Saturday, July 10, 2010

If You Can't Say Something Nice

THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is now twenty years old, but what the hell are we supposed to do with that piece of info? Am I supposed to actually try to explain who Andrew “Dice” Clay is to kids out there or have they already heard of him at some point? Shouldn’t we just forget the whole thing ever happened? The film opened during the summer, during the heat of all the controversy surrounding the shock comic, how people found him and his routines hugely offensive. Just a few months earlier an uproar occurred when he hosted SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, an event that included cast member Nora Dunn refusing to go on with him and the night before FAIRLANE opened was probably Dice’s most notorious TV appearance ever, a spot on THE ARSENIO HALL SHOW (oh no, am I supposed to explain who Arsenio Hall was to kids now too?) where he looked right into the camera, explained himself and started to cry. The film opened the next day, July 11, 1990 and I was there at Yonkers Movieland with Twizzlers in hand to see the first show. Sure, I’d gotten sick of all those damn nursery rhymes by that point but it was summer. It did decent its first weekend (it finished behind GHOST, also released then, but ahead of QUICK CHANGE) but it soon after crashed and burned, dropping over fifty percent in its second week which was a much bigger deal then than it is now and stopping dead at $21 million. Fox didn’t release the concert film DICE RULES that August like they were going to at one point and Andrew “Dice” Clay, as movie star, was pretty much done. THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE is crass, sloppy, stupid, juvenile and maybe a little offensive. It’s nothing that I can defend or even should try to defend. And yet, truthfully, against my better judgment, I’ve never really minded it. I probably should be embarrassed to admit that, but there it is.

Ford Fairlane (Andrew “Dice” Clay) is the hottest rock n’ roll detective in Hollywood living a dream life complete with a car that bears his name, swank pad out in Malibu and loyal secretary Jazz (Lauren Holly) but constantly in need of cash due to his famous clients paying him off in expensive trinkets. When old friend Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), the sleaziest DJ in the west, hires him to find rock groupie Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman) no sooner is Ford on the job than Johnny is brutally murdered on the air. When uber-wealthy Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) turns up the next day also looking to hire Ford to find the same girl he finds himself mired in a case involving the recently O.D.’s rock star Bobby Black (Vince Neil), record mogul Julian Grendel (Wayne Newton), annoyed cop Lt. Amos (Ed O’Neil), a hitman named Smiley (Robert Englund) with a habit of turning up unexpectedly and the mysterious Art Mooney who Ford believes holds the answers to all of his questions.

Renny Harlin was directing FORD FAIRLANE when Fox and producer Joel Silver decided that he was the man to helm the eagerly awaited DIE HARD 2. The films wound up opening a week apart with the film that had been shot second coming first, to much bigger box office. Gene Siskel, who went bonkers for DIE HARD 2 calling it “the best film of the summer” (not when GREMLINS 2 had come out, it wasn’t), expressed disappointment in his review that it came from the same director but, seriously, this hardly seems like an auteurist issue. It was probably impossible to ignore the furor surrounding the film’s star but I can’t help but think that critics were reviewing him more than the actual movie which really does have a fair amount of invention going on throughout. A totally fanciful look at Los Angeles circa 1990, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (Screenplay by Daniel Waters and James Cappe & David Arnott, Story by Cappe & Arnott, based on the character who appeared in stories by Rex Weiner) has about as much to do with real life as BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS did in its day and I’ll bet that film’s screenwriter Roger Ebert probably noticed, calling this one “loud, ugly and mean-spirited” in his negative review, none of which I have any real argument for. It’s a Dice vehicle through and through but even if you hate him there’s plenty of other stuff to pay attention to going on in the constantly busy frame. It’s a completely immature film, with the sequence at the I Ata Pie sorority house filled to the brim with hot college girls either the high or low point depending on your point of view and it’s safe to say that if an inanimate object like a camera can actually leer, it definitely does so during these scenes.

The tone is pretty much all over the place--spoofy but surprisingly violent, violent but pretty damn goofy, a story that never makes any sense at all. There are a surprising number of nasty deaths, the cute-as-a-button Lauren Holly gets thrown through a second story window as well as brutally punched in the stomach at various points and then again there’s the blatantly fake Koala Bear that figures into things. It’s also got its share of clever dialogue that is pretty obviously the style of HEATHERS screenwriter Waters, who I could believe was more interested in doing a Los Angeles music satire/private eye spoof (if Waters is responsible for the name Zuzu Petals, as I suspect he is, the man deserves as much praise as he can get) more than a vehicle for the guy starring in the movie, with the written material sometimes clashing uneasily with stuff (sometimes in the constant voiceover narration) that are either adlibs by Dice or just bits pulled from his routine—a gay joke, a reference to getting banned from MTV. And with lines like “I’m sorry that I made you clean the toilets and the bathtubs, who did all the work in bed?” that he asks his hapless assistant Jazz, I could believe that some of these adlibs actually make the character more unlikable than he already was, pushing him over the line from scoundrel into outright sleazoid. In an attempt by the film to not get us to totally hate him, Ford befriends a kid (Brandon Hall) who wants to hire him to find his father, with only a Fred Flintstone ring as a clue, but it doesn’t really work. And I’m not sure the film even cares, which is actually a little admirable. When the camera lingers on him during a few points as if he was just told to adlib like crazy, it’s some of my least favorite stuff in the film and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that I like this film almost in spite of the guy who’s starring in it. And there are bits where he doesn’t much matter that I always look forward to like Jazz telling some bad guys, “If either one of you ever has a son, I hope his dog dies,” the chant the sorority girls make when inducting Ford as well as the ultra-sleek look it provides of Los Angeles which to me once seemed like it may as well have been another planet. Once during an appearance Daniel Waters made a sarcastic reference to ‘the comedy stylings of Renny Harlin’ and, yes, there probably isn’t a great case to be made for him as a director who understood what made something funny. For that matter, he probably took some of the action more seriously than he need to and I almost wonder if he even realized how ridiculous the action scene where characters climb down the side of Capitol Records really was, or maybe should have been.

