Thursday, June 30, 2016

Value Is A Relative Thing

30 years since summer 1986. Not exactly the most important year ever but that amount of time still allows for contemplation. It’s also a summer where a surprising number of films, even some of the hits, have fallen away from pop culture prominence. Yes, there was ALIENS and David Cronenberg’s remake of THE FLY so that’s at least two good ones. Of course, we also had POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and Tobe Hooper’s remake of INVADERS FROM MARS, two rare 80s genre films which don’t seem to have any sizable cult these days. No one seems to remember RAW DEAL, the one Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle of the year. THE KARATE KID PART II actually made more money than the original did two years earlier yet it feels totally forgotten now, at least by me. It’s actually a few of the flops that have stuck around in popularity longer than expected, particularly Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH and John Carpenter’s all-holy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA which wasn’t just a flop but a flat-out disaster, opening in 12th place at the box office on opening weekend. Some of the big hits of that summer now seem emblematic of the 80s rot that was really setting in by this time, away from what we think of as the comparatively simpler enjoyments of RAIDERS, E.T. and GREMLINS from earlier in the decade. TOP GUN. COBRA. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Even the enjoyable RUTHLESS PEOPLE is deliberately about that ugliness.
And then there was LEGAL EAGLES, a film which has always felt like it was designed in a Hollywood lab for the sole purpose of being a big blockbusting star vehicle hit. A package put together by CAA with the right names attached in front of and behind the camera but not anyone who had any particular passion for making this film. Ivan Reitman was the director, still hot off GHOSTBUSTERS and no doubt looking to extend his reign as the new big comedy guy. For star Robert Redford this was immediately after he made OUT OF AFRICA, also made at Universal, and was possibly the lightest material he had appeared in since maybe the 60s. Debra Winger was in the middle of her hot streak as the big female lead around while Daryl Hannah had just broken through two years earlier with SPLASH. Screenwriters Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. (Reitman himself shares story credit with them) also had their names on TOP GUN that summer and were no doubt the hot writers of the moment. LEGAL EAGLES is slick, it always has been, but it’s really not more than that, kinda sorta an attempt to makes an old-fashioned Tracy-Hepburn comedy-mystery only in the 80s vein going for lots of laughs and action with a plot that never really kicks into gear. It’s not terrible but it’s not really all that good either. Since it wasn’t the smash hit it was meant to be is it serving any purpose for anyone at all anymore? The film’s MacGuffin is a painting, in case anyone out there has forgotten this crucial detail, one that we are deliberately never shown presumably because it’s so brilliant that it must be kept in our imagination. At least, I’m assuming that’s why but never showing it winds up serving as a metaphor for the entire project.
Tom Logan (Robert Redford) is a hotshot New York prosecuting attorney who may soon get a chance to be named the new District Attorney when defense lawyer Laura Kelly (Debra Winger) ropes him into a case involving performance artist Chelsea Deardon (Darryl Hannah) who is accused of stealing a painting by her late father which she now claims now belongs to her. Upon investigating wealthy art dealer Victor Taft (Terence Stamp,) Laura believes that many paintings by Chelsea’s father, believed destroyed in a fire 18 years ago, still exist and are possibly being hidden by Taft. After Chelsea, claiming she’s convinced that someone is following her, shows up at Tom’s apartment late one night he of course sleeps with her. But when the police burst in the next morning to arrest her for murder, catching the two of them in bed together, he is immediately fired from the D.A.’s office and reluctantly joins forces with Laura to defend Chelsea as she goes to trial.
Looking at it now, LEGAL EAGLES feels a little too genetically engineered to ever have a personality of its own. It’s the sort of 80s film that tosses the name ‘Ovitz’ into a random line of dialogue, presumably trying to make a certain agent happy, mildly pleasant but never particularly likable, moderately diverting but never all that involving. It’s clearly interested in star power more than anything else—close to the half-hour mark instead of kicking the plot into gear things seem to stop for a protracted sequence intercutting the two leads who can’t sleep late at night as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN plays on TV, presumably spelling out how right they are for each other. But it says something that one of the movies big attempts at a charming setpiece to set up the chemistry of the two leads occurs without them even in the same place and it’s still more interested in pulling off the romance than the plot which never becomes that big a deal. One imagines a thriller centering around missing paintings to be a lighthearted caper that could star Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in an earlier decade (odd piece of trivia—Grant himself is thanked in the end crawl for the use of a piece he owned so this is maybe the final film to feature the name ‘Cary Grant’ somewhere in the credits) except it’s made by people who seem to want to focus on the seriousness of the plot over the comedy only there’s never much of a plot to focus on.
