Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Under Intense Circumstances

You would think that I’d be posting new pieces more often these days. At least, that was the plan I had several weeks ago since I feel like I can try focusing on that a little more now but unfortunately I was waylaid by other matters involving life and getting a car, things like that. The good news is that I do have a car now, one that probably makes me look like I’m the lead in a quirky indie or something but I’m very happy with what I wound up with and there’s something oddly personal about owning this particular car that makes me feel good every time I use it. And from driving once again I’m now back to continuing to think about summer movies. The very concept of them used to seem more special than they do now. Part of that is because I’m getting older, I know that. Believe me, I know that. But everything about them just seems less fun than they used to be. Movies used to be movies. Now, they all seem to be part of giant franchises and inter-connected with stories that haven’t even begun to be wrapped up when the credits roll and if a movie released during the summer isn’t an established property, isn’t something that’s clearly being set up to establish a whole franchise or something, is presented as this special anomaly which needs to be explained to people. I guess around the point of the first X-MEN some of these films began to play more like elaborate pilots than anything, setting up the world and characters at the expense of an actual narrative since they keep implying that the big battle or confrontation or whatever will occur in parts two and three. Yeah, that worked really well when it came to the MATRIX sequels and since most films suck anyway at least some of the time those would-be sequels never wind up happening anyway so it’s almost as if there was never a movie to begin with. If THE FUGITIVE, a pretty great summer movie which was of course based on a famous open ended TV show, were made now it would end with Richard Kimble still on the run or some other giant plot point left hanging in order to lead into further adventures for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. And then we wouldn’t have the movie that THE FUGITIVE is. Something about that lack of willingness to make a movie that tells an actual, complete narrative seems to cripple storytelling in a non-stop attempt to emphasize CGI bloat (insert obligatory comment about hating 3-D here, I guess) and it all makes summer moviegoing unfortunately kind of a drag. At least it is for me. I wish things were otherwise.

So I may as well drift back into memory and think of a summer movie that I like, one which also has to do with driving—I’ll gladly admit that I’ve been a big fan of SPEED ever since seeing it on opening day back in 1994 at the Village in Westwood (huge, gorgeous theater that I never go to anymore because I never go to Westwood anymore. Does anybody?). Afterwards I drove over to Century City to see CITY SLICKERS 2: THE LEGEND OF CURLY’S GOLD which was a pretty big letdown in comparison and only revealed that much more how much SPEED delivered on being a hugely enjoyable popcorn movie in all the right ways and a few weeks later on my birthday I couldn’t think of anything better then going back to the Village to see it once again. Life was just simpler in those days, I suppose. A big surprise hit at the time, maybe because it’s ultimately kind of light and ‘pop’ as far as R-rated action movies go SPEED maybe hasn’t stuck around much in the public consciousness as much as a few other films from those days have but taking another look at what it accomplishes is a reminder of just how well it really does work. As well as being an interesting comparison point to what I was just talking about—it’s a plot which is a clear one-off in concept that was forced into being a sequel, to make it a franchise by a studio who couldn’t see just how foolhardy that was. The lead actor bailed because he clearly knew it would suck and, well, it did suck. Let’s face it, there isn’t much about the concept of SPEED which particularly lends itself to being a franchise—somehow DIE HARD was able to pull it off and ironically what was at one point going to be a cruise ship setting for the third DIE HARD film had roots in what ultimately became the sequel to SPEED, but let’s ignore that for now. In recent years it’s seemed like the lesson the studios have learned from this sort of thing is to display less interest in such one-off concepts, no matter how commercial they might be on their own, because if there’s no sequel to be had then what’s the point, right? This is starting to feel all the more unfortunate as time goes on but all by itself SPEED is still pretty damn great, a terrific example of what Hollywood entertainment sometimes can be if all the right elements are allowed to come together. Absurd, yes. Unbelievable, definitely and I can remember a particularly good Janeane Garofalo joke back in the day that nailed the very essence of this (I’d include it here but you kind of need to hear it in her voice). But for what it tries to do I can’t imagine it working better. The way these things usually turn out it’s almost like a small miracle.

