the plight of the homeless which is a problematic concept to be sure, but also one that never tries to make too much fun of those people. As a result, for a fair amount of the film there’s the feeling that it isn’t quite sure who to make fun of, an odd approach for a Mel Brooks movie to take. The film’s portrayal of the streets and the people forced to live on them, even if it was shot on location, feels like something out of the forties and never really becomes more complex than thinking of them in a ‘hobo’ kind of way. No slapstick comedy with this kind of setting can ever completely overcome such a depressing kind of feel and LIFE STINKS doesn’t totally pull that off. It makes the first half of the film feel pretty grim on occasion as Bolt desperately tries to survive—the point of it all, no doubt, but kind of a bummer for a comedy and by a certain point it feels like just a little too much, even including the death of a supporting character. At the very least Brooks knows to get out of the section by ending it on a very dark joke which isn’t exactly a great joke (one that’s apparently inspired by something that happened to co-star Howard Morris) but at least it’s something and after this point things do begin to pick up, actually becoming funny on a consistent basis. Every now and then LIFE STINKS is able to actually deliver on a number of laughs, from the early scenes of obscenely wealthy Goddard Bolt figuring out how to kick people out of a nursing home without the media finding out (“Do it late at night.”) or much later on when Bolt encounters a crazy person who goes by the name J. Paul Getty ( co-screenwriter Rudy De Luca) and their bickering over which one is richer turns into a full-fledged Three Stooges routine with nonstop slapping which, so help me, gets me laughing out loud no matter how many times I see it. I’m just easy, I guess. Even from the very beginning of Bolt and his lawyer/flunkies entering his headquarters as shown in an opening credits montage from floor level so we see nothing but their shoes proceeding forward (smartly, there’s a callback to this later on), Brooks displays a formality with his framing as if he’s continually trying to figure out in scenes how to pull off a joke in a single shot. The overall effect this approach gives off is genuinely cinematic combining a sleek, old Hollywood deep focus look to the office scenes that effectively contrasts with the gritty nastiness of skid row. There is that specificity but there are also a number of jokes that seem to fizzle away, fading out to the next scene not to mention a genuinely maudlin quality (hell, let's just call it schmaltz) that Brooks never really explored before or since. Actually, much of the approach isn’t entirely unlike a film that I imagine Jerry Lewis would have made circa 1991, which I suppose I mean in both every good and bad possible way.
By a certain point at least Brooks seems willing to throw down the gauntlet of the grim plotting and actually throws the two leads into a full-fledged Astaire-and-Rogers dance routine between him and Warren seemingly out of nowhere. It’s one of the few times that Warren has been able to make use of her dancing background during her film career and the free-spirited nature of it which tosses all pretense towards realism out the window manages to come off as somehow experimental in the way it seems to willingly go against everything the film has been doing up to that point—it feels genuinely European in a way I can’t quite pinpoint and it’s also, I suppose, as close to one of Brooks’s requisite musical numbers that the film can provide. Suddenly past the halfway point the film has begun to become alive and in the final half-hour it begins to have a touch of fearlessness in its dark humor with the aforementioned J. Paul Getty scene and a considerably grimmer section in a hospital as the destitute Bolt is continually over-medicated by a doctor who doesn’t notice he’s examining the same person over and over. It’s as if once Brooks and the film has figured out what exactly to be making fun of there’s something kind of pure about it all. Once the film achieves the freedom of the latter sections, culminating in a Godzilla like battle between two giant wrecking machines being controlled by Brooks and Tambor the silliness of it definitely gets to me. Maybe there’s a purity in Brooks’s stylistic approach throughout even if it does make it kind of like an old man’s film, for lack of a better term (and, I admit, I also like DRACULA DEAD AND LOVING IT), but that purity at least makes it something. In the end, the latter section of the film tries to disprove itself of the sentiment behind its title by stating that Bolt’s money doesn’t really matter and all that matters is how life is ultimately good, expressing this in the most sentimental way possible. I don’t know how much that idea really holds, but I suppose there are worse things than a film which tries to say such a thing. There’s very little to get out of LIFE STINKS about helping the homeless beyond simple platitudes but watching it now I can remember a few of the genuine laughs that I got out of it during that empty late-night screening and those laughs stand out to me now as well. It’s not great but there is a certain freedom to its elegance so maybe it’s just the sort of film that you’re supposed to see in a mostly empty theater late at night and forever have a sneaking admiration for.
Maybe Mel Brooks was never the best leading man in his films when compared with somebody like Gene Wilder but he is absolutely eager in his performance, willing to dive in and embrace the madness when it’s needed particularly during his frantic dance emulating a little kid to try to get a few pennies (yeah, that gets me to laugh out loud as well) or his non-stop fight with Rudy De Luca (who, it really should be said, winds up stealing the whole movie). As a woman who’s been going through an admitted nervous breakdown for the best eight years, Lesley Ann Warren can sometimes come off too broad in her inherent goofiness but it fits her character here and when she does a small mock-performance to illustrate just what happened to her character to end up on the street it’s genuinely disarming and affecting—for the first time the movie seems to be about something other than just Mel Brooks exploring a comically questionable subject and the actress manages to elevate it all with her off-kilter nature. Jeffrey Tambor displays a lot of enjoyably passive-aggressive behavior as the bad guy with his best moment being when he states concern for Bolt’s safety then immediately begins carelessly humming a song aloud as soon as he’s alone. Comedy legend Howard Morris makes one final appearance for Brooks here as Sailor, Theodore Wilson (who died just days before the film’s release in ’91) is Fumes and the always very funny Stuart Pankin is Bolt’s main attorney getting a particularly well-timed extended moment with De Luca near the end. Billy Barty’s in there too.
I don’t want to make any grand case for the movie and I don’t even feel like drawing some parallel between the title and some of the stuff that’s happened to me lately. But as Lesley Ann Warren tearfully tries to say near the end, “That’s all life is. Just a bunch of moments,” I can’t help but think about how this film once capped off a night of seeing terrible movies, during a time long ago when I probably didn’t know how good I really had it, a time when I felt free enough to take a night and not worry about anything but seeing those terrible movies—not that I think this film counts as terrible at all. But my point is that whatever anyone reading this might be thinking about how I’ve spent my time in life, I wouldn’t give up the memory of that night for anything. And with the mood I’m in these days, I kind of wish that I could relive it all right now. And I would do it. As long as I could get the pure enjoyment of all that laughter from the midnight show of LIFE STINKS, a movie that probably few other people have any real fondness for, in that huge, empty theater once again. As Mel Brooks himself says in this movie, there's so many things that you can't do when you're dead.