Tuesday, May 17, 2011
That Could Also Be A Noun
When I think about it now, I feel sort of lucky that while growing up I was able to see a number of Blake Edwards films when they were first released. Sure, I may have been a kid who wasn’t really the audience for such things but I honestly believe that such an exposure at that age allowed me to develop a growing awareness of his particular style and in doing so, allowed me to begin to learn something about any director having a particular style. Simply put, the films of Blake Edwards were a key part of the beginning of my own cinematic education. Now less than six months after his death and going on several decades past the final film he ever made, that very style I associate with him already seems to feel that much more a part of the past, of a different world of movies than the one that’s out there now. His penultimate directorial effort SWITCH came right at the end of a surprisingly prolific streak that occurred through much of the eighties and is now twenty years old, released on May 10, 1991. I saw it on opening weekend and looking at how the film has held up it’s interesting to consider both how its sexual politics were a part of its time and how some of what it tries to say seemed out of another era even then, making it in some ways kind of an old man’s movie. Mixed in with that vibe is an ad agency plotline that might make it seem even older than it is, like something out of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day era or maybe even something that Edwards himself would have directed back in the sixties. Considering the high level he reached a few of the other times he explored the battle of male-female identities SWITCH is a mixed bag if there ever was one, containing a story that is unfortunately weaker than it should be but the snap associated with Edwards is present throughout and it also has an absolutely amazing lead comic performance by Ellen Barkin which helps smooth things past any number of its flaws. But even though such flaws are certainly evident in the final product it can’t be said enough how much Edwards’ basic filmmaking style, as classical in nature as it may be, still contains an undeniable elegance that really hasn’t dated at all. Or at least, it shouldn’t have dated. It’s tough for me to tell with these things anymore.
Male chauvinist ad exec Steve Brooks (Perry King) is lured to a private party with three former girlfriends including the wealthy Margo Brofman (JoBeth Williams) only to learn that their plan is to murder him for what he’s put them through. Which is exactly what happens, resulting with Steve taking several bullets to the chest. Once in purgatory, God (heard as both a male and female voice) informs Steve that he has amassed enough credits to get into heaven except for the minor problem that not a single woman has ever liked him. Steve convinces God to let him go back to earth for one more chance for this to happen but the Devil (Bruce Payne) insists on making his task slightly harder—namely, making him return to earth as a woman. Which is exactly what happens to his surprise, in the form of a beautiful blonde who decides to call him/herself Amanda (Ellen Barkin) and soon the reborn Steve is convincing best friend Walter (Jimmy Smits) and everyone at his old job that ‘she’ is in fact Steve’s long lost half-sister. Blackmailing Margo into buying a full wardrobe, Amanda takes over Steve’s ad agency job and sets out in search of a woman who’ll like ‘her’ while fending off the lewd advances of every man in sight—including one-time best friend Walter.
Somewhere out there I imagine a graduate student working right now on their thesis which goes into detail on how no matter how much of a master Blake Edwards was, no matter how much genius he sometimes displayed in his comedy, he simply wasn’t so great when it came to endings. If it’s a woman, I hope to marry her. One of several films he made with a final section that seems to drift off as the credits roll when we’d probably prefer some kind of slam-bang conclusion, SWITCH is an interesting example of how good Blake Edwards could be while at the same time also displaying any number of the weaknesses evident in his work. Themes of sexual identity is definitely a subject he’s explored in the past, particularly with VICTOR/VICTORIA, but the way he lays things out in the script for SWITCH it never seems like he’s just going over well-trodden material again so it’s at times much sharper than might be expected. The rhythms are there and it actually has considerably more oomph than a number of other films Edwards film made around this period. Scenes on their own continually crackle with actors that are always playing well off each other and even some of the smaller parts are well cast. There’s also a literate flow to the dialogue that feels like it couldn’t have come from anyone else but Edwards in all the best ways—I’ve always particularly liked a runner where people repeatedly compare Steve’s disappearance to Gauguin (“Who?”). But while the pacing and staging are there the story is weaker than it probably should be, as if Edwards had the basic idea laid out in his head when he sat down to create the script but simply never came up with a strong enough story to go with it—while writing the above synopsis it felt like there was a point where I wasn’t sure what else to say about where the plot actually goes, which is kind of how it feels while watching the film. Amanda doesn’t start work at the ad agency until around the forty-five minute mark and the amount of time she spends on the make for lesbian perfume exec Sheila Faxton (Lorraine Bracco) feels more like wheel-spinning of the picture’s own particular interests than it does any sort of necessary plot development.
