Tuesday, May 10, 2022

This Empty Place Inside

It’s been some time now, but I still miss those late nights. The vibe of sitting at a bar, waiting for the next drink, taking in the mood all around me as the music plays. It’s not the drinking that I miss so much anymore—I’m six years sober by now and ok with leaving that behind—but the process of getting that drink and having it set down in front of me, whether the next martini at the Dresden (RIP to Marty of Marty & Elayne) or some elaborate concoction while crammed into Tiki Ti. Those late hours can be both the best and the worst time to think about those things you shouldn’t be spending too much time thinking about anymore. Thinking about all the wrong things you said, thinking about all the right things you never said. Maybe even the ways you’ll continue to screw things up as time goes on. But eventually you go to sleep. The mood never lasts and even those nights have to end.
While looking for things to watch during the isolation of the past few years I’ve found myself revisiting films unseen by me for decades and finding some of those that I’d long forgotten about strangely comforting. Which explains how one night I wound up on THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, the sort of film that I liked well enough when it was released back in the fall of 1989 but didn’t think about much beyond that. My loss, as it turns out. Which means that returning to the film so many years later makes me wonder what the hell I was thinking, so now I’m just regretting how it never fell into that regular rotation of DVDs I’ve watched way too many times. In some ways, it’s a film I’ve been looking for. At its very best this is a beautifully honed character piece, one that luxuriates in its mood and atmosphere, always giving life to the snap found in that razor sharp dialogue. Sitting here in 2022 it’s almost difficult to believe this was once a normal movie that opened in theaters and people actually went to on a Saturday night, all another reminder that we didn’t know how good we had it. In fairness, the film didn’t do much better than ok at the time but it did receive enough attention to get four Oscar nominations including Michelle Pfeiffer for Best Actress. And she should have won. Looking at the film now, it’s not just a reminder of what was normally found in movie theaters back then also but how much smaller dreams could once be. It’s about people who aren’t striving for the big time so much as simply trying to achieve just a little bit more with what they’re good at and hopefully making a connection with someone else who feels just as lost. It’s a film about adults facing adult problems, dealing with family and relationships and sex and regret and all the smoke hanging in the air along with those dreams that might evaporate quickly if you don’t do something about it fast. It’s not the sort of film that gets a cult; just people who remember it fondly. If only more people remembered it. We don’t get many of these movies anymore and it doesn’t seem like we will again anytime soon, but right now it’s like the idea of a film that achieves what this one does means more to me than ever.
Piano-playing brothers Jack and Frank Baker (Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges) have been working a lounge act called The Fabulous Baker Boys for years in Seattle but when bookings begin to dry up Frank gets the idea of adding a singer to bring something new to the act. Their auditions of multiple singers with no talent finally leads them to the tough-talking Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former escort who shows up late but impresses them with her voice and turns out to be exactly what they’re looking for. Her talents provide a boost to the act eventually resulting in a stint at a resort hotel for New Years’ Eve but the attraction also grows between Susie and Jack, who spends much of his time smoking cigarettes while brooding and secretly playing after hours in jazz clubs where he can pursue playing the way he really wants to. And as things develop between the two of them, the tension within the group becomes impossible to avoid.
For a film that struck me as comfort food upon first revisiting, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS does come with a slightly bitter taste. It’s a smooth movie in every possible way and at times feels like some of the best of what a commercial entertainment used to be, a film always looking to showcase the style found in these people and it has that style too. But it’s also a beautifully crafted character piece, providing wonderful roles for all three leads, a product of the ‘80s which combines sharp dialogue that could almost come out of the ‘40s with the feel of a ‘70s character piece, that sultry vibe in the air always mixing with the tension until no one has any idea what else to do with it. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, only twenty-nine when it was released, this is a film always willing to take the time to hold on the faces of these people as they get to know each other, always more interested in character than plot, always willing to wait for what the three of them have to say to each other as they talk around their feelings bubbling under the surface and flowing in a completely natural way. It doesn’t need a bigger plot than what it has and the actors work so well together that the chemistry between each of them becomes the plot, every scene clicking along together beautifully as if keeping in time with the music they perform every night.
The glamour is part of it but so is the bitterness coming off of Jeff Bridges’ performance as Jack which is always felt as he lingers on the edges of scenes to avoid saying how he really feels, mired in the self-hatred he has long since succumbed to and pushing away anyone who tries to get closer. He barely even responds, “I can carry a tune,” when Susie tells him how good he is but deep down he already knows it. It’s what makes him hate this silly act he does with his brother every night with those twinkling of the ivories through renditions of “The Girl From Ipanema” that are just a little too cheerful so he slinks into late-night jazz clubs by himself looking for something really he wants to play. When Susie turns up as they desperately look for a singer to join the act, she’s someone else who can find the soul in the music, a soul that Jack is looking for beyond anything he does with Frank but doesn’t even realize it. He remembers every date the act has ever played and hates it—boy, do I understand this—not needing all the tchotchkes and shot glasses that his brother, the businessman of the pair, hangs onto as mementoes. Frank is about the act more than the music, always looking to keep everyone happy. All Jack seems to want is a reason to love this again and Susie is the one who brings a genuine feeling to the act it never had.
That look on Michelle Pfeiffer’s face when she knows they’re going to let her audition no matter how late she was gets her to own the movie right away, just like Susie knows she owns them with her voice. She gets the music, the rare person who actually paid attention to the lyrics in order to let that voice bursting out of her tough girl exterior. Through all this, the dialogue written by Kloves displays a sharpness that keeps the characters active and alive but on the flipside of those lighter moments so much of the tension between Jack and Frank feels unspoken, as if by casting these two actual brothers we didn’t need more dialogue to explain things. It works beautifully, the familiarity always there whether it’s Frank chewing Jack out for missing a cue or just certain looks they give each other so when they finally have their big fight you can see it in their eyes what’s been held back for so many years. Frank is the responsible one and keeps everything going, seeing that as part of his job no matter how phony it gets as he tries to ignore his own flop sweat, slightly dorky but it’s all in service of the business of the act and trying to keep their bookers happy. He never pays attention to how much nobody else cares, so intent on making sure that everyone hits their cues that he doesn’t try to be any better. Susie Diamond knows that this is just a second rate lounge act, after all, but with that voice she knows that it can be bigger, even if just a little bit. Right from the start it’s clear that she’s got that voice. She’s got that thing. She’s got something Frank never even thought about before.
And she tries to get the act to aim higher whether in not playing the same stuff every night or realizing there could be some more money made out of this, as if it never occurred to them until she showed up and that shot at just a little more success surprises even them. The snap to the dialogue adds to the tension but Kloves also definitely knows how to use the camera, at times in subtly effective and intelligent ways during the silences that come in between. That scene out on the hotel terrace at the resort hotel is a beautiful example of how the movie is simply willing to linger in the moment, Frank stopping when he hears “Moonglow” playing and talking about how he’s never kissed his wife on New Year’s Eve, Jack off by himself on the side but you can still see the affection he has for his brother in his face. For this one night, these three people make sense together and the way the camera gazes at them is loving and inquisitive, letting us find who the characters are just by looking into their faces.
Even after all these years, the film is mostly remembered for the image of slinky Michelle Pfeiffer on that piano, accompanied by Jeff Bridges as she slowly, seductively makes her way through a rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” and, in fairness, this is entirely justified. Pfeiffer is electric in this sequence, bringing a sensuality to the moment that shows just how much these two characters go perfectly together thanks to that music in a way they never can otherwise. The character work always comes through when she performs to growing crowds during the early montage of her performing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” so this is Susie doing the singing and showing how fearless she is, not Michelle Pfeiffer the Movie Star. But it’s also the camerawork by the great Michael Ballhaus completing the undeniable feel of old-school elegance—he received one of the Academy Award nominations, deservedly so, likely for these scenes—with the way that camera swings around during the New Years’ Eve show becoming part of that joint seduction between the two everything the films has been building towards, Jack and Susie as one up on that stage for that one night.
