Monday, November 15, 2010
Men Love Scrambled
It’s probably a little surprising now to think that Ron Howard, long considered one of the safest and most vanilla of all mainstream directors, once directed a wacky R-rated comedy about guys who run a prostitution ring out of a New York City morgue. The fondly remembered NIGHT SHIFT certainly isn’t the sort of movie that he would make these days but hey, it was the early 80s, a crazier time for all of us but it becomes a sort of double surprise to revisit that movie and discover that, as enjoyable as it still is, as far as R-rated comedies about pimps and hookers go it has to be one of the mildest ever made, pretty much ready to be shown on the CBS Saturday Night at the Movies with no problems after maybe some of the language is looped over. Released in July 1982 and coming just a few years before you wouldn’t be able to make a movie like this without certain real-life issues coming to mind, NIGHT SHIFT may not be quite as uproarious or as expertly plotted as I remembered but it remains an extremely funny and high-spirited comedy as well as being, so help me, a genuinely likable movie in the best ways. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, even if it was directed by Ron Howard. And don’t forget that it’s a wacky, R-rated comedy about hookers in a sleazy New York setting all done to a smooth, easy-listening score by Burt Bacharach involving several songs which, years after first hearing them, I still can’t get out of my head. What the hell kind of movie is this, anyway? It’s still a fun one to revisit.
Chuck Lumley (Henry Winkler) is a former stockbroker who got out of the rat race to work a calm job at the New York City morgue. Things are going along as quietly as he’d like, even with his fiancée Charlotte (Gina Hecht) being obsessed with losing weight before their wedding, when he is suddenly transferred to the night shift at his job, forced to work with a new hire, the outgoing and self-proclaimed idea man Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski (Michael Keaton). The mild-mannered Chuck doesn’t immediately take to Billy’s crazed attitude but after a few hurdles the two are soon getting along while at the same time Chuck is becoming friends with his next-door neighbor Belinda Keaton (Shelley Long), a call-girl who suggests they have breakfast together when she realizes they both get off work at the same time. Belinda and her co-workers, so to speak, are currently without representation and when Bill hears about this he comes up with the brainstorm for the two men to become their representatives, or “love brokers” as he insists on calling it in lieu of the term pimp. He hesitates at first but the pressure surrounding him in his home life inspires Chuck, badly needing to take some control of his life, to agree and sure enough business is booming immediately but everyone soon realizes that the situation isn’t as easy as they think.
The legendary Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel wrote the script, as filled to the brim with snappy one-liners as you’d expect from the pair but wisely they’re jokes that never seem to come at the expense of the lead characters or the story and no matter how broad things get the movie is always consistent in its approach. The characterizations are strong and even a little endearing as well, with little bits always being sprinkled into scenes that keep them active all through a continually energetic storyline that is just as eager to please as Keaton’s character always is, forever bouncing up and down every moment he can. There’s an apparently staunch insistence by the makers on ending each scene with some sort of laugh and the film’s tone is about as cheerful as possible with reams of quotable dialogue throughout that get me to laugh even while sitting alone watching a scene for the hundredth time (“Trim that!”). It’s still a weird array of tones at first, making me wonder if Ganz & Mandel ever actually saw a hooker in the flesh on an New York street in their entire lives but on the other hand director Howard counteracts this cheerful formula by shooting New York in the skuzziest way possible, set in a winter that looks like an utterly freezing, dirty place to be (there’s some neat location work, but also what looks like at least a little bit of shooting in downtown L.A.).