All of that said, there’s a definite energy to the film the whole way through and, almost surprisingly considering how DIE HARD 2 is one of the most overcut movies of all time with numerous scenes using seemingly dozens of angles FORD FAIRLANE is much, much more fluid in this regard and the style gives a certain life to the world around the lead character. It feels like Harlin is constantly tossing stuff into shots to keep the film engaging to look at, always willing to feature a supporting character doing some kind of business on the side of the frame. For me this approach is definitely preferable to the recent rock world comedy GET HIM TO THE GREEK which at times feels like it consists of nothing but scene after scene of alternating close-ups of two people talking, making it about as dead a film experience as I could imagine. FORD FAIRLANE at least has some life to it, even if I do need to shower afterwards and what’s wrong with taking a shower, anway? There are probably more than a few topical jokes (“The Rob Lowe Channel”) that are pretty dated now but it does contain an early device of computer-disc-as-McGuffin as well as what has to be one of the first uses of a cell phone in an action movie to make things seem as high tech as possible. There are also some pretty random film references both in dialogue (CHINATOWN is the most obvious) as well as a few of the band names handled by “Fred’s Condom Company” as glimpsed on a computer monitor at one point. There are a few cameos by rock stars I didn’t care about then or now and some of the music’s actually pretty good, even if it does give me flashbacks to 1990 that I’d just as soon not have. There’s no great case to be made here for the film as a satire which hasn’t gotten its due but at least it’s not a boring film even if it is constantly all over the place—hell, if it never quite settles down into a disciplined style that makes sense at least it still feels somewhat unique . Besides, it’s hard for me to hate a film that features a party at an obscenely wealthy Bel Air estate complete with a serving of shark meat. FORD FAIRLANE may be lewd and immature and sleazy but it’s unapologetic about all those things and, while hardly perfect on its own level, is still true to its principals.

I’ll give Clay some credit—as least his portrayal as a sleaze is consistent but as an actor he’s got genuine presence and as a comic personality he’s not afraid to look (or act) totally foolish on occasion. Lauren Holly couldn’t be cuter playing the Velda figure to his Mike Hammer and she brings a genuine spark to her scenes. Maybe the actress wouldn’t want to hear this, but it’s probably the role of hers that I have the most fondness for. Priscilla Presley probably deserves some kind of good sport award for her few scenes here, Robert Englund looks like he’s having a total blast as the nasty henchman complete with British accent, Ed O’Neill is fun as Ford’s cop adversary still upset about something that happened in the past, Wayne Newton seems totally in on the joke and brings a comic edge to his character that goes beyond just playing this as camp (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Baby.”), but Maddie Corman, Eric Stoltz’s sister in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL, damn near skips off with the whole film as the insanely stupid groupie Zuzu Petals. Diving into this role with such a lack of fear, she turns the standard ditz character into a zen kind of thing that is frankly awe-inspiring by a certain point. Kari W├╝hrer is Melodi (“As in, a pretty girl who’s like a.”) who wears a short dress that inspires one of the film’s most oft-quoted lines spoken by Morris Day, David Patrick Kelly is a stalker Ford has to deal with named ‘Sam the Sleazebag’, Willie Garson of SEX AND THE CITY turns up as a frat guy and there’s also a New Beverly calendar spotted in one scene, so I’ll just add that I hope they run this at midnight one of these days.

Plenty of rock-oriented musical comedies that wind up feeling somehow wrongheaded in how they were conceived have acquired cults through the years. There’s probably no such following around FORD FAIRLANE and I suspect that if anyone out there does like it (after all, there’s always somebody out there who likes something) they’re probably too embarrassed to fess up. I won’t say that I like it or even think that it’s actually any good…but even though I know I shouldn’t there are a number of elements that I honestly find enjoyable. And besides, if for this film I’ll bet very few people would still know the name Art Mooney. Since it’s now twenty years old the music world that’s being spoofed has now probably become much more insane than is portrayed here—it sounds crazy to say it but it really does portray a simpler time so watching it for a little while does kind of take me back. And at its best it’s actually, so help me, kind of entertaining. But don’t tell anyone I said that. And remember to always answer your phone by saying ‘Hit Pay Dirt With KDRT.’


