Thursday, September 30, 2010
Never Too Old To Be Crazy
I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to like BLAME IT ON RIO. I mean, I’m supposed to express more refined taste, right? A fairly skeevy adult sex comedy released just on the cusp of when the carefree 70s really gave way to the 80s once and for all, it’s long since become a slight pop culture punchline but looking at it now I found myself pretty much enjoying it. At least, that’s what I was doing when I wasn’t worried that the vice squad was going to bust down my door based on what I was watching. Look, it’s been a pretty miserable week around here with massive heat, unfortunate deaths by beloved figures in the film world and overall life frustrations so I just needed a little something like this to get my mind off things. It has a terrific lead comic performance along with a relaxing vacation vibe and, let’s face it, the girl that the whole plot is centered around is pretty damn memorable. It’s also somewhat unusual in that it was directed by one of the most heralded musical directors back in MGM’s golden age. Wasn’t that a million years before this? Time is strange. The world is strange. It’s been really hot lately. Hey, I got some pleasure out of the movie, so that has to mean something.
Businessman Matthew Hollins (Michael Caine) lives and works in Sao Paulo, Brazil alongside best friend Victor Lyons (Joseph Bologna) and the two men are about to head off on a vacation to Rio with their families—Matthew joined by wife Karen (Valerie Harper) and daughter Nikki (Demi Moore) along with the recently separated Victor and his daughter Jennifer (Michelle Johnson). At the last minute Karen, citing Matthew’s recent disinterest in their marriage, decides to head off to Club Med for some alone time instead but the two men still go with the two girls. They’ve barely been there a full day when while cavorting at a Brazilian wedding Jennifer confesses her crush to Matthew, throws herself at him and the two wind up making love on the beach. They begin a full-fledged affair without Victor’s knowledge but when Matthew tries to break it off for the obvious reasons Jennifer tearfully confesses what’s been going on to her father. Of course, she deliberately doesn’t reveal the name of the older man she’s had the affair with so the unknowing Victor ropes his best friend into helping him find the guilty party as Matthew tries to deal with his guilt as well as his own growing feelings for Jennifer.
Sometimes I wonder if I’d be able to pick out an American remake of a French film, comedy or drama without knowing it was the case ahead of time. There’s just something about the nature of those storylines that I can’t put my finger on, an approach that just seems slightly off when played in the context of American culture. Though never referred to in the credits as such, BLAME IT ON RIO, directed by Stanley Donen, is a remake of the 1977 French film ONE WILD MOMENT but all of the plotting and behavior (screenplay credited to Charlie Peters and the great Larry Gelbart, though some research suggests the possibility that the version shot was a Gelbart rewrite) makes me think that this would all make considerably more sense if performed in French. For one thing, I suppose we Americans somewhat frown upon sexual behavior involving girls who still wear their retainer which is of course perfectly reasonable. And unless I missed something the key issue of the ages of the daughters in question is never mentioned so legality never comes into play, not to mention much in the way of actual morality—the imdb trivia page states, and who knows if this is true, that Johnson needed special parental permission to shoot this stuff because she wasn’t yet eighteen. Um, am I allowed to be watching this film?
With the story framed by both Caine and Johnson’s characters recounting their own memories of what happened right to the camera BLAME IT ON RIO contains lots of snappy dialogue, which considering Gelbart’s involvement is no real surprise and there are a number of genuine laughs through the farcical complications as well along with some pretty broad stuff like when Caine, trying to keep the secret and shrieking, “Victor, I can explain!” in mistaken anticipation of what’s about to be said at one point, then when it turns out to be nothing he has to stammer and come up what he was going to explain. It’s slick, it’s peppy, it’s got great scenery (appropriate for a vacation film, Rio is presented as essentially a tropical paradise), it’s made by professionals, but the tone isn’t entirely consistent with broad humor sliding uneasily alongside serious expressions of middle-age (not to mention teenage) angst by the leads. The plotting isn’t airtight either with some minor confusion in the drama near the end concerning how certain characters are angry at each other, then not, then angry again. It’s ultimately about the clashing of mature and immature, the fulfillment of desire and the awareness of what the consequences of those things are but with maybe more of an effort towards broad plot developments than actual motivation and in the end even with some surprise revelations everything kind of dwindles to a close. It’s not without a certain amount of depth, but it doesn’t necessarily gel into much more than the sex and laughs. With a presumed aim at being nothing more than breezy, maybe it’s not supposed to. Let’s put it this way—I occasionally chucked at a stretch of dialogue or something Michael Caine was doing and I often gazed in wonder at the beauty of Michelle Johnson. What else am I really supposed to say?
I’m trying to figure out director Stanley Donen in this context—he’s one of the most beloved helmers from the old MGM and his films from the sixties (CHARADE, BEDAZZLED, TWO FOR THE ROAD) feel as much a part of that decade in all the best possible ways. The seventies included titles like LUCKY LADY, MOVIE MOVIE and SATURN 3 then after BLAME IT ON RIO, released in February 1984 he never directed another feature. If anything, this film could be seen as a sort of thematic followup to the romantic frustrations borne out of years in a marriage in 1967’s TWO FOR THE ROAD. It’s not even that much of a stretch to imagine Albert Finney in this part but the dual feelings of romance and bitterness aren’t expressed quite as strongly here. I kept imagining this as the director’s own take on mid-life crisis (or Gelbart’s or any of the other middle-aged men involved), finding ones self surrounded by beautiful women yet unable to avoid the process of aging into somebody ‘too old to act crazy’. There’s something to all that, though maybe not very much.