Getting lost in the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer during moments like this makes me think about how much films with this kind of sexual tension are missed in this day and age. I don’t even miss bars late at night as much. But even back then they rarely felt this potent, a sheer feeling of attraction between two people who are doing everything they can to not follow through on it and when they do give in there isn’t anything else quite like it. What with things like the new season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast I’m clearly not the only person noticing how much the very idea of this has been lost in films over the past few years, this sense of feeling and connection through sheer chemistry that goes beyond words. And the film knows that it doesn’t need those words, even when going for the laughs found in their tension during a sequence where the two of them are in the hotel suite trying to avoid all this, the story moves at a brisk clip throughout containing very little fat—William Steinnkamp, the film’s editor, was also nominated—but that sense of pace allows for the breathing room which lets the entire movie stop for that one scene between the two of them coming after the big New Years’ show, talking about stuff but really about how they’re out of reasons to not let this happen. When it finally does, there’s very little else to say in order to describe this feeling beyond the realization that there have been few things in the history of cinema sexier than Michelle Pfeiffer’s back.
Even the Dave Grusin score, the last of the four Oscar nominations, adds to this mood and though it may be common to associate that composer with the easy listening vibe found in his scores to certain films directed by Sydney Pollack (executive producer on this which is likely not a coincidence) here it always provides an added boost of energy even if the jazz that Jack really wants to play seems mostly be represented by that mellow Grusin sound which I’m sure some purist would object to and maybe they’d be right. But it’s a sound that feels just right to set the mood at the start while Jack walks through the streets of Seattle during the opening credits, wearing that wrinkly tux as night falls. The freeform nature of the theme keeps it playing in my head while thinking about this film and it’s also one more random thing that I miss in movies nowadays, the process of showing a character walk from one place to another, settling into this world but in this case it’s also a reminder of how much this film is about mood and how it can attach to us, our own private themes endlessly playing in hour heads long after we’ve ever given up on shaking them.
Of course, that feeling can only take you so far, just like those nights can only go on for so long, just like the things Jack doesn’t say to Susie, just like the way the tension between him and Frank eventually explodes by what he does say. At one point she objects to how many times she has to sing that lounge standard “Feelings”, making the fairly valid point how it’s a song that no one needs to ever hear again. But when she really does sing it, presumably against her wishes, at the point things are going sour you can hear in her voice both how much hates it as well as how the song, this silly and shallow song, has gotten into her and somewhere in the depths of all that shallowness the real feelings she’s going through begin to emerge. The moment goes by fast but Pfeiffer is remarkable in it, a transcendent display of all the thoughts going through her as she navigates these treacly lyrics. It’s also a reason why Susie is so good at what she does. And, like Jack, she just doesn’t want the reminder.
I’m still a little stuck on just how young Steve Kloves was at the time, coming five years after his first writing credit for 1984’s RACING WITH THE MOON. He directed one more film after this, 1993’s FLESH AND BONE, wrote the screenplay for 2000’s great WONDER BOYS then took off to script multiple Harry Potter films and he’s spent a good amount of time in that world ever since. THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS was his directorial debut and while it may not always live up to the adventurous visual style found in some of its best moments it definitely feels assured and the work of a filmmaker who always knows what he wants to get out of scenes, saving up for those key moments when the feelings will really matter. The formula is felt at times, what with the likable pre-teen girl neighbor Nina played by Ellie Raab who appears via the fire escape as well as his loyal dog, each there to presumably remind the audience he’s not a complete lowlife. But they still work as reminders of him looking for any connection he can still find that isn’t his brother and is desperately trying to hold onto even as he completely neglects both of them in various ways, like how he never bothered to teach Nina anything other than the opening of “Jingle Bells” on the piano. It’s all just one more reminder that Jack can’t fully commit to anything, even a conversation. This film is one of those cases where a star like Jeff Bridges smiles more in the production stills than he ever does in the movie but the moodiness in his eyes is always a reminder of how much he’s trying to dig himself out of that hole before it’s too late.
It’s the sort of film you want to go on for just a little while longer, to have the good times between the three linger just a bit more and it’s not too hard to imagine a TV spinoff that lets this happen. But the pacing seems just right the way it is so even the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray play like they were dropped more to keep the film to a running time under two hours than a case of scenes that didn’t work. It also seems to know that the good times don’t always linger, no matter how many good feelings are exchanged late at night. Things move fast. Susie even tells Jack how it can be the easiest thing in the world to get used to your own misery, to crawl into that empty place inside, as she puts it. Brooding melancholy will only get you so far, after all, no matter how much you want to climb in to wrap yourself up in that loneliness. In the end, THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS is a film that has those moments when you feel close to getting what you were groping toward, maybe without realizing and really showing just how good you can be at that one thing and maybe you shouldn’t forget that. It holds on the affection felt towards the three of them, no matter how fucked up each of them are in their own way, just like any of us are, just like I am. It doesn’t judge the three main characters but it clearly wants them to figure a few things out. Even the last scene doesn’t have more dialogue than it should, just enough to make what’s being said the start of an ongoing conversation between two people who are still feeling tentative about it all, as tentative as things can get and still feel like some semblance of a happy ending. The chemistry is there just as it always was but, for the moment, there’s no need to rush. The spark between them is still there even as the sun is out. So maybe there’s something to the light of day, after all.
Part of the film’s beauty is how it just lets these movie stars be movie stars, giving each of them material that lets them show just how good they really are. Jeff Bridges displays such confidence in his silence along with his body language, knowing that he doesn’t need to say anything more to get the point across. Even as much as he digs into Jack’s self-hatred, there’s still a charm to him that makes it easy to see why Susie might be drawn to him and in his silence we can see through his eyes how much he’s fighting to still care about certain things. Michelle Pfeiffer is spectacularly good in every scene, sharp with the dialogue and cool with the appeal until she can’t hold in her real feelings any longer so she can tell Jack what no one else has been able to. So much can be seen in her face, sometimes in just one tiny little look, through every one of her scenes that has a wonderful effect whether she’s holding back or letting it all out, she’s someone who couldn’t like if she wanted to, it’s all right there. I’m not sure Beau Bridges had gotten a part this good in years and it’s one of his best performances, balancing the desperation of Frank to be liked with how much he stays on them to keep the act together. He’s never going to be as cool as them and in that is where his strength comes from, trying to keep up with that attitude and letting them know that he’s not totally unaware of it all.
Much of the film is just the three leads along with the charming Ellie Raab as Jack’s young friend Nina who he claims he doesn’t take care of along with a brief appearance by the now-familiar Xander Berkeley as one of the nasty bookers the brothers have to deal with. But the other actor who really deserves special mention is Jennifer Tilly as Monica Moran, the first girl to audition for the Baker Boys at the start and in one scene gives us the most Jennifer Tilly performance ever that turns into something else next time we see her that even at just two short scenes, with her own special billing in the end credits, I’m tempted to say it’s the best role she ever had. Tilly is perfectly cast here with a screen presence that would be just as right in the classic Hollywood era as the three leads, getting a close-up here that she didn’t get in her first scene so the character isn’t quite the comic figure she once was, serving as the catalyst for Jack to force himself to look at someone like her for the first time and the moment forces him to make that change more than anyone else has and she’s just the right screen presence to do it.