For one thing, writing out the summary makes it seem extremely farfetched that Redford’s character joins up to defend Daryl Hannah on a murder charge after being found in bed with her when she’s arrested (would he need to be called to the stand?), so it doesn’t exactly stand up to close scrutiny. It’s all supposed to be charming and breezy which I guess means nitpicking that plot stuff doesn’t matter but it’s almost trying too hard—one of Redford’s big character traits is tap dancing late at night when he can’t sleep and I wonder how his downstairs neighbor feels about that. As much as the film wants to give us a Robert Redford having fun onscreen for the first time in years, playing a guy who burns the toast making breakfast and locks his keys in his car, too often the material seems like it’s beneath him and some of the other actors, a thriller storyline for adults that’s been dumbed down for kids to go see during the summer. When the murder mystery angle comes into play and the trial begins (the trial just begins, poof, with no indication of how much time has gone by) the movie never quite becomes about that either. It’s a little like at the halfway mark the film has suddenly decided to become a courtroom movie but there isn’t enough time left so it just moves on to the climax.
It’s at least professionally done and well shot by Laszlo Kovacs with that nice, crisp 80s Panavision look as well as extensive New York location work which actually makes it feel more set in the New York of GHOSTBUSTERS than GHOSTBUSTERS II does. A matte painting of Sutton Place late in the film in particular feels right out of the earlier film and throughout there are certainly enough evocative views of the city that they found the right places to shoot it. Locations like the late night shot of the Soho street outside of Chelsea’s apartment late at night or the view of the World Trade Center across the river from the Brooklyn art warehouse at least give the movie the an oddly cinematic feel for those brief moments but don’t do much for it as a comedy so those touches never have any lasting effect. Also extremely odd—even odder, looking at it all these years later—is Daryl Hannah’s performance artist presenting her new piece for Redford in a sequence which doesn’t have much to do with anything aside from extending the recurring theme of fire through the film. Then again, I’m not sure if this qualifies as extending a theme or just ‘the film has several scenes revolving around fire’. It’s not really a satirical look at what a mid-80s performance art piece might have been, it’s at least an unusual few minutes of film but still doesn’t have much to do with anything. Another film might have come up with a way to turn it into a clue for Redford’s character to figure out later on but here it plays as if Hannah had ideas for her thinly written character to make her something more than just a sex object and Reitman let her get carried away with it, even if the whole thing might have been more at home in AFTER HOURS. Maybe it’s meant to be a byproduct of PTSD from the character witnessing her father’s death as a child that is, if there was that much thought put into the idea.
It makes sense that Reitman would have wanted to prove himself away from the star power of Bill Murray (an early version of this was to possibly team Murray and Dustin Hoffman) but with all these disparate elements the film needed a solid idea behind it, a script as good as the one Reitman would had for DAVE a few years later, for that to happen. Looking back at Reitman’s career, some of the solid ideas are when his films have come out the best—looking back at his TWINS from 1988 it may never have been much more than what was advertised on the poster but it was definitely a solid commercial concept. LEGAL EAGLES plays like it’s as if when he tried to jigger an idea to his commercial sensibilities to fashion a movie meant to be such a hit it turned into a star vehicle which feels a little like actors assembled together waiting for the movie to happen so it’s all just a little too bland, the blanks haven’t been filled in to the bare bones of the basic idea.
At times there are hints that the film wants to be funnier than it knows it is and inserting a line that describes Winger’s character as having “once put a dog on the witness stand” implies more broad comedy than ever actually happens. In his autobiography “My Life As A Mankiewicz” the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz talks about doing uncredited work on the script, including mentioning how neither Redford or Winger wanted to be the ‘funny’ one of the pair in this alleged comedy—at times the task of getting laughs seems to be up to some of the bit actors playing other lawyers, like Christine Baranski as Logan’s associate at the D.A.’s office, as if they’re only passing through heading to appear in a broader movie when they leave the scene. As it is, some of the best bits are the most deadpan, a reminder that these actors deserve a more sophisticated approach to this material, like Winger’s “Happy Birthday, Your Honor” when she interrupts a court proceeding or Daryl Hannah describing the extent of a wealthy art patron’s interest as “She’s bored. She likes to wear earrings.” Even Redford’s big scene offering opening remarks at Chelsea’s trial where he asks who else believes Chelsea is guilty is nice (Liz Sheridan from SEINFELD is one of the jurors) is clearly meant to be a showpiece for him, as if part of the point of the scene is meant to remind us that he’s a movie star and it’s a nice moment but still pulls back before any real courtroom craziness so the speech never kicks into gear all that much. The film stays light when it should be more of a thriller. The jokes are flat when it needs more wit. The story beats are slick and 80s but never really mean very much. The patter never develops into real chemistry. Portions of the plot if described might sound like they could be out of an old screwball comedy but almost nothing about the film itself plays out in that fashion. It never becomes more than genial as a result almost as if the film was designed to be watched on a plane where only half-paying attention to it wouldn’t hurt it too much.