In some ways that plot, whatever there is of it, never even really seems to get going at all so by the time the film moves into the the final stretch as it rushes to the ending what the story ultimately builds to makes thematic sense but it still doesn’t feel entirely earned and the movie feels a little like it’s missing some sort of farcical setpiece or payoff that never occurred beyond the requisite bar fight. Hey, I like the chaos that erupts from bar fights directed by Blake Edwards as much as anyone and there are plenty of other moments throughout that pop with the snap that comes from his best work—as a director here he feels very much on his game, laying out sequences in his patented master-shot style making full use of the Scope frame with some terrific composition work courtesy of cinematographer Dick Bush. It’s just that it ultimately feels as if he didn’t have much to say about the male-female dichotomy beyond the basics of his own thesis and after an initial rant about the way women should be allowed to talk among men the film seems to lose the desire to dig into it, instead choosing to go with things like a one-on-one basketball game between Barkin and Smits. Trust me, no Blake Edwards film was ever made better by the inclusion of a one-on-one basketball montage. These misgivings nag at me even while I still find great pleasure out of long stretches during multiple viewings and truthfully, it actually works pretty well during the early stages when the plot isn’t as much of a concern, from Barkin’s introduction to her first meeting with Bracco which is around the halfway point.
Maybe part of what I respond to is just the retro vibe combined with the Edwards stylistics clicking their way through the laughs and banter. Even if the story doesn’t hold he still knows how to work out individual scenes and to allow his actors tiny bits of business within them which is almost good enough for me. Considering the one last film which followed for him two years later, the unfortunate SON OF THE PINK PANTHER (and I can’t even bring myself to fully hate that one), looking at this film’s best moments now gives the whole thing a feel of one final enjoyable pratfall taken and one last cocktail downed before the bar finally closes. Since there are many drinks consumed here by Barkin and Smits’ characters in their local hangout Duke’s, as should be the case in a Blake Edwards film, it’s only fitting. Even the film’s somewhat insular feel seems somewhat appropriate—it’s set in New York but aside from some location work it always feels kind of like we’re in that zoned-out Blake Edwards world of Beverly Hills or Brentwood and maybe that should bother me more than it does but as time goes on the more it simply plays to me like his view of the world being presented, one that may be imagined from the backseat of a limo with cocktail music playing but another car is going to crash into it soon enough right before we cut away to the next scene which will make it all ok.
What helps immeasurably, and in some ways is what really makes the movie much more than it would have been otherwise, is a spectacularly funny performance by Ellen Barkin as Steve/Amanda, a chauvinist in the body of a gorgeous woman who works every bit of awkward physicality imaginable while in the process of discovering his/her own sexiness and it comes off as absolutely fearless in terms of how far the actress is willing to go with it. If this sort of performance were recognized more by the Academy and the film had ultimately been better received it’s easy to imagine Barkin getting Oscar buzz for her work here—as it is, she only received a Golden Globe nomination. She goes perfectly with the director’s acidly comic house style and I can’t help but think they each brought out the best in each other during the making of the film. I’ve never met Ellen Barkin, which just seems hugely unfair. She’s so good and so weirdly, mind-bogglingly sexy here looking ready to burst out of some of those outfits she wears that it makes it all the more disappointing that the film around her never quite lives up to the potential of just how good she is. But the script never really does enough with the basic setup of the character’s own response beyond the surface of dealing with sexist come-ons, all that hair she now has and the endless running gag of trying to walk in high heels. Barkin is skilled enough to sell the physicality so it works longer than it probably should, but only up to a point. It sort of keeps things as basically about a guy who looks in the mirror and sees a beautiful blonde staring back at him as opposed to really following through on the potential of the idea in a way that would live up to, say, the sexual confusion felt by James Garner’s King Marchand in VICTOR/VICTORIA. Maybe Edwards really did ultimately express all that he had to offer on the subject with that film after all.