Things do change and it’s unavoidable. We may not like it, we may not be happy about what goes away, but they do change and they have to. Maybe we need to force that change, to get things a little closer to where we want them to be. There’s always another girl, as Jack dismissively says to Susie. By the end, he realizes that sometimes there isn’t. That you already met her. There’s a kind of optimism found somewhere in there. But this is also a reminder of the films we don’t get anymore and while writing all this I sent the trailer to a friend who doesn’t care about movies very much, certainly not what gets released these days, and she texted back, now this is something I’d go to the theater to see! But right now it seems like all we can do is remember that we once got movies like this. Now suddenly, all these years later, this feels like what I want movies to be. At least some of them. THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS is just the right movie for those nights where in your mind that smoke continues to hang in the air, like the memories of how close we once came.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

No Deceit In The Cauliflower

Let’s try this again. Not like anything is ever going to make sense. The truth is that most of my life I’ve known either New York or Los Angeles, not that I have any idea where else I’m supposed to go. My one and only trip to Minnesota was for a wedding where during the reception I found myself gravitating towards one particular side of the family, specifically the other New York Jews who had also traveled to be there. No matter how nice everyone else was, that was where I felt comfortable, that was where I felt I belonged. Of course, we spend so much of life trying to figure out where we belong and if certain people were ever really meant to be part of our lives at all. Sometimes the answers to those questions are more obvious than we want to admit. Maybe this is something we eventually learn, maybe we never learn a damn thing. We’re still going to fuck things up, of course. We are who we are.
Which brings us to THE HEARTBREAK KID, original version. Not “Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK KID” according to the credits, but we’ll get to that. The cult around the great Elaine May remains strong these days, at least in the world of Film Twitter, and interest surrounding the four films she directed seems to have grown with the reputations of A NEW LEAF, MIKEY AND NICKY and ISHTAR growing stronger, all of them remarkable in their own ways in spite of the now legendary postproduction issues each went through. So in one sense, her second film THE HEARTBREAK KID feels like an outlier. Whether it’s her best is a pointless debate—ask me on different days, I’ll give you different answers—but the argument could be made that its narrative spine does hold together better than any of them so it all flows together without some of the jagged rhythms contained in those others. The death last year of star Charles Grodin also served as a reminder of the fearlessness in his work here, not only cementing what would become his screen persona for all time but helping to make this a seamless fusion of performance and film.
THE HEARTBREAK KID received two Oscar nominations, always a little surprising for a comedy, but has sadly become difficult to see in recent years due to rights issues too dull to go into here. For now it can be found online in so-so quality at a certain site that starts with a Y and the audience response at a screening a few years ago proved that its edge hadn’t dulled. This is a film that can justifiably be called a comic masterwork but one that is also a profoundly uncomfortable experience, which wouldn’t be the case if there wasn’t any truth in there. People can be horrible, after all. Maybe if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be people. This is a film about the choices we make in what we pursue which can lead to us losing who we are, no matter how much we wanted it. It never feels daunted for a second in how far into the depths it’s willing to go for those laughs and in that sense remains a source of inspiration even if it’s a reminder about the choices that wind up leading us the wrong way.
Newlywed Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) takes off for Miami Beach with his bride Lila (Jeannie Berlin) on their honeymoon where almost as soon as they arrive he meets blonde beauty Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach, becomes instantly smitten and uses the ideal excuse of Lila’s horrible sunburn to keep her in the hotel room as he gets to know Kelly better. He meets her parents Mr. and Mrs. Corcoran (Eddie Albert and Audra Lindley) and is then determined to end his marriage as soon as possible, even if it means pursuing Kelly all the way back to her home in Minnesota leaving behind everything he knew in life before. '
Closing in on fifty years after it was released at the end of 1972, THE HEARTBREAK KID remains awe-inspiring like few other comedies I can think of, a high-wire act of cruelty and deadpan awkwardness done as light romantic comedy, with humor so deadly that the laughs hurt as they stick in your throat. The tone is unrelenting, going further beyond where you think it will go as it takes this premise and stretches it to see how far this feeling can go, beyond the point where you think it will break off and give you some relief, a moment that will make it all feel better and everyone can laugh. The lead character fearlessly lies and talks his way out of the situations he gets himself into until there’s no one around to call him on it but no matter how cruel the film becomes he always feels completely human in his determination, just horribly so, no matter how much emotional wreckage he causes thanks to his own selfishness. It’s hard not to shake the wish that the film is somehow going to give you a speck of relief but it remains committed to that goal as much as he is, completely unrelenting in that pursuit. Which makes it difficult to watch this film without wanting to flee the room at certain points but this is, of course, meant in the best possible way and its anti-comedy approach tricks you into thinking you know what it is, only to reveal that it’s about more than just the cruelty that it leads to.
The title card at the start specifically reads “Neil Simon’s THE HEARTBREAK KID” and that writer is the one credited with the screenplay based on the Bruce Jay Friedman short story “A Change of Plan”, but the possessory credit stating ‘An Elaine May Film’ follows immediately as if to underline who is really responsible for the approach it takes, not to mention its view of humanity. It certainly doesn’t feel like any other Neil Simon movie from the period, films that vary in quality but all seem like part of the same assembly line with directors who are mostly tasked to keep everything in order as opposed to bringing a real point of view to the material. In his autobiography “It Would Be So Nice If You Weren’t Here” Grodin writes how it was decided during production that the Simon version of a scene would always be shot but May would also film more takes to add whatever embellishments or improvisations she wanted and the film would be put together around that. Simon agreed to this approach, then proceeded to vanish after several days of watching all this begin to take shape. The bones of a Simon narrative can be found in the structure if you squint hard enough but instead of focusing on the expertly timed wisecracks the approach it takes is in looking for the silences found within the reality of how these people might actually react to each other, as if it’s a main character who is looking for that snappy patter only to find everyone reacting to him as if they live in a normal world, in understandable disbelief to what they’re hearing. While some of Simon’s work is about the dichotomy between New York and what’s out there in the rest of the country, specifically California, this film takes aim at the differences between east coast and the white bread middle in the most cutting way possible. The wedding at the start feels strictly working class in how tiny and imperfect it is but this is also the single most joyous part of the film, the cries of ‘Mazeltov!’ coming from those New York Jews which gives the feeling that this is real life, these are their people, this is where the joy is found. When Lenny finds out that Kelly is from Minnesota his disbelieving “It’s so far from New York!” response is one that sounds like he never considered people might live anywhere else, that he comes from a place where ‘the element’ he was a part of is exactly what her father doesn’t like at their hotel which he remains undeterred by. “He hasn’t met you yet, but just from appearances he doesn’t like you,” Kelly tells him later on which almost seems to make him more determined to prove just how far he might be willing to go.
Looking at her other films it becomes clear how much Elaine May loves the men in them through all their horribleness and desperation, but in the case of THE HEARTBREAK KID it feels more like her camera staring unblinking at what Lenny is doing, possibly in awe at what he’s trying to get away with. In fairness, it doesn’t really seem to like anyone else in the film either, except for maybe the extras at the opening wedding; the audience might develop sympathy for Lila, but clearly that’s not the film’s job. What exactly drives Lenny to do this is never explained as if it’s all some indefinable other thing that he’s going for, which never occurred to him until he finds himself out on the road actually interacting and sleeping with his new bride with that brief shot of him sitting across from her as she sleeps, staring, wondering who the hell this is and what he’s done. Through everything she does, her overly aggressive nature on the road, cutesy bed talk and even what she orders in a restaurant, by the time the road trip is done it’s like we’ve gotten a full short film detailing every aspect of their relationship. In fairness, maybe a double order of egg salad isn’t necessary and, sure, she could have listened to Lenny when he suggested she put suntan lotion on but it’s all still kind of endearing even when she’s a little much. Lila only wants him and what they have together, for the next 40 or 50 years as she puts it, already looking forward to when their coffins can sit side by side. Lenny only sees the things he’s suddenly learning about her, as if she’s messing with the perfection he wants to project and sell to people when he looks at himself in the mirror. His pursuit of Kelly the shiksa goddess to end all shiksa goddesses quickly begins to feel like he’s decided to have a staring contest with the entire world, even if it’s just out of spite to prove he can do this as if he’s starring in his very own romantic comedy about what a catch he is, maybe even one written by Neil Simon with a fun title like THE HEARTBREAK KID. All this is like a rationalization as if to search for motivation in the horrible lies he’s telling Lila but marriages in Elaine May films, not that there are many of them, always feel tenuous with the communication wires are always getting crossed as the husband shouts down the wife’s well-meaning intentions, keeping as much from them as possible, trying to avoid the trouble they’re getting into.