Plot summary? You actually want a plot summary for SPEED? Fine. When an office building elevator in downtown L.A. is hijacked by a madman (Dennis Hopper) threatening to blow it up bomb squad hot shot Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and partner Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) are able to save the day with actions that result in the bomber presumably being killed in an explosion following a confrontation between them. But it turns out that the maniac is just regrouping and he soon makes his presence known once again with another challenge for Jack: a bomb on a L.A. bus that is just entering the freeway, rigged to explode killing everyone on board if it ever goes below 50 mph. Jack frantically makes his way to the bus, gets onboard and with cute passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) forced into taking the wheel they have to figure out a way to navigate the streets of Los Angeles without ever slowing down as the elusive bomber taunts Jack over the phone whenever possible. Or, to quote Homer Simpson’s legendary summary of the plot when he can’t quite think of the title, it’s “about a bus that has to SPEED around the city keeping its SPEED over fifty and if its SPEED dropped it would explode! I think it was called THE BUS THAT COULDN’T SLOW DOWN.”

One thing that occurred to me early on was that if this film were made now all the bus passengers would be on blackberries or iPhones instead of reading newspapers and working on their crossword puzzles—as it is, it’s all the better that these people are isolated from the rest of the world—but aside from small points like this very little about the actual filmmaking of SPEED has dated much at all even though, like many examples of this sort of mass-entertainment of years past, the notion of a movie centered around saving the lives of barely a dozen people on a city bus now seems flat out quaint. The likes of the L.A.-set LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD feel very much a part of the eighties stylistically when compared SPEED (this is in no way a criticism of the earlier films, just an observation) and that nineties setting which is a little more recognizable to me means that even now it hits me right in the sweet spot, with a slickness and genuine level of energetic craftsmanship from director Jan de Bont, a veteran cinematographer (including on DIE HARD and LETHAL WEAPON 3 actually) here making his directorial debut. And he infuses every scene with such an energy that is still so undeniable that it’s more than a little surprising that he was never able to rise to this level again in any of his subsequent films. Everything onscreen has a definite life to it, a tangible quality no matter how implausible things get and that combined with some very early digital work which is barely noticeable anyway it’s a reminder of how much I was enjoying some movies during this period of the decade before Michael Bay had to go ruin everything by turning up and sending us all spiraling down into a pit of cinematic hell. Yes, the screenplay by Graham Yost (which apparently contains early dialogue work by an uncredited Joss Whedon) is totally implausible and the film seems to be pretty much aware of that all the way through but approaches things with a mixture of conviction and bemusement, with bits like the scene with the baby carriage showing how it’s fully aware of all this ridiculousness yet always keeping us aware of the gravity of the situation for these people onboard. There are many other examples of this kind of action movie that also seem to contain a mixture of the right elements but they don’t seem to go together as well as everything does here. It is pop filmmaking, unquestionably, but pop filmmaking at its very best.