And though I found myself liking BLAME IT ON RIO’s smooth vacation feel with its farcical mishaps the enjoyment was slightly hampered by the nagging feeling of how this all really is kind of wrong. The vibe is slightly sleazy even before the seduction happens—I mean, how else is a comically awkward scene with two middle-aged men walking around a beach with their topless daughters, even if it is a nude beach, supposed to play? Though it came five years later it’s easy to imagine how much the film was trying to ape Blake Edwards’ success with “10”, a film which felt more at home in the 70s it was made in than this film probably did as the world was turning towards the Reagan-crazed 80s. Even a sweatsuit that Caine wears at one point reminds me of how Dudley Moore was dressed while on the beach in that film, expressing the awkwardness at being involved with a beautiful goddess in such a paradise. But the “10” fears of mid life crisis felt somehow more tangible and though this film makes stabs at such points too often it feels trapped in a farcical vein so when more serious plot points come into it late in the game it doesn’t quite hold. Not to mention how the stunning Bo Derek was very much an adult in both age and how she behaved. Michelle Johnson is beyond cute and adorable in every possible way, at times a delight to watch both with (very flimsy) clothes and without, but since she’s still obviously a girl—gorgeous, yes—she’s maybe just young enough to make things slightly uncomfortable. Maybe because of that it makes sense how there doesn’t seem to be much motivation on her part beyond just being a cute girl who likes to jump up and down when she gets excited, adding to Caine’s exasperation. All of that said, it can’t be stressed enough how the actress fearlessly dives into playing her various nude scenes with all the glee imaginable almost more than just about any other young actress seen in the decades since has done and it really is totally admirable. Maybe these scenes don’t even make up that much screen time, but the moments certainly stand out. Demi Moore, in comparison, seems visibly uncomfortable in the one scene she has at the nude beach, looking like she’s strategically placing her long hair in front of her breasts as much as possible and it’s easy to get the impression that she really doesn’t want to be there shooting this stuff.
In his autobiography “What’s It All About?” Michael Caine offers that he thought the script was very funny, fondly recalls the making of the film itself with the exception of breaking his toe when shooting one nighttime beach scene and though he enjoyed spending time down there in Rio, writes of his ambivalence towards the enormous wealth he saw existing so close to the massive poverty in Brazil. He also recalls how he felt that director Donen went too far with how much he had Johnson go topless and in comparing it to how things played in the French version, “What had seemed so innocuous …had been made suddenly vulgar and gratuitous in our film.” He also refers to the eventual “vehemence of the critics” when the film was released but closes the chapter by noting with pleasure that the film ultimately made a lot of money worldwide, ultimately seeming pleased by the final result.
And really, I can’t help but think that Michael Caine (sometimes wearing giant glasses here, sometimes not) is entitled to express pleasure with how the film turned out, at least from his vantage point, playing this particularly delicate situation in a way that somehow keeps him endearing and sympathetic all the way through (and, since I made the “10” comparison, probably more sympathetic than Dudley Moore would have been) while playing each scene with expert comic timing. He’s approaches everything with such a particularly lightfooted nature that considering Donen was the director it got me to imagine how well the actor would have worked starring in a film made by him back in the MGM era or in the more fanciful 60s—maybe he didn’t have the singing pipes but he definitely had the comic ability along with knowing how to underplay the more serious stuff in just the right way. The charming Michelle Johnson, billed in one of the trailers as “The brightest new star of 1984!” may not have become quite such a big deal following the film’s release (later credits include FAR AND AWAY, WAXWORK and a scene opposite Meryl Streep in DEATH BECOMES HER that I’ve always liked) but her uninhibited screen nature is hard to miss and her possible lack of experience seems to add to how endearing she becomes as the film goes on. In addition to being beyond beautiful she doesn’t appear at all intimidated by the big star she’s playing opposite—it’s as if the actress wants to please Caine in how she plays off him in their scenes as much as her character wants to please Matthew. And in her enticing naiveté there’s maybe a touch of selfishness that seems totally believable, at least from my own experience.
Joseph Bologna plays the snappy patter better than the serious stuff and in some ways as an actor to him everything is snappy patter--he likes to make a big thing out of saying he’s going to make a salad. Valerie Harper as the dissatisfied wife is just a little too unpleasant (and I like Valerie Harper—when she’s in scenes with Bologna here it provides an odd link to the film of Neil Simon’s CHAPTER TWO) but her seriousness does help to drive home a few of the film’s themes in her big speech near the end while the young Demi Moore, who starred with Caine years later in the heist film FLAWLESS, doesn’t get to do much beyond brood about the affair she knows is happening behind closed doors. It kind of makes sense—from the point of view of her character there’s nothing funny about what’s going on—but at times it makes things too much of a drag and it feels a little like she’s not getting any real direction to play things otherwise. The title song is kind of annoying in a way that I still can’t get out of my head and the scenes are filled with lots of enjoyably gentle Bossa Nova-type tunes which, since I like my Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 as much as the next guy, I don’t really mind.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times had basically nothing good to say about it, saying “there’s not a single funny or surprising moment in the film,” adding that it’s “not simply humorless. It also spreads gloom.” This really seems like a case of a film just rubbing people the wrong way at the wrong point in time. Boy, the 80s were sometimes really annoying. Maybe I shouldn’t defend the film to any great extent but though the final result doesn’t feel as effortless as it should the best parts are enjoyable enough that I never minded anything about it much at all, particularly coming in the middle of a week like this. Maybe I liked spending 100 minutes down in Rio. Maybe I like Michael Caine and his sharp coming timing. Maybe I just enjoyed being entranced by Michelle Johnson. Maybe, as a result of all this, I don’t have very much bad to say about BLAME IT ON RIO. I’m only human.