Lenny is literally blinded by Kelly on first sight. It’s really the sun behind her that does this, of course, indicative of how he seems to misjudge everything right off the bat even though he remains blinded by her through every enigmatic answer she gives him to his questions, whether actually clever or not. But Lenny dives right in and when he tells Kelly that he’s all in it almost happens before we expect him to, coming up with lies so unbelievable to Lila that she has to accept them as truth in that agonizing silence when he finally gets into bed with her, knowing it will probably be for the last time. “Were you really in an accident, Lenny?” she asks after listening to the story about what happened to him that night, then after all his flailing the horrible silence just hangs there as she looks at him. Instead of keeping this going for an entire movie it simply rips the band aid off through a dinner sequence where he finally breaks the bad news that pushes everything past the boundaries of that agony, Grodin’s pauses become longer and longer, like an improv sketch that he’s been told to stretch out as far as conceivable as if desperately waiting for someone else to talk for him, that certain piece of pecan pie he’s been talking about for so long giving him an excuse to put it off a little longer, groping towards finally giving her the news and when he does still won’t let her get away, telling her all the good that’s going to come out of this and still trying to sell it to her. It’s all made even more brutal by how when it finally gets to the moment of truth the scene is only half over, on one hand unbelievably cruel towards Lila but also forcing us to pay attention to her response while Lenny keeps talking. Any other film with a shred of mercy would likely cut away but any other film wouldn’t pay such close attention to what’s really going on.
This long, horrific, mesmerizing, painfully funny scene is one of the key moments in the film’s structure which can be broken down into several points of negotiation that Lenny must traverse, deadly and heartless but always human, viciously so. Earthy, sexy, funny and agonizing all at once, of course Lila isn’t a bad person. There would hardly be any point in watching the film if she was and the whole point is that she’s not portrayed as a shrew or some sort of nonentity. Her immaturity makes her feel like she’s a little girl in an adult body, needing both her parents help to walk down the aisle at her own wedding, probably never having been away from them for too long. Which makes her helpless up against what Lenny assumes is the cool sophisticated quality that Cybill Shepherd’s Kelly projects, even if she’s just as much of a pampered little girl in her own way. Lila is discarded and has to be, by both the film and Lenny, but it demands we pay attention to her in those giant close-ups when she’s still around, in some ways getting just as annoyed as he is and it is painful but so much of the humor comes out of how much that pain is felt. How much he remains blinded.
Elaine May’s direction is all about focusing on these elements so we feel every excruciating moment, those giant close-ups that make Lenny speechless or when it’s him and another person facing off in the frame, on what Lenny is confronted with and how he’s choosing to handle each moment. It’s not so much about the specifics of composition but director of photography Owen Roizman, at this point somewhere in between shooting THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST for William Friedkin, adds to the intensity by often cramming Charles Grodin into as tight a frame as possible, to force him in there and make us keep watching so we can’t escape from the shot any more than he can. After all, this film is probably about as upsetting as THE EXORCIST in the end. The stylistic extremes displayed by May’s former partner Mike Nichols in directing THE GRADUATE don’t seem to interest her as much but the people do, so in this context it becomes very clear that Jeannie Berlin eating that double egg salad sandwich is Cinema. Even the main theme sung by Bill Dean is more a piece of early 70s easy listening that sticks in your brain whether you like it or not than something by Simon & Garfunkel that seems intrinsically a part of the film, the peppy tone going ideally against the darkness along with those recurring lyrics of “Close to You” running through Lenny’s head. The directorial approach is blunt instead of elegant, a point of view of the world—of both worlds in this film—which forces us to look at it through that prism. It’s an unrelenting sort of pain felt particularly in that one long unbroken shot of Grodin ‘laying out his cards’ has he faces Eddie Albert, with Cybill Shepherd and Audra Lindley in the middle reacting, is as good as anything and so brave in that display of how long it’s willing to wait for the explosion.
The two films can be compared to each other for a variety of reasons and maybe even the weakest stretch of THE GRADUATE when Benjamin follows Elaine up to Berkeley matches up with the weakest stretch here, when Lenny turns up in Minnesota and is forced to suddenly find ways to impress Kelly who at first tells him little more than, “Gee, I’m really flattered,” while on the way to English Lit to win her over (his impersonation of a Justice Department narcotics officer feels half developed and is likely the weakest moment in the film but I’m hardly the first to point out how it looks forward to the Litmus Configuration scene in MIDNIGHT RUN), turning a wisp of an image into someone forced to display some kind of motivation to her behavior, even if this film isn’t about giving us the satisfaction of actual reason which most of the time people in real life don’t do either. The scene where Lenny confronts Kelly in his car feels like they’ve never spoken before and in some ways they haven’t so it makes sense that there’s almost nothing to say about their relationship because there really isn’t one. All he has is the pursuit and when finally alone with Kelly she has him play a game where they stand naked close to each other without touching it’s as if she’s instigating him into a life of no meaningful contact with another human ever again. Even when she talks about how positive Lenny is just like her father, who never seems all that warm and encouraging a person, we never know if she means a word of it and even that ultimately means nothing.
Interestingly, in his book Charles Grodin mentions that he got along great with Jeannie Berlin during filming but didn’t get to know Shepherd at all and, whether intentionally or not, this worked out perfectly for their utter lack of chemistry, two people with absolutely nothing of substance to say to each other. Kelly is every bit the vision that early ‘70s Cybill Shepherd would be but also a blank magazine cover of beauty with little beyond her own private jokes, daring Lenny to keep talking until she loses interest, always looking like she’s about to crack up for her own reasons. The character isn’t even seen during the final seconds of the film, in one sense surprising since it has always seemed like everything was about her, but in truth it never really was and by this point she doesn’t even matter. Eddie Albert as her father barely seems to look at her through the entire movie, certainly not during the great laying out of the cards scene. The showdown over her as a commodity between the two men is the real confrontation things have been building to, this film’s own version of Benjamin Braddock endlessly driving up and down the state of California, and feels like those other Elaine May films about two men sitting across from each other when the real truth comes out. “There’s no deceit in the cauliflower” is an all-timer, spoken during Lenny’s soliloquy about the honesty found in their simple Midwestern dinner, but gets made even funnier by Kelly’s outraged father repeating it back to him in disbelief, outraged he’s being forced to actually sit down and talk to this guy with the ‘New York head’ who he hates so much.
Grodin also wrote about men coming up to him to say how much they identified with his character, looking up to him for snagging the beautiful blonde, which he found unnerving. He’s right, of course, but there are plenty of things to identify with here, just not the sort of things you go up to the star to eagerly share with them. Which is the point, since if there wasn’t anything in there to identify with then it wouldn’t get under our skin the way it does. The final moment sidesteps going for an expected punchline in favor of a quiet realization by the main character, a salesman with nothing left to sell, a life that he’s left behind and can’t return to. The simplicity of the line “I was ten” which isn’t really spoken to anyone as he sits there on that couch at the end faced with what he’s done and what he can’t return to lands in the most brutal way possible which is what the ending has to be. The plasticity of love has been around him though the whole movie, from the songs sung by him and Lila on their road trip to what seems like the welcoming sights on Miami Beach and those are the things that surround us all, until it envelopes you while trying to resist it and suddenly there’s no way to tell the difference. The real thing, to use a line from a certain song, is what you sing with someone you want to be with, until suddenly it becomes something you hum to yourself when you’re alone. It’s an ending that gives this film life, all-encompassing self-loathing life.