From the rising tension of the opening elevator setpiece to each beat laid out as that speedometer on the bus goes over fifty, everything about SPEED just works beautifully no matter how implausible it ultimately is, as if the approach to making it is to mix what then still felt like a certain kind of classical filmmaking, even down to what is pretty much a musical overture over the opening credits, mixed with that slick, funtime nineties style that de Bont brought to the material which seemed so fresh at the time--a few particular deaths aside, it’s a fairly soft R that would no doubt be whittled down to a PG-13 today. Every single action beat is enormously well-executed and even the few minutes of downtime between elevator and bus is gotten over with as fast as possible but all the rhythms somehow seem absolutely right. Once things get going the movie hurtles forward like a shot as it builds up to the enormously rewarding payoff of that bus jump with a score by Mark Mancina that I still think is one of the very best to ever come out of the Hans Zimmer style. There’s just something pure about it—pure as a movie, pure as a story, pure as action and even the characters are well-established and make sense. The people who populate this bus and essentially being held hostage for ransom (cleverly, it’s a bus with an ad on the back reading “MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING. (YEAH, RIGHT.)”) may not exactly be three-dimensional or even two-dimensional at times but that doesn’t mean we can’t relate to them, through both the constant stream of wisecracks as well as the more serious stretches—Alan Ruck’s tourist is a doofus, no question about it, but he’s not an idiot and stuck among these cynical Angelenos he’s almost kind of the surrogate for anyone watching this in a multiplex out in the heartland. The seriousness of his “I can’t be here” moment as well as his shell-shocked look after the bus jump seem absolutely correct somehow, bringing the right kind of gravity to the situation without wallowing in it. The movie barely seems part of the real world so as it turns out it’s a perfect fit for Los Angeles, which as we all know barely ever seems to be part of the real world anyway and it totally works as an L.A. movie--much of it was shot on the then-brand new 105 freeway the geography from Venice to the 10 to surface streets to the 105 to LAX makes a surprising amount of sense considering how action movies usually approach such things and even if the passengers on the bus seem to be a little too friendly with each other in a way that isn’t all that believable—hell, such a city bus headed downtown during early morning rush hour would probably be more crowded as well but I kind of doubt anyone who ever saw this movie thought that it needed more extras.

Structurally, the movie knows how to keep moving even as it races towards the climax and the momentum is so strong that it somehow gets away with not getting it to seem like things should be over once it moves to the ransom drop/subway finale. Funny how in terms of a three-act plot structure the bus portion of the movie is basically act two, although going from the 10 freeway to surface streets to the 605 to the airport gives it all a four-act structure within that hour of screentime that is expertly mapped out in the screenplay with even some clever points of misdirection—it always seems a little silly that the injured Harry goes out with them when Hopper’s identity is learned but any concerns that it’s going to be an issue turn out not to matter. The climax feels based on a pretty giant plot hole—after all, one wonders how they’re able to keep a giant explosion at the airport from being reported in the media—but it all works anyway right down to the final moments—the whole speed up to survive thing at the end probably makes as little sense as anything else in the entire film but taken metaphorically it somehow meant something to me in a way I couldn’t explain way back then and it still works for me now that I’m older, still responding to this film just as I did at the time. And that final moment on Hollywood Boulevard just puts me in a good mood, as if we’re easing things to a stop while the movie celebrates just how good it turned out to be. There are probably at least a dozen other flaws that could be nitpicked but to this day I really don’t care—this was the first time I’d watched the movie in several years and it’s kind of a thrill to see just how much pure, unabashed fun it still is.

You could rag on Keanu Reeves all you want and people still do but it’s hard to imagine him being any more ideal as Jack Traven than he is and his unending determination totally does what the part needs to be. The sort of film it is, no one was ever going to get a huge amount of acclaim for this film but they still deserve it--Sandra Bullock building up to superstardom here probably got more heat off it than anyone and she’s absolutely adorable. Joe Morton shouts his lines with total conviction as Lt. McMahon, Jeff Daniels brings the right touch of needed humanity as partner Harry in a similar way that the excellent Alan Ruck does in his role and Dennis Hopper chews his way through all his dialogue as Howard Payne and in the few moments of screentime he has where he gets to interact with somebody there’s a definite sense that they’re deliberately writing dialogue for him to chew his way through as much as possible, a blatant excuse to take advantage of the thrill of putting Dennis Hopper in a film which flat-out works. Among the various familiar faces that turn up here and there one who might be easily missed is THE WEST WING’s Richard Schiff not really doing anything as the subway driver in the climax. This was nowhere near his first film but it’s hard to imagine he ever had one that was less noticeable—on the DVD audio commentary producer Mark Gordon implies that Schiff badly needed a job to keep his SAG health insurance at the time.