There’s still a surprising amount of teeth to some of it, particularly when Amanda discovers what has happened after a particularly drunken night in a scene that you probably wouldn’t get from a romantic comedy these days, but there’s also the feel that it pulls a few punches at times like a sex scene involving Barkin and Bracco which was apparently cut down to little more than an ellipsis with a hasty voiceover placed over it. A few plot elements also feel left hanging (some stills showing scenes not in the final film do exist) such as the recurring appearances by Bruce Payne’s Devil in different guises sprinkled throughout, including in drag, which never has any sort of payoff. There’s even a slight feeling of songs being inserted into the soundtrack where they aren’t needed (quite a few dopey pop songs heard coming from radios throughout) in place of the expected Henry Mancini score as if the production is trying to bring the tone slightly more up to date. Much of the lovely, strangely haunting Mancini score on the CD, which I’ve always liked, doesn’t even seem to be present in the film and there was actually a second soundtrack album of pop songs released as well.
And much as I may like some of the actors here, it really is Ellen Barkin’s show. Jimmy Smits is pleasant company in what is really the James Garner role (both in reference to VICTOR/VICTORIA and just the 60s ad agency comedy aesthetic in general) but while he’s amiable enough his acting style is maybe a little too naturalistic to bring it the needed snap. It’s interesting to contrast him with Tony Roberts, who seems much more of the school that allows him to bring those rhythms to his dialogue and reactions in his role as the ad agency boss—he even walks funny. JoBeth Williams (who gets maybe the most notorious line of dialogue) and Lorraine Bracco play well off Barkin even if their character’s seem kind of left hanging there by the script. Lysette Anthony of HUSBANDS AND WIVES and Victoria Mahoney are Williams’ partners in crime, Kevin Kilner of ALMOST PERFECT is the new sleaze at the ad agency and even Jim J. Bullock works pretty well in his one scene as a phony psychic. Catherine Keener has some nice moments in an early role as Steve’s secretary who has her own surprising response to learning he’s gone and Téa Leoni nails the right not-that-dumb tone of the “Dream girl for November” who unconvincingly claims she liked Steve, putting on some kind of outer borough accent in her film debut. Michael Badalucco makes an early appearance as a construction worker and Edwards regular Dr. Herb Tanney plays a judge, billed as Savant Tanney.
The man-woman question seems to come down on the female side of things and even if the film does make sure to have God made up of both sexes the one who lists all the worst things about being a woman is, after all, the very male Devil. Maybe all that says more about Blake Edwards than even he realized. In all honesty, I’m very close to insisting that the film is underrated or at least not as deserving of the easy dismissal it’s always had since it contains too many examples of Edwards as true comic stylist but it just falls short. The overall design of the piece is undeniably the work of Blake Edwards but it doesn’t have the structural integrity of his best films and the feeling at the end that Edwards is insisting on a degree of normalcy to come out of Steve/Amanda’s situation is just no fun at all since too much of the film has gone against that grain. Still, I’m glad we have SWITCH and maybe that’s why I’m slightly kinder to it than I should be. It’s flawed, definitely, but it has enough elements that remind me why I responded to Edwards’ filmmaking style way back then in the first place and why they still mean something to me now but I guess I’ll have to keep the admiration I feel to myself.