There’s also no real chemistry between the two leads that there’s not much to say about it so when Tom Logan tries to explain the concept of sexual politics to his daughter played by Jennie Dundas (Redford is given an ex-wife and preteen daughter for no particular reason) it plays as a little random but also a meta comment on how there’s nothing really going on in the film otherwise. The climax set in the art gallery ablaze (again with the fire) is a reminder that at least the film is expensive and you’d think there would be the opportunity to use the word Hitchcockian to describe some of this, but not so much with Reitman’s direction which gives off smooth professionalism but not much else here without Bill Murray to provide that extra juice. The bits of presumably deleted footage under the end credits hint at more plot but aren’t all that interesting (they look mostly like a main titles sequence for a LEGAL EAGLES TV show) and I don’t know if more plot, let alone more ineffective star interplay, would really help. The problem with LEGAL EAGLES isn’t that it’s too many things, it’s that it’s not enough of any of them. And, in the end, it’s a little empty. Which is not to say that a flashy star vehicle designed to entertain has to be rife with subtext and meaning but a small touch of resonance in the vein of the Grant/Hepburn/Tracy/Hepburn films of another era occasionally achieved would be nice.
Of course, star power only gets you so far. Robert Redford and Debra Winger at least have that but for a Tracy-Hepburn attempt it feels like it’s more interesting when the two actors are playing a scene with just about anyone else in the film. As if to compensate for the lack of chemistry both actors seem to default to being pleasant with each other just to get through it. I’d imagine that Daryl Hannah would be the Jean Hagan to this Tracy-Hepburn duo but aside from smoldering she never gets to do very much and feels a little like a waste. “Vintage Chelsea”, exclaims Winger near the end commenting on her effect on men which, again, feel like it implies more than we ever actually got to see. Brian Dennehy has a key supporting role looking like he walked off the set of F/X, got a trim around the sides and drove over to the set of this film. Terence Stamp doesn’t get much to do other than acting officious as Victor Taft but his dry reading of “Most of my clients prefer to see the front” to Redford’s request to see the back of a painting is a reminder of how dryly funny he can be, which he doesn’t get much of a chance to do here. Steven Hill, still a few years before LAW & ORDER premiered, is the Manhattan DA and after watching countless episodes of that show he seems overqualified for the way the part is written here. David Clennon of BEING THERE and THE THING is another stereotypical jerk in the D.A.’s office and Roscoe Lee Browne as the presiding judge offers some of the best comic timing in the film, making me wish it really were more of a courtroom movie. When he makes his entrance there’s such confidence in how he takes over the scene that I relax a little, happy to see him until I realize the character isn’t actually going to be around for very long. Elmer Bernstein composes the last of his four scores for Reitman and it plays like the composer knew all too well how much the film was depending on whatever excitement he could manage to bring to it. His music at least gets to make more of an impression here than in GHOSTBUSTERS where his work got buried by the pop songs--as anyone who was watching MTV at the time will remember, even if they don’t want to, Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” was the one single for this movie and it plays over the end credits.
In the end, before LEGAL EAGLES was sent off to the purgatory of VHS it made just under $50 million, neither a huge hit or huge flop, certainly more impressive than it is now but the film also cost a lot and no one was ever that crazy about it. One odd postscript is how syndicated TV airings apparently featured an alternate ending which slightly altered whether or not Chelsea was guilty. Without being able to look at that one (for once, something doesn’t seem to be on Youtube) it seems like the one they went with for release at least wrapped things up a little quicker. LEGAL EAGLES isn’t all that terrible but it isn’t all that good either. For as much as it was meant to be a big deal, it’s just kind of a shrug either way, an expensive shrug with movie stars. Looking up that summer, other Universal releases included PSYCHO III and HOWARD THE DUCK so I guess it wasn’t one of their better seasons but chalk that up to karma from not wanting to release BRAZIL the previous year, I suppose. But hey, it was the 80s. At least that decade is over with even though for me when I spot extras in front of the art gallery during the big climax or the shot of Debra Winger driving the wrong way into traffic it gives me a hit of nostalgia as I close my eyes and imagine a film being shot in NY back then. As for LEGAL EAGLES itself, it’s really only memorable in the sense that you remember movies you saw during the summer when you were 15. Which is better than not remembering it at all, I suppose.

1 comment:

Matthew McKinnon said...

I am the cult of one for Poltergeist II.
I know it's a pointless, redundant film (and one that unfortunately shoots itself in the foot about 15 minutes in when it flashes back to the original, concretely reminding you how much better that film was).

But I just like it. It has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and ILM effects, and two scenes of absolute textbook brilliance: Kane tries to talk his way into the house, and the Vomit Creature scene.
The Freelings are still lovely, and you can't help care about them.

Shout Factory are putting out a special edition Blu-Ray sometime soon, so there must be others like me...?