It’s a movie that feels like the A.D.s were always intent on placing the creepiest looking extras imaginable to be as close as possible to the actors so while the bouncy mood is always there at least there’s a certain amount of verisimilitude to it all. Structurally, some of what the writers are doing here feels like a dry run for the slightly-similar SPLASH (meek guy at sea in life is goaded on by a more energetic best friend/brother) which they were also primarily responsible for two years later but the basic beats of that sort of plot construction don’t feel quite perfected yet here. It’s one of those films where the first act is expertly paced, each scene flowing into the other with the character and plot development gradually building (and taking its time--Chuck doesn’t agree to the business until just past the 45 minute mark) but once things start up there’s not much that needs to happen for a long stretch and maybe things lag a little. Chuck, Bill and the girls all seem to get along so it’s got one of those second acts where a lot of the success is crammed into one long montage (just like TOOTSIE, also from the same year—it feels like a very early 80s thing) with wacky comic scenes seemingly inserted at random, like the frat party in the morgue, that don’t result in much of anything so for a time it feels a little listless even if I am still enjoying it for the most part.
And not only is pointing out that the movie is running in place for much of the middle more of an observation than a criticism it uses some of this section to stick in some character development as everything pauses to allow the friendship between the trio and the romance between Winkler and Long to take hold. One scene in a cemetery in particular is very sweet and wisely never overdoes the sentimental aspect. Of course, nothing is really at stake until the movie suddenly decides that there needs to be conflict of some kind so it can all build to something. The evil pimps, one played by Richard Belzer, feel a little too much like a plot device inserted into the script after a few drafts were already written—well, the film does need a plot after tall—and even if their pre-credit sequence does lead into the story it still feels slightly apart from everything else. Tonally, NIGHT SHIFT is one of any number of early 80s comedies that act as if the zaniness of the 70s is continuing on unabated, with nothing like AIDS or the height of the Reagan revolution to kill the buzz and like other examples from around this time such as DOCTOR DETROIT there’s no real attempt to address the morality of the situation, just showing us things like the various call girls dressing up as cheerleaders in that montage.
It’s interesting to compare the film to Robert Zemeckis’s USED CARS, another well-structured R-rated comedy from the era as well as one that embraces the sleaze and craziness of its subject full on. In contrast, NIGHT SHIFT kind of takes that stuff as a given because of what the plot is and doesn’t really go anywhere with it. This doesn’t make the film any better or worse than USED CARS, it’s just a more polite overall experience and, it has to be said, NIGHT SHIFT is a warmer film with more likable characters—even Chuck’s annoying fiancée is never allowed to be too much of a shrew (Gina Hecht, seen recently on the male prostitute comedy HUNG, manages to make a character who might have been played as just a bitch slightly sympathetic). As crazy as Michael Keaton’s Bill Blazejowski is, he’s really written as a guy looking for friendship and his habit of coming up with wild schemes to get rich is more innocent than anything—yes, he’s a wacko who doesn’t do everything on the up and up but he’s not out to blatantly scam anyone like Kurt Russell’s Rudy Russo, not knowingly anyway. Keaton is so enjoyable to watch in how he acts like a puppy dog towards Winkler most of the time that I don’t really buy it when the character suddenly acts the opposite late in the film just to keep some conflict going—I’m not sure I buy that he’d be that thoughtless. But that’s a minor issue, really, and NIGHT SHIFT ultimately isn’t about morgue attendants who become pimps at all but about two totally opposite guys who form some sort of bizarre friendship in the middle of a nasty world, making each one a better person as a result, and the woman they get to come along with them. It would be nice to think that life worked that way. Maybe when Burt Bacharach music can be heard in the background it actually does.
And I can’t forget to mention all that music, which once you’ve heard you can never fully forget—I think the bouncy, Chuck-walking-around version of the title theme by Quarterflash is always playing in my head whenever I walk around in my patented sad sack manner. That damn Al Jarreau song “Girls Know How” that plays during the mid-movie montage is embarrassingly infectious as well and there’s also the familiar “That’s What Friends Are For” which is used in the score to emphasize the bond between the main characters. The Dionne Warwick cover from a few years later is so well known now that for an instant at the end of this viewing I was surprised to realize that it’s actually Rod Stewart who sings it here as the credits roll over majestic shots of the skyline of early 80s New York, a glorious place where prostitution ran rampant in mainstream romantic comedies. But bottom line is that while NIGHT SHIFT isn’t a film without some minor issues (things that I could believe that those who made it were aware of and tried to improve on in SPLASH, which is intentionally also a much ‘nicer’ movie) even after all these years it’s still consistently enjoyable as well as being a genuinely sweet movie which may be the main reason why it’s so fondly remembered—the trio of lead characters are people we want to see end up together and when the credits roll there’s something rewarding about seeing them in a moment of small triumph.