A crucial part of all that is how astoundingly good and unrelentingly fearless Charles Grodin is this role, seemingly not caring at all about what an audience was going to think about him. He never winks, he never makes you think that he’s judging this guy, he understands that if he doesn’t keep talking all this might collapse. Coming after smaller parts in ROSEMARY’S BABY and CATCH-22, here he both establishes what the Grodin screen persona will be for all time while also totally obliterating it. Maybe he was better in certain roles later on—as always, we come back to MIDNIGHT RUN—but there’s something pure in this. As Kelly, Cybill Shepherd takes a part which almost seems deliberately underwritten but while we may be paying attention to her beauty, makes it all about both what she’s saying or not saying at the same time, how serious is she ever about anything, really, but as if she’s ready to burst out laughing at any moment, as if daring the people around her to call her bluff on how far she thinks her adorableness will take her. The Oscar-nominated Eddie Albert is astounding, spending part of his screentime doing little more than seething as Grodin attempts to get in his good graces, waiting for that moment where he can lower the boom to this man that he clearly despises, with the always delightful Audra Lindley by his side trying to make things more pleasant. Jeannie Berlin, also Oscar-nominated as well as May’s daughter, is unforgettable as Lila, never looking for our sympathy as if both examining her from the outside and fully inhabiting her from the inside, bringing a cheerful, annoying innocence as she tells Lenny “I put cream on,” with that cream slathered all over her face. She says it with such unthinking hope that you want to take care of her and yet as part of how human, how horribly human, the movie is you can totally understand what Lenny is really thinking at that precise moment.
Movies can remind us of ourselves, our own past and our own fuckups. Sometimes a little too much. They’re a part of our lives, after all, a reminder of all the Kellys and Lilas we’ve known. That doesn’t change. Nothing makes sense anymore, not what we want, not what we’re going to get and, these days, we’re still not sure where we belong. Once when briefly introduced to Jeannie Berlin her at a party, she gave me a look of total disinterest. Maybe I didn’t belong there either. After the wedding that begins THE HEARTBREAK KID, Lila keeps telling Lenny how they’re going to be together for the next 40 to 50 years, almost as long as Grodin himself was around after this movie. Makes you wonder how Lenny spent that time. I mean, what are the things we’re looking for in our lives when we decide we want to be with somebody. What do we really want, deep down? I if we know the answer, can we say it out loud or do we keep going over it in our minds, along with all those reminders of the way we fucked things up. Sometimes that doesn’t change and it likely won’t in the future, no matter how much we learn. Maybe you have to be from New York to understand. Maybe you just have to be able to remember certain things and know when you were wrong. Maybe we never know.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Ever Since You Left

For months it’s been hard to avoid trying to think about new beginnings. Or maybe what I’m dwelling on are just the endings. Right now it’s tough to tell which is which. I’m trying to believe that somewhere in all this will be a new start for everything but, well, things happen. Of course, nothing has happened this past year, nothing except for a lot of stuff we’d rather forget. And the more time goes by, the greater is the awareness of how hard it can be to really know a person through all that, even when you think you do, even when you think you’ve been allowed to. Even when you want to hold onto that connection you thought was there only to realize it was just a mirage. Where do those people go? Somewhere in all this is an answer, we just have to figure out what it is for ourselves.
But what is the past? The past is something we have to force ourselves to move on from, as much as we find ourselves stuck there. It always seemed like Paul Mazursky made films about what was going on around him but all that is the past now too. He’s been gone for over seven years by this point and there’s no one around making films like Paul Mazursky. Which is a damn shame, even if I don’t know who would go see those films if we had him. Times have changed. His BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was about what was going on between people when it was made in the late 60s, even if the confusion felt by the characters still feels relatable, reminding me of all the bad decisions you can’t avoid. And AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, which he wrote and directed, feels like it was about the specific point in time when it was released in 1978. Starring the unforgettable Jill Clayburgh, this particular film is maybe not as breezily entertaining as BOB & CAROL but it feels more insightful, more open to the pain caused between men and women and, yes, it even feels like it has something more to do with right now and all that pain even if there isn’t a chance in hell of something like this being made these days. The fact that he was a man making this film about such a woman might also send up a red flag, even making me seriously think about how valid it is for me to be writing about it, and while it’s definitely a good thing there are more female directors working now it’s as if the distance he felt from the subject was part of what made him want to explore it. He wanted to understand the source of all that hurt and how to move past it, to understand what all these women are going through as they try to live in the world around them. This is what gets explored in the movie just as much as the idea of starting over (not to be confused with a certain other Jill Clayburgh film, of course) which feels like it means even more now that we’re all sort of trying to start over, trying to remember where those people went and why we’re doing any of this in the first place.
Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) appears to live a charmed life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband Martin (Michael Murphy) and daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas) when one day on the street he announces between sobs that he is in love with another woman. Just like that Erica is unmarried, forced to accept what has happened with little idea of where her life will go next. Through dealing with friends and going into therapy her new life begins to take hold but she then meets famous painter Saul Kaplan (Alan Bates) and it takes no time for them to be drawn to each other. But this new romance means that Erica has to decide how much the new independence she has achieved really means to her and how much of her life she will decide to devote to this new man.
At their very best, the films of Paul Mazursky display a desire to understand people, to show the way they change in the worlds they find themselves in and how their surroundings affect those choices. His success as a filmmaker went beyond the ‘70s—his two biggest box office hits came at the end of the ‘60s and later on in the ‘80s, after all—but his style fits perfectly with that decade, a period of time when a film was allowed to simply explore character, to understand what they do in the frame and how their own imperfections affect the choices they make more than any sort of plot designed to drive those actions. This approach is ideal for AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, a film which plays like the most confident of Mazursky’s career in how it’s willing to take time in exploring its main character, to fully delve into each moment so it always feels totally genuine, totally real. It’s never in a rush to get to a specific place, more interested in showing us who these characters are and not only how much what happens to Erica seemed inevitable but how she really does have the strength to move beyond it. The unhurried pace of a scene whether it’s Erica out at drinks with friends having drinks or having breakfast with her family gives us time to to know each of them, helping it all seem lived in and natural. Even that incessant sobbing as her husband finally makes his confession feels totally real in its own bullshit way and her own reaction she has to all this adds to it.
Jill Clayburgh’s Erica is living a privileged life that seems full if not quite extraordinary, casually envied by her friends for having a husband who’s “the second best man in the five boroughs” before he breaks the news and later on someone even expresses surprise at her divorce by observing that she always seemed like “a normal person”. But she’s as special in her way as any of them are and in her private moments shows us this, the way she dances alone in her apartment as if to fantasize about the glorious life she only pretends to have. It’s a perfect role for this actress who had a magnetic screen presence which brought an intelligence and vibrancy as well as an earthbound realism to everything she does, one which demands that you never take what she has to offer for granted which is maybe one reason why Clayburgh is remembered for something like this and not a secondary role in SILVER STREAK since she’s clearly a woman with too much going on to simply be ‘the girl’ in an action-comedy. Just watching her face says everything as if Mazursky is continually realizing there wouldn’t be a movie if we didn’t have those moments to understand her more, the late night sequence where she cleans out evidence of her husband from the apartment they once shared particularly memorable just by the look on her face, her daughter emerging to study her and silently offer support. Each of the friends she has those periodic meetings to discuss all their problems seem just as complex as she is, particularly Kelly Bishop as one who pops her pills and talks about how set things are with her man friend but deeps down dreams of how pretty Rita Hayworth was, as if wishing it could really be as simple on the surface as she paints it. Even the people who quickly drift in and out of scenes make an impression like the brief appearance by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker as a happily married couple looking at Erica offering sympathetic expressions to what goes unspoken. But Clayburgh remains at the center of every scene and it becomes clear that not only does Paul Mazursky like his main character, he’s also hoping that she makes the right decisions for herself.
