Monday, July 7, 2008
Mixing Business With Pleasure
You get used to some things, you wind up missing them when they’re gone. And I miss John Landis films. Within that nasty dark humor and DRAGNET-aesthetic of his visuals was always a unique comic tone, from NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE to SPIES LIKE US and also INTO THE NIGHT, maybe my favorite film of his. Even if he hasn’t had new films released in theaters for several years now, he’s certainly been active doing various things for TV as well as directing the terrific Don Rickles documentary MR. WARMTH. His last feature (“to date”, I’ll hopefully add) has been 1998’s SUSAN’S PLAN, a low-budget film which the director also scripted. Unfortunately, it wound up getting no theatrical release here in the States. It did eventually turn up on video as DYING TO GET RICH, a lousy title, especially since “Susan’s Plan” is actually spoken in dialogue a number of times. Short, slight and more than a little mean, it might not be accurate to call SUSAN’S PLAN a good movie. Maybe it’s not supposed to be. Maybe it’s not even a movie. Maybe it’s an anti-movie. At least it’s slightly unique.
Susan Holland (Nastassja Kinski) convinces lover Sam Myers (Billy Zane) to arrange to have her ex-husband Paul (Adrian Paul) killed so she can collect the insurance. Sam hires two idiots (Rob Schneider and Michael Biehn) for the job which they naturally screw up—even though they shoot Paul several times, they somehow manage to not kill him. As Paul lies in the hospital recovering, Police Detective Scott (Bill Duke) begins to investigate the shooting. Also mixed up in the plot is hairdresser Betty (Lara Flynn Boyle) who most of the men in the movie are completely obsessed with, Sam’s ex-wife and boss Penny (Lisa Edelstein, dressed like she’s going to play the Hildy Johnson role in a HIS GIRL FRIDAY remake) who pieces together what’s going on and tough biker Bob (Dan Ackroyd) who is enlisted to take care of Paul once the shooting goes wrong.
It’s not much of a plot, which the movie makes little effort to disguise. The basic message of SUSAN’S PLAN is that everyone in the world is pretty much just a schmuck and whether working a normal job or arranging the intricacies of a murder plot, everyone still has to get through the daily grind of eating, drinking, screwing, money worries and dealings with minor bureaucracies. Set in Los Angeles with plenty of shots of Hollywood landmarks, about as much emphasis is placed on what food and drink characters order throughout as anything having to do with the plot. More importantly, the film continually pauses throughout the running time for dream sequences (and, occasionally, dreams within dreams) of various characters imagining the myriad of ways that Susan’s plan could go wrong. Part of this has to do with Landis employing Bunuel-type mindgames (probably inspired by THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOUISE). Of course, Landis’s own AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON made use of this method but in that case, the dreams were employed to emphasize the horror and paranoia the lead character was going though within the plot. In the case of SUSAN’S PLAN, the dreams ARE the entire plot to the point where it’s irrelevant to complain about them. You can’t say that they disguise the fact that there isn’t much of a story because, in many ways, they are the story. It’s hard not to wish that there was a little more going on storywise but maybe the minimalism is the point. Some of it is funny, especially the nit-picky nature of the dialogue (“Crucified. Like a deer caught in the headlights.”), some of it not so much (several fart jokes). Ultimately, it’s a nasty, little movie about nasty, little people with nothing redeeming about any of them but there is a strange sort of pureness about the whole thing. It’s almost as if, more than any other of his films, this encapsulates John Landis’s world view. Does he really like any of these people? Does he identify with them? Does he find them reprehensible? Does he think they’re no different from anyone else? Maybe the answer is all of the above.
Kinski honestly seems miscast to me—she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would engineer such a plot. Boyle, in the sexpot role that seems designed to “steal” the movie, feels too mannered. Fortunately, most of the other actors are very good, each hitting what feels like the right comic notes. Michael Biehn is a nice surprise in a different sort of role for him. Even Billy Zane, never anyone’s favorite actor, is very funny. Hell, even Rob Schneider is actually very good. Future Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church, playing a doctor, gets a laugh at one point simply out of replying “What?” to a question someone asks him. Lisa Edelstein, my future wife, is extremely good as Sam’s ex, bringing a level of comic intelligence to her performance which feels so sharp that I wish that her character was the one the film focused on. Not that I have any extra interest in Lisa Edelstein or anything. Bill Duke plays the one voice of sanity in this world as the cop—actually kind of a familiar sort of character in the years after Frances McDormand in FARGO. He’s just about the toughest-looking guy in movies but here all he wants is to listen to more than a few seconds of “The Blue Danube” without getting a phone call interrupting those few second of peace. He never gets the chance. Since it’s a John Landis film, there are cameo appearances by a few directors, namely Randal Kleiser, Stuart Gordon, Adam Rifkin and (now familiar as an actor) Danny Huston. Unfortunately, “See You Next Wednesday” never turns up and in the one elevator scene the muzak heard is not “The Girl From Ipenema” but a Jake Steinfeld infomercial seems to be on every time a TV is seen. Jeff Morris, Bob of Bob’s Country Bunker in THE BLUES BROTHERS, has one short amusing scene with Ackroyd at Boardner’s in Hollywood explaining that his name is “Larry Cooper.” It ends quickly and has nothing to do with anything else we ever see. Which, come to think of it, kind of describes the entire film.
If anything can be said about SUSAN’S PLAN it’s that every frame feels like the work of John Landis, for better and also for worse, and I could believe that the process of making it was possibly somewhat freeing after being involved with so many big-budget studio comedies. In some ways it would probably be a good idea for more directors to make such a small film which was this much a distillation of that particular person’s mindset and filmic style. They might not all work—hell, I’m not sure SUSAN’S PLAN qualifies as a movie that “works”—but the results would at least be interesting.
When I started this blog I never thought that if I made it to 200 posts I was going to write about SUSAN’S PLAN. But it seemed as logical a choice as any to mark the occasion. Plus I kind of had to see it again this week. I’d rather not explain.