And the film knows to balance out the characters—yes, Michael Keaton is meant to be the driving force of the movie but he never overwhelms things, working just great with his co-stars as they react to him and he’s totally hysterical in his feature debut, unstoppable as he does everything possible to sell Bill’s total craziness, even making the offhand moments funny (“Nice frame.”). He may be forever known as Batman to much of the world but when I watch the guy who still turns up on Letterman, when I imagine my own personal preferred version of Michael Keaton, deep down I still kind of think of him as Bill Blaze. Henry Winkler was of course being directed by his old friend Richie Cunningham here but there’s not a trace of Arthur Fonzarelli in his performance and actually his very sharp, always funny work here is more like what he’s done in recent years in places like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Always letting us know what he’s thinking even when not moving a muscle, he never becomes just a straight, dull lead and I don’t think it can be stated enough how pitch perfect his timing is in every single scene (“You’ll probably have to call the funeral home or the department of motor vehicles.”), how sharply executed his portrayal is of this sad sack who nevertheless gets us to like him almost instantly. All this probably hasn’t been said enough because it’s his flashier costar (the one who in this film is basically playing the Fonz) that always gets the attention for this movie but Winkler is just fantastic, so when he finally takes action it’s extremely rewarding as he does exactly what we’ve been waiting for. You know what? If you’re out somewhere and you happen to see Henry Winkler on the street, tell him how great he is in this movie. I’ll bet he hasn’t heard it enough times. Shelley Long, who made this film shortly before beginning her run on CHEERS, isn’t exactly the most believable hooker in film history, playing things as kind of a seen-it-all Jean Arthur type but her characterization is consistent and knowing enough that she manages to get the part to kind of make sense. Even though it came first I think I’m still kind of impressed that there’s not a trace of Diane Chambers in anything she does here. Bobby Di Cicco (“That Barney Rubble. What an actor.”), Joe Spinell and Clint Howard turn up at various points, Vincent Schiavelli is a nasty delivery guy, Charles Fleischer is a nutso in jail, a very young Shannen Doherty is a Bluebird and none other than Kevin Costner is totally visible in the center of frame during the party scene as “Frat Boy #1”. According to imdb Ron Howard can be spotted twice, once making out on camera with his wife Cheryl. The things you learn on the internet.
And as they walk off in the final shot (also slightly similar to the final shot of TOOTSIE, for that matter) it occurs to me that NIGHT SHIFT is one of those movies from long ago where I find myself pointlessly hoping that things worked out for the characters after the movie ended but in thinking about it I kind of feel sorry for them as well. Did they really have to live through the 80s after this? Did Belinda have anything healthwise to worry about in the coming years? Did Chuck get back into the financial game and maybe help fund one of Bill’s crazy schemes? We’ll never know. And there’s no reason to wish Ron Howard had made more movies like this and SPLASH way back when since after looking at the trailer for his upcoming comedy THE DILEMMA it probably proves that this sort of thing is a young man’s game anyway. Or maybe somebody with his directorial sensibility can only make so many movies of this type. In terms of pop culture impact the basic concept of NIGHT SHIFT was probably usurped by the eventual iconic stature of RISKY BUSINESS which came the following year but as the sort of high-spirited comedy that doesn’t get made anymore, as well as being one that has characters who are genuinely endearing, I’m glad it’s there. It’s a sweet movie with pimps and hookers, in the best possible way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and test this great idea I have to try feeding mayonnaise to live tuna fish.