Spending too much time focusing on how dated a film may be inevitable but still only interests me so much, as if an excuse to refuse to engage with what a film is trying to do. But considering this is a film where Jill Clayburgh walks into a bar where Leo Sayer is heard on the jukebox it’s going to automatically be somewhat locked into a certain era so it’s unavoidable. The moments that touch on things that were in the air in the late ‘70s like a brief discussion about teen abortion as well as topical snatches of dialogue throughout (even STAR WARS, less than a year old at this point, is name dropped) that include a brief exchange about a new Lina Wertmuller film which says as much about the characters and the dynamic between men and women in this particular world as the famous Eric Rohmer joke in NIGHT MOVES. The upbeat score by Bill Conti is one other aspect which particularly locks the film into a specific point in time but I still find it infectious, showing off the New York skyline perfectly at the start while also adding momentum as Erica claws towards improving her life. The New York of AN UNMARRIED WOMAN takes place largely within either the Upper East Side apartment where Erica lives or the downtown art world she spends so much time in so it’s one that allows for all sorts of asides, particularly the dim sum sequence with Mazursky himself briefly taking center stage to order as much food as possible (memories of my own dim sum experiences in New York as a child are too dim but I wish they were like this). The scene is followed by a cab ride where Erica basically gets assaulted by her date played by Andrew Duncan, also in other films from the period like LOVING and SLAP SHOT, here looking like every inch the visual epitome of the slightly too desperate-midlife-bad combover single guy in the late ‘70s. The film’s view of this city that existed then bounces back and forth between the dirt of the decade and the good vibes, is dirty and romantic, dangerous and hopeful, whether it’s the upscale East Side or those empty streets down in Soho late at night which feel so evocative that there are all sorts of possibilities out there.
Clayburgh still has to deal with all those men in every scene, Michael Murphy as her husband looking for approval while making his confession as if he’s a little boy desperately trying to weasel his way out of this without getting in trouble. He’s not so much a prick as just a putz who expects a pat on the back for actually speaking up, behavior that feels just as believable as Cliff Gorman’s Charlie, the artist acquaintance who drops the wisdom that “Food, work and sex” is all there is to life, coming off as kind of a jerk except for a few specific moments when only she’s around. The artist who she falls for played by Alan Bates is the one person who seems willing to look at her as an equal with a chemistry between the two that causes both of them to up their game. All this plays as more analytical in its view of the world than the broadly satirical vibe it feels like Mazursky is associated with a little too often, an approach that sometimes tilts towards comedy but is unable to stray too far from the harsh truth of it all and it’s possible this film successfully locates the balance between the two better than any other film he made. It’s easy to look for symbolism in things like that sneaker Martin tosses into the East River after stepping in dog shit as easily as he tosses away his wife but it feels like deep analysis isn’t what AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is about. Instead it’s just the writer-director telling this story, watching the characters as they vacillate between honesty and the lies, trying to somehow understand everything they do and why.
Up against all that, the therapy sessions attended by Erica feel presented mostly at face value in their progressive ‘70s way, offering an intimate casualness that plays as an advancement from the vague hostility in how the process is presented in BOB & CAROL and the less comical approach with the very same therapist played by Donald F. Muhich in BLUME IN LOVE which feels even more desperately unsure about what the point of it all is (appropriately, Muhich also later played the dog psychiatrist in Mazursky’s DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS). But even in those cases the view of therapy isn’t just about going for the jokes and the way Clayburgh plays these scenes with Penelope Rusianoff, an actual therapist who got some notoriety out of the role, it seems like a valuable part of the path, indulgent and wandering in the way such a session would be, not the answer to everything but serving as one step in the process pointing towards what might help this intelligent person who has become unmoored. It gets Erica out there, leading to an encounter which for once in a movie is a woman engaging in totally healthy sex, looking to fuck with no reprisals for that behavior. A simple fade to black would make it seem more like a love scene, it’s also essential for us to see enough of the moment to understand how much this is about the sheer physicality between the two people to show exactly what Erica needs, just as important as the therapy and the movie is about her finding the way to do that.
Always comfortable with its own pace, the film manages to avoid many of the expected clichés so there are no awkward moments where Erica runs into Martin and his new girlfriend, no montages of comically awkward blind dates. Even the mechanics of lawyers and divorces are ignored, as if Mazursky doesn’t have the patience for such things that for all we know are happening offscreen regardless. His direction always feels carefully considered, going for the awkward emotion of the moment, those little bits of business between the things that actually get spoken. Even individual shots never get as insistently elegant as the look at Clayburgh as Michael Murphy confesses which on the one hand feels like a relatively simple close-up but the choice to do it this way makes the moment transcendent, seeming like she goes through five or six full emotional journeys in the space of a minute. All throughout the camerawork is more about catching the right character beats than the elegance of the shot and more than ever being either an angry or hopeful film it tries to be an understanding one, simply observing them as if just doing that will help make it happen. It’s about the gradual progress, even down to how the confidence Erica begins to display while dealing with certain people late in the film which may not always be something certain people deserve but it feels healthy for her that she’s reached this point. How many moments the movie pauses for and within all that is the humanity.
It feels downright daring how Alan Bates, basically the second lead of the film, doesn’t even turn up until two-thirds in which is another sign of how willing it is to take time before that happens, the initial glimpse of him seen against a white wall in a gallery as if he’s a work of art himself that Erica has manifested now that she’s ready for him. Bates is appropriately magnetic, excellent casting as someone coming in so late and seems fully fleshed out right away leading Erica into this relationship that feels mature in all the best ways, willing to engage with her and what she wants, revealing himself as someone who has likely slept around in the past but is willing to seriously think about making a total commitment. It’s also a performance where you can tell the actor knows full well the movie isn’t about him and he displays enough confidence to not be concerned about this. Even the big meeting between him and Erica’s daughter—a dynamic between all of them which offers an intriguing mirror to the relationships in THE GOODBYE GIRL, also set in New York and released in late ’77—defaults to him being willing to fade into the background as the tensions between the other two rise and he doesn’t even stick around for the key scene that follows, mother and daughter singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano, not caring if they’re slightly off key, the camera pulling back to reveal that Saul isn’t actually sitting in the chair nearby. The story isn’t about him, a reminder that sometimes people just drift through your life. Sometimes they stick around in that chair.
Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, from nine years earlier, still has a sense of youthful naïve hope but AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is more about adult pragmatism, accepting what you’ve become and what has to be while still leaving the door open for certain possibilities. Erica asks Martin if he fell out of love with “my body, my flesh,” as she puts it, “or me, Erica,” a sentence which has a surprisingly Cronenbergian flavor to it in this context but it also feels very much what Mazursky spends much of his time exploring thematically, the question of what makes a person a person, of trying to understand just how to live your life while barely understanding how you ever did it in the first place, how far does a relationship go beyond simple attraction and how much does any of this mean to the one who ends up hurt.
But more than finding the right man, it’s a film also about the realization that trying to understand someone else, all those people who leave, isn’t as important in the end as trying to understand ourselves. Erica spends time talking with both the men in her life about how they’re going to spend the summer but the way things go it’s as if on a very basic level the film is about how the very mature decision to stay in Manhattan by yourself during those months, not looking for excuses to flee the life you’ve made, is maybe not so bad. A jar of pickled herring as a parting gift feels just as much a symbol as that giant painting Erica is given before she even realizes it, a gesture which causes the final moments to feel unresolved but also correct in that sense since to have her simply go off with a man would go against what the film is about, to have her confidentially stroll down the street after letting him go would be too easy. Instead she’s stuck with that enormous piece of art, trying to figure out how to get down the street with it, how to get through the next day. It still feels uplifting and that rousing Bill Conti music helps but she’s still one lone person in the crowd with just as many questions as she always will. She’s spent so much of her life afraid, which she even talks about with the therapist, but the end, at least, she’s no longer afraid. She’s the person she wants to be and, for now, has to be.