SPEED is as entertaining now as it was when it was first released, maybe even more, considering how much the bar has been lowered in terms of just pure directorial craft in these movies since then. And it reaches a level that none of those who made it were able to pull off again. Screenwriter Yost has had great success in television but his feature work on action films such as BROKEN ARROWN and HARD RAIN, two films that contain certain structural similarities but never come anywhere close in terms of effectiveness (as an aside, the enjoyable and informative commentary on the DVD between Yost and producer Mark Gordon feels like an elaborate gag if what’s been reported about most of the dialogue being the work of Whedon, who is never mentioned, is true). It has to be this particular combination of elements --there’s a certain unexpectedly nimble quality to SPEED which balances the jeopardy that is always being felt with a sense of fun that feels truly effortless and everything about it just seems to go together in the best way possible making for the sort of entertainment that I wish could happen more often. I remember reading once how the music cue at the very end when the credits roll was done late in the game when they decided that starting up that (crappy) Billy Idol song which follows shortly right at that moment just didn’t work. SPEED was just one of those movies that needed to be good as it was going to be and all the futzing the studio may have tried to do to ruin it wasn’t going to succeed. Somebody might insist that I’m looking at this one with rose colored glasses. That’s fine. I’m not going to make a claim that it should be called a masterwork of the genre on the level of something like DIE HARD since it’s not quite weighty enough to earn the moniker. But regardless everything it does seems to be exactly what it’s supposed to be, pretty much the opposite of the lousy 1997 sequel SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL, also directed by de Bont but missing things like good action, good plotting, suspense, fun, whatever. I don’t own it on DVD. Does anybody? For that matter, it’s probably agreed that De Bont, with no credits of any kind since 2003’s LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE, never directed another good movie and the shocking success of the lousy TWISTER in 1996 probably seems like even more of a joke now than it did then. I admit, this is one of those movies that I don’t write about very much because there’s not really all that much thematic material to discuss but it’s a film that I unabashedly love regardless. Right now in this summer I’m able to drive out into the streets of L.A. in a car that I feel good about. So with that and the rush of seeing SPEED again fresh in my mind I can’t help but have some hope there might still be a movie this summer—or any summer—that would remind me of those days when I would go to those great theaters in Westwood. That was a long time ago now, but I have to hope.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Older Wines Are Better

HOPSCOTCH feels like a relic of another time and it’s not even really that old. Or, at least, I’d like to think it’s isn’t that old but I guess it probably is. Either way, it’s very much a product of an era when nice, polite entertainment was aimed more at adults. It’s the sort of thing that a married couple, like my parents, might have gone to see it at the neighborhood movie theater on a Saturday night out, enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion, were home probably ten minutes after the credits rolled then gave it not another moment’s thought until it turned up on the NBC Sunday Night at the Movies a few years later, exclaimed “Hey! This was pretty good!” and you would finally get to see it since all the swear words had been removed. This memory I’ve just described is probably a total fabrication that’s come from the deep recesses of my own brain, but you get the idea.

Certainly the notion of pairing Walter Matthau with Glenda Jackson is also something from another time and this was the second of two movies they made together—the first, 1978’s HOUSE CALLS, directed by Howard Zieff, which I saw for the first time about a year ago is a cute romantic comedy but not all that memorable and very much a reminder how there was once a time when the main goal of certain movies was simply to be just sort of pleasant. And nothing more. Henry Mancini did the music for that film, a score which is pretty mild stuff even for him and I couldn’t help but imagine even that composer musing, “Hmm, this could maybe use a little edge” while looking at certain scenes. HOPSCOTCH, which followed two years later when it was released in September 1980, is a little more exciting if only by the nature of its own espionage world backdrop but it still may very well be just about the most pleasant, genial, laidback spy movie ever made as well as maybe the most puzzling DVD release ever to come from Criterion—it’s certainly not the worst of the films they’ve put out (after all, they released discs of Michael Bay’s THE ROCK and ARMAGGEDDON, after all) but that they did still seems a little strange, as if it happened because someone over there was a Ronald Neame completist or maybe they were just trying to do something nice for their mother. There are certainly worse reasons to put something out on DVD and no real complaints from me since I get some pleasure out of the movie but, regardless, HOPSCOTCH is pretty mild stuff.