Joe Martino said...


How do you find so many intelligent things to say about such a sub-par movie?? Amazing!!

Re-watched this on FMC a couple weeks ago. I didn't like it when I saw it in the theaters, but now I realize what's wrong. It's Dice! Take him out the of the picture and replace him with a real actor (and a better director) and you have a cool ittle film on your hand.

Dan Waters deserves more credit for his inventive script. There's an entertaining mystery buried in there. Too bad Harlin and Clay mucked it up.

Unknown said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I actually paid to see this in theaters and saw it opening weekend. I guess, to see what all the hype was about Andrew Dice Clay. I would say the film is the epitome of a guilty pleasure and I certainly can't argue with you observations about this one. It would make a good double bill with THE LAST BOY SCOUT, another down 'n' dirty West Coast slam-bam action film that features sleazy characters a-go-go and a disturbing level of misogyny and yet is also fascinating to watch in its own way.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Dan Waters does deserve more credit for the script as far as I'm concerned, it's much more clever than has ever been discussed. Very glad that you liked the piece!


It really would make a good double bill with BOY SCOUT, which is still pretty sleazy but works considerably better as a straight action movie. Should I feel guilty for getting some pleasure out of this movie? And don't know, but I guess a small part of me does.

Ford Fairlane Author said...

You want a sequel, Mr. PhD of Ford Fairlane? Go here and vote!

Interloper said...

20th anniversary! Damn you Avellino for reminding me! Daniel “Never met a tone he didn’t like” Waters here. Yes, Zuzu Petals is mine and yes, I’m a little proud that I was one of the first writers to seize on cellphones as a way to do exposition during car chases…

When I started writing the damn thing, Andrew Dice Clay was still playing smaller clubs—I thought he was perfect to play the Inspector Clouseau of macho. Alas, during the shooting, editing, and promotion of the picture he became a non-ironic, fascist superstar we had to listen to. Further alas, by the time the movie actually came out, it was already over and dead. They were supposed to open the film against Bird on a Wire and Cadillac Man (in that lot, FF is the Hurt Locker), but the disastrous decision was made to push back a month to capitalize on the “growing buzz” (that was actually radiation) and to add the agonizing voiceover.

I swear there was a cogent plot once, but we kept pushing its important details to a big warehouse scene…and then one day, Joel Silver says “Waters, we’re cutting the warehouse scene.”

Many tales to tell if you want to hear them…I have to build on your exciting “almost didn’t mind it” revisionism (Actually, it does have a non-Room cult following in Britain, smarty pants.)

To me, the line that brings it all home is when Morris Day says “With friends like you, who needs enemas” I thought the line was adorable, but critics and people sitting in front of me at three separate screenings could not make out Morris Day’s mumble, culminating in Joel Siegel saying on air “It took three writers to come up with the line ‘with friends like you, who needs enemies.” It is my starkest Fairlane memory, standing in a New York hotel room (shooting Hudson Hawk, no less—frying pan, fire, fool me twice), futilely shouting at the screen “It’s enemas, it’s enemas…”—which should be the title of my Screenwriter autobiography…

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I bow to you, sir. And, yes, of the two other films which opened that weekend in May (saw them both then) FORD FAIRLAINE is definitely THE HURT LOCKER by a long shot.

I look forward to hearing those stories!

Robert H. said...

Yes, PLEASE, Mr. Waters... More Stories!!! Wonder if the statute of limitations on all things HUDSON HAWK has expired yet, so the guilty can be named... (HH has some great lines amongst the chaos).

Joe Valdez said...

Thought not a Diceman fan, I gathered up money I'd earned working at Charlie's Hamburgers and went to see Ford Fairlane opening week in August 1990. For a 17-year-old, it had everything you could want in a movie, plus some shit you wouldn't want.

I completely agree with your comment that had they cast anyone else in this part -- like Kevin Kline -- it would have been an amusing little B-movie.

Goofing on the music scene in L.A. seems to be a graveyard for comedies. Hollywood Homicide and Be Cool were both god awful. The good fake band movies -- like The Commitments or That Thing You Do! -- have nothing to do with the biz in Los Angeles.

That said, I would change places with Dan Waters and take this assignment in a heartbeat. There are way too many good anecdotes involved.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I never even thought of it that way but FORD FAIRLANE is absolutely miles ahead of BE COOL, no doubt about it. After writing this piece and all the comments I've gotten I like it even more now than I ever did. We need that New Beverly screening.

ethan_joe said...

When we would go to the video store as kids, my dad would often grab something to watch after we all went to bed. I recall him watching this one night, and telling me the next day (kind of sheepishly, not unlike your post) that he was surprised to have liked it. He even had a tape of the soundtrack. Your post and my father's endorsement got me to finally check it out. Easily my favorite of the Hudson Hawk / Last Action Hero gaudy 90s Parker-Lewis-Can't-Set-Design days.

Cynthia J Hollenbeck said...

I love this movie so much. When it came out, I saw it in the theatre four times, twice with the same date. Andrew Dice Clay was so hot back then, not so much now, but oh well. When i watch this movie, I can quote all the way through... Here's to you, buddy, sucking my -----.