Jill Clayburgh deserved more leading roles than she got but even if that had happened she still might not have gotten another one this good. Her entire performance is so raw and fearless, tracking her anger towards finding some sort of acceptance through her bravery, remarkable in each moment that gives the film its life making every second count. The big personality of Alan Bates is a match for that, displaying his magnetism even during those brief flickers where you know he had some major fights with the ex-wife he speaks of but also feeling like he’s really trying. Everyone in the cast brings layers to what at times are just a few scenes with Michael Murphy finding the hollow center in his character’s behavior to make him unable to see any other viewpoint while Cliff Gorman taps into the guy on the make that seems like most of what he is along with just enough intelligence to make the two sides to him totally believable. Lisa Lucas is quietly remarkable as Erica’s daughter along with strong work from Pat Quinn, Linda Miller and especially Kelly Bishop as her friends. Novella Nelson and Raymond J. Barry as the pair of artists who are a ‘definite item’ that Erica runs into at a bar are just two among so many vivid faces who make an impression in small roles throughout along with an uncredited David Rasche in what looks to be his first film appearance playing two short bits opposite Clayburgh at a singles bar.
AN UNMARRIED WOMAN was a sizable hit upon being released in March 1978 plus it went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay. But as many pieces of that decade eventually did, the film drifted away from pop culture but at least the Blu-ray is now available from Criterion. It deserves such recognition, a reminder of this great performance by Jill Clayburgh, a reminder of what Manhattan once looked like and a reminder of Paul Mazursky at his very best. His films aren’t all great, at the very least revisiting THE PICKLE recently was a reminder of that. But the best of them, like this one, still make me wish we had a few more. All this gets me back to thinking about the past year and what it has been, filled with thoughts of being alone, of understanding what it really means to be by yourself and wondering about how many others out there might be feeling this way. There is always the hope that this won’t last forever, but these days I’m not even sure what forever means anymore. Maybe, instead of beginnings or endings, what we’re looking forward to is simply life as it goes on, with nothing to do but search for that answer. And some sort of answer is going to come eventually, whether we like it or not.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Life In The Big City

Sometimes, when writing about one thing, it can be impossible to avoid thinking about another thing, which is what happened recently when writing about JUDGE DREDD and I mentioned that comparisons to ROBOCOP were inevitable. Based on a comic book that predates ROBOCOP by a number of years, JUDGE DREDD is enough of a mess that it’s possibly the more interesting film to write about. The thing is that ROBOCOP, a comic book movie not actually based on a comic book (even if parts of it maybe have been somewhat inspired by the original Judge Dredd), is pretty damn close to perfect. Once you get past that, it can be a question of what else there is to say? Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying.
Of course, the future began at some point. We just didn’t know when it happened. Things changed as they always do, but we looked up one day and realized just how much had been altered with no chance of going back. My guess is it all started when E! put the Kardashians on. That seems likely. But while it was never made clear just how far into the future ROBOCOP was supposed to be set, that never mattered. It was all about the inevitable. The look at a future version of our world being swamped by corporate takeovers is certainly a part of that. But removed from its enormous success in the summer of ’87 and the faulty attempts by Orion Pictures to turn the concept into a franchise, this is essentially a pitch black satire about an individual trying to reassert his identity in a world being consumed by fascism. It shows people trapped within the oncoming horrors of the future in a message delivered during the inherent ugliness of the Reagan era, a time set on transforming them into just another product which, like everything, is expendable. Just another statistic.
But looking at ROBOCOP now, in the future, makes it clear how little has really changed, as certain people way up in those glass towers look down below on all those statistics to decide who is still left to hurt. ROBOCOP was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s big introduction to the American market and it may still be his best English language film, as much as I worship a few of the others. It’s a portrait of America, showing what it has become with a filmmaking style so assured and unrelenting through every moment that the exhilaration becomes impossible to shake. It’s a film so invigorating through all that energy, thrusting us right in there as if it’s forcing us to become part of the narrative. This is a comic strip, yes, but it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s what our reality, our future, has really become by this point in time.
In the future, crime in Detroit has spiraled out of control. No sooner has patrolman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) begun his new assignment at the Metro West precinct, teaming with partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), when he is brutally gunned down by a vicious gang led by the psychotic Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Meanwhile, at the all-powerful corporation OCP, which is preparing to begin construction on new futuristic Delta City, rising executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) takes advantage of a setback in development to unveil his new creation RoboCop, a new cyborg which takes part of a deceased policeman, in this case Murphy, and turns him into essentially a robotic supercop with several prime directives built into his programming. Murphy’s former partner is the only person who senses something familiar about him, while competing OCP exec Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) is ready to take advantage of Morton’s success and the new public hero for his own purposes.
In many ways, ROBOCOP has essentially been burned into my soul by this point, just as much as certain other late ‘80s summer releases like THE UNTOUCHABLES and DIE HARD, each of them part of a memory that is growing dimmer, yet in my head they remain as powerful as ever. But it’s also a perfect example of a movie that has gained in stature through the years as the world has continued to change around me, so its meaning has only deepened, making it look harder into Murphy’s eyes to see how much everything has been taken away from him, and how much has been taken away from us. That sense of danger is always at the forefront even as the laughs come, and this is a pretty goddamn funny movie, with the way each scene plays out making it all feel like it could go either way at any moment. Every television is presumably tuned into the same comedy show, the one with the certain catchphrase you’ll never forget, as if this view of America is essentially one giant vicious sitcom anyway, one where the laughs come when people get hurt and they don’t realize this until it’s too late. The scene that shows just how dangerous this future really is occurs not down on the mean streets, but up in a sleek executive boardroom, and even though he’s barely seen, it’s very clear that the head of it all, Daniel O’Herlihy’s CEO, known only as The Old Man, is more dangerous and powerful than anyone. Both worlds are equally nasty. It’s just that the suits are much nicer in one of them.
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, ROBOCOP’s script is unapologetic in its look at what is to come with an unrelenting display of all that horror, and the way things are cleverly laid out means that there’s not a wasted beat in the movie, coming in at a lean 103 minutes with barely a chance to catch our breath. It would be easy to speculate how Paul Verhoeven took a script, which in other hands could have been just another piece of genre junk, to capitalize on THE TERMINATOR and not only made it bigger and more emotional but this would be dismissive of the phenomenal sense of craft everyone involved brings to the film, from the sharp and incisive wit of the script to the crisp excitement to the way cinematographer Jost Vacano shoots every scene to the physical creation of RoboCop himself in a suit (brilliantly designed and built by Rob Bottin) that completely sells the illusion of what Murphy has become, including the intricacies of the sound work every time he moves a muscle with the weight of the character always felt to help us believe everything he becomes.
All of this is true, but much of how well it works also comes from the sense of sheer physicality brought to the film by the director in the way every moment is approached down to what would normally be simple dialogue scenes, the way Dick Jones and Bob Morton get in near each other during that men’s room encounter which gives it an unforgettable energy but there’s also the closeness of RoboCop and Lewis to readjust his targeting as those baby jars are blown away, as physically close as their relationship will ever get. There’s nothing subtle about this version of Detroit, one where everything is loud and garish, no one is really in charge, and even the lightning fast reporting of all the daily horrors seen in the newsbreaks scattered throughout, establishing the world and laying down some plot points, as the anchors move onto the next calamity with bright smiles (this film is what Leeza Gibbons should be forever known for) complete with breaking for a commercial before the movie is two minutes old and everything in the world outside of the technology is clearly breaking down. The science fiction elements are always compelling but it’s the deadliness of that arch feeling all around it in this ugly futuristic America that causes it to be more tangible, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre, but presented in a way that is so horrific the nominal lead has his hand blown off in the first twenty minutes. Naturally, everyone laughs. This is the future. This is what people are.