After successfully putting a stop to a microfilm transfer in Munich, longtime CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) returns to Langley and discovers his new department head, the hated Myerson (Ned Beatty) is furious at him for not apprehending his Russian opposite number Yaskov (Herbert Lom) at the same time. Determined to make an example of Kendig, Myerson insists he take a desk job to wait out his pension but instead Kendig quickly shreds his file and leaves without telling anyone. Before anyone realizes, he’s jetted off to Austria to meet up with lady love ex-spy Isabel Von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson) where he soon gets the idea to write his memoirs and blow the lid off what really goes on within the agency. Quickly after doing this he mails the opening chapters to not only the CIA but to various others agencies around the world. He sets off to continue writing as Myerson, fearful for what Kendig might reveal in the book about agency activities, sets off in pursuit along with Kendig’s more sympathetic protégé Cutter (Sam Waterston) in tow and the game of hopscotch begins.

It’s a nice movie, which is probably the best way to put it. HOPSCOTCH could sort of be seen as a James Bond-type fantasy played at a more down to earth level for any middle aged men going to see this at the time. It’s got the globe trotting as Matthau’s Kendig jets around on the Concorde and the sticking it to your hellish boss in every way possible, only no cheating on your special lady friend or any nasty violence to worry about. Released in September 1980, the stylistic approach HOPSCOTCH takes seems kind of like the sparkling Peter Stone thrillers of the 60s (Matthau was in CHARADE, of course) crossed with the more dry, naturalistic tone which became the norm in the seventies along with a scenic tour of various European locales. Directed by Ronald Neame (whose many credits include the ever-popular THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE) with a screenplay by DEATH WISH author Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes (based on what was apparently a more serious novel by Garfield) the tone is consistent but frankly not all that much happens for it to ever become inconsistent. Around the midway point Matthau spends several scenes arranging for a seaplane from Georgia to Bermuda, presumably to make it easier for him to travel to England next but the point is easily obscured and since he doesn’t actually do anything in Bermuda it just winds up feeling like one of those points that occasionally happens here where the film is just spinning its wheels in the hopes that no one will notice there isn’t much of a plot. The seaplane pilot in question is played by Lucy Saroyan, Matthau’s own stepdaughter and there’s even a bit of dialogue which seems to be alluding to this but anyone watching this would probably wonder why the film dotes on such a minor character for several scenes to no effect.

The section involving Kendig renting out his nemesis Myerson’s own house from under his nose to continue writing the book is about as clever as the plotting ever gets with an enjoyable payoff and almost seems to be setting up for a more complex bait-and-switch later on but instead HOPSCOTCH just sort of ambles along, with a gag about a photograph of Myerson that subtly changes expression about as silly things ever get, not really worried about the details. We never know much about the book beyond how it’s going to blow the lid off certain secrets and it seems to take Kendig about as long to write it as it does to type it out--naturally, there’s no real political angle to his motivation beyond just being fed up with the tight-ass bureaucracy Myerson represents. He even turns down a chance to work for the other side when offered but his reasons seem to have more to do with his own principles than any kind of loyalty. And he’s not worried about that either, with unredeemable prick Myerson with all his incessant swearing (giving the film its R rating which still seems undeserved) and total lack of social graces making him seem like an idiot thug leftover from the Nixon era—listening to him say “No kids, no pets, no Democrats” to his wife on the phone about renting out their house makes this one element of the film that hasn’t dated much at all and lends HOPSCOTCH a certain amount of potency it still has, even if spies in movies don’t look very much like Walter Matthau anymore.