Before he dies, we barely learn anything at all about Murphy beyond that he seems like a decent and normal guy and that he has a wife and kid, as seen in those flashes of his past life that are as epic and banal as any of ours. And then he’s gone. Paul Verhoeven has directed star vehicles during his American career. In TOTAL RECALL, he used Arnold Schwarzenegger better than few other directors ever have and he made BASIC INSTINCT all about the glory of what Sharon Stone does in front of the camera in every possible way. But in ROBOCOP, the character called RoboCop becomes part of the very essence of the filmmaking. The way he/it carefully walks down a hallway almost becomes the visual style of the film’s fluidity, so every moving shot seems to go with the next, giving it an energy that comes from the way each of the characters walk and how it defines them, so every gesture is equally important. The way the film teases out our first real glimpses of the character as he arrives at the police station comprises one of those touches throughout that have something beyond what we were expecting, and that sheer sense of physicality gives every moment an extra jolt. On the surface, subtlety has nothing to do with what Verhoeven is doing and yet the director always knows to add in certain small moments that add to things, so even what he does with silent glances between people is something, reminding us that there’s always more going on, which keeps each of those characters alive and in our heads even when they’re not around.
Things are pretty recognizable in this future, maybe most notably the city councilman who won’t accept that he lost his re-election which feels funnier and more terrifying now than ever before. The legendary “I’d buy that for a dollar” catchphrase is maybe dumber than just about anything on TV now, so it makes perfect sense that it’s a catchphrase in the world of the movie, too, because of course it is. The police are going on strike which is probably exactly what OCP would want anyway. In fairness, the ideas filtered through Verhoeven are sometimes more compelling than the action which is solid (with some second unit work apparently directed by Monte Hellman, RIP) but not as inspired as the parts that haven’t been seen before in other movies; the shootout in the drug factory is one of the least compelling sections since it’s ‘just’ pretty good action, for a few moments a scene about nothing but guys shooting at each other. What stands out in this film shows either the twisted humor in all the action beats, whether the vignettes of the title character’s first night out or the unexpected sense of emotion occurring in the gas station when he’s unexpectedly recognized scene that makes this special, something new. All of this coming together builds the story piece by piece, the onslaught of Robo being gunned down mirroring the killing of Murphy at the start, a character forever dying for our sins and feeling the pain of our ignorance. There are still reasons for him to fight back and the heart of the film is that power.
The climax is set in an abandoned steel mill, just about the dullest possible setting for any movie but this one gets away with it, feeling appropriately medieval visually to go with the clanging sounds of the Basil Pouledoris score, as well as a counterpoint to the gleaming OCP skyscraper where things will really end a few minutes later. But that setting is also is beside the point. It’s really about everything that Robo has discovered about himself and the world around him, the feeling we get when he says to Clarence Boddicker, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” what this has all been emotionally building to. And the final minute or so of screentime, since this film doesn’t stick around any longer than it needs to beyond the last word we get to hear, is a work of beauty as well as the most gratifying payoff imaginable after everything that we, and the character, have been through. It really is one of the great endings. With Tim Burton’s BATMAN still two years in the future, superhero movies were barely a thing in ’87 (one week after this film was released, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE opened and instantly died), but even at this early stage ROBOCOP uses itself to glorify the concept while also making clear the storytelling limitations inherent in the very concept of the superhero film; after all, it’s about a person who no longer exists, the emotions fighting to come through and he isn’t able to have sex which most likely in the Verhoeven world means you’ll never be a complete person. His programming, after all, gives him no real awareness of the trauma brought on by the sexual assault he prevents in one scene, the male organ he shoots off just one more obstacle to help him take down the bad guy.
Except for a few (presumed) hookers hanging out at Bob Morton’s place doing coke with him, there’s not much of a sense of overt sex in the film anyway, but it’s always there if you want to find it, often in the nastiest ways whether the undercurrents of that men’s room scene between Jones and Morton or Boddicker leering at the OCP secretary, leaving his gum behind as a reminder. Only the quick flashes of Murphy’s wife saying she loves him feels like anything resembling normal behavior between two people who love each other. In a way, the film is about finding meaning in this future even without that. The power of the extra violence only seen in the unrated version (no real surprise that this film went through extensive haggling with the ratings board at the time) found on the various disc releases isn’t essential storywise, but the overall effect helps to provide a clearer look at this futuristic Detroit which makes the overall message that much stronger. This is what people are in this world. This is what humanity means to those in charge.
The giant, lumbering robot ED-209 that Dick Jones presents to the board is clearly a product of this corporate world, a killing machine that blows away an innocent person turned into a joke by the end - a big, dumb, clumsy joke with the crying baby sounds perfectly encapsulates everything about the mindset behind it. Bob Morton’s idea that became RoboCop is the opposite in its effectiveness and of course that guy was no saint since he is the one who set Murphy up to be killed in the first place by placing him in that precinct. It’s the individual inside that has to fight its way out, even if maybe the one thing that hasn’t aged so well for this point in time is the film’s portrayal of ordinary cops as average, likable Joes that doesn’t quite match up with the way we’re thinking about them these days. But no film is perfect even if ROBOCOP comes close. All that fury brought to almost operatic heights by Basil Poledouris and his phenomenal score makes me want to stand up at the end even when I’m by myself. There’s not a boring shot in the entire film, not a single dull moment. The message it contains is as clear as it ever was and instead of fading the film is more powerful and, yes, emotional, than ever.
On the surface, maybe it seems like a thankless role considering how he’s covered up for much of the film but the energy Peter Weller brings to that focus as the character is essential, as if he was cast for not only the shape of his chin but that haunted look in his eyes as much as every specific movement he makes to make the cyborg the believable creation that he is. This also matches up with the heroism and humor that Nancy Allen brings to Officer Anne Lewis, a reminder of a humanity that most of the rest of the world has left behind. It’s an unforgettable line-up of actors doing some of the best work of their careers as these scumbags in suits, Ronny Cox displaying the extreme arrogance of Dick Jones, Miguel Ferrer and the cockiness of Bob Morton as his new creation achieves success. Kurtwood Smith achieves instant immortality with his reading of the legendary line “Bitches leave” but the cackling viciousness found in his entire portrayal of Clarence Boddicker is unforgettable, matched with everything that Ray Wise, Jesse Goins and Paul McCrane bring to it as his crew. Robert DoQui finds the right amount of honorable fury as Sgt. Reed, the way Felton Perry as OCP exec Johnson walks says so much about the sort of corporate guy he’s playing and Daniel O’Herlihy as The Old Man in a grand total of two scenes remains a pitch perfect satirical vision of true corporate evil, one who you just know will never have to concern himself with anything going on where people are really going to get hurt.
And one thing that’s for sure after everything we’ve been through in the past year, is that it’s tough to know if you’re still a person. Even after all that staring in the mirror, you’re still not sure. Isolation does that to you. Having no idea what the future holds does that to you. And all that’s left to do is to keep waiting for the answer. Funny thing is, the way ROBOCOP concludes, there’s no real character here to build a franchise around unless they were going to put the helmet back on him and return to the status quo. Of course, it didn’t stop them from trying and that’s exactly what they did. Coming three years later, Irvin Kershner’s ROBOCOP 2 is a big, messy, miscalculation, but seems to have a fanbase maybe because of how much of an extreme mess it is. No one seems to defend, or even much remember, Fred Dekker’s ROBOCOP 3, which was made without Peter Weller (who turned it down in favor of David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and you can hardly blame him), had a delayed release hobbled by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and was even saddled with a PG-13 rating. There was also a one-season TV show I never saw and a remake just a few years ago, or so I’m told. But I never think of any of these things as being ROBOCOP, a film that by itself remains a masterpiece of pop cinema. We don’t see anything like it anymore. The pain has been bled out of what these movies are just as much as the cinematic intelligence found in the stylization. Still, I suppose things could be worse. Watching the Republican debates back in 2016, I made a comment on social media that it wasn’t so much like ROBOCOP but ROBOCOP 2. Maybe the past few years really have been that badly put together. Real life, after all, doesn’t resemble finely honed satire. It resembles messy, unsubtle satire and more people actually get hurt because of it than you ever imagine. But ROBOCOP remains the great film that ROBOCOP is even if we’ve passed it by now. We just need to remember who we are and how we fit into this world. If all this still counts as a world.