And more than anything, it’s totally and completely a Walter Matthau vehicle with much of the enjoyment coming from just watching the star in a role clearly tailor made for him breeze through this film as if without a care in the world, making sure that no one watching this film ever gets overly concerned about very much and pulling one over on everybody seemingly without trying, listening to all sorts of classical music (which also makes up the films score) and singing along with opera at every opportunity—it feels like an addition to the script done to make him happier playing the role and reading up on the film that seems to be exactly the case. In addition to the picturesque European locales there’s also a touch of sophistication to the dialogue here and there, like a discussion about drinking wine in the first scene between Matthau and Jackson that at least give things a somewhat adult air that when watched now is kind of refreshing—any movie that equates a character played by Walter Matthau with the process of how wine ages and how one should drink it can’t be all bad. Plus there’s the bit where a poorly placed beer bottle spills over when placed a little too close to his typewriter which just feels like vintage Oscar Madison which balances out all that talk nicely. We're told Kendig doesn't even carry a gun and ultimately the film is about middle-aged characters who don’t have much interest or patience anymore in all that running and chasing (“we’d look like Laurel and Hardy” says Kendig at one point, giving me a pleasant mental image of Matthau chasing Lom in such a scenario), content to live their lives the way they want to do off in the luxury of Europe without blustery American pricks like Myerson shoving their weight around--a sly, barely explained joke that goes by without comment has the Brits not at all surprised that the Americans are staying in the Hilton when in London. There's also a slight post-Watergate feel of how one can’t trust the government that seems specific to the time (“What secrets did he steal?” “It’s on a need-to-know basis, a matter of national security.” “Yeah. That’s a phrase that’s lost a good deal of meaning lately.”) so it's easy to imagine a version of the material produced deeper into the Reagan era wouldn’t have portrayed Kendig as such a good guy. Maybe that’s digging a little deeper than necessary and there’s not very much else to the film but maybe it’s enough. Even when there’s a bit of extra suspense shoehorned in near the end involving a flat tire the matter is taken care of with zero consequence about as fast as possible. The Glenda Jackson role seems slightly shoehorned in as if the actress was cast several drafts along to capitalize on the HOUSE CALLS success and they don’t even have all that much screen time together but it’s interesting how her turning up here almost functions as a sequel—they already know each other, she’s used to his American boorishness and reacts to what he’s doing with exasperation but always supports him regardless so this way it’s almost as if we don’t have to deal with any sort of exposition telling why she’s helping him out. Jackson doesn’t do much more than roll her eyes and act annoyed but we can see why they make an ideal pairing and is one of many things about the film that even if it gets me to smile more than it does get me to laugh out loud it’s still pleasant enough. And it’s one of the things that make HOTSCOTCH such a breeze even if there isn’t any real point in still thinking about it ten minutes after the credits have rolled. I guess sometimes that’s ok.

The part fits Matthau like a glove and he’s just right for it and it’s hard not to smile at some cracks he makes like his “How’d you get to be this short?” to Beatty or not even trying to put on a convincing southern accent. There’s something lived-in and genuine about his presence even down to some small bits of business like asking if he’s pronouncing “Marquess of Queensbury Rules” correctly, an intellectual curiosity like he’s actually bothering to think about why he does things, which Myerson seems to take as an affront. Jackson is more than dependable enough to handle the scenes when he’s not around dealing with the agents on her tail as the annoyance that they are. Lom, also one of the leads in the even more enjoyable GAMBIT for director Neame, is reliably good company in his small role as the Russian, Beatty is enjoyable bluster as the annoyed Myerson (sort of the Chief Inspector Dreyfus role) and Sam Waterston plays his part as never all that concerned about anything, even when he’s being tied up. Apparently some dialogue was written in to comment on how tired the actor looks because he had just arrived from the set of HEAVEN’S GATE and really did look exhausted. Maybe he just seems relaxed because after that shoot anything, particularly a production based mostly in Europe, was going to seem like a vacation. Severn Darden appears for one scene helping Matthau rent the seaplane—there’s a bit between the two men involving a money clip that I’ve always had a fondness for, Matthau’s son David is CIA operative Ross and George Baker, Sir Hilary Bray in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, is a London book publisher.

Not that I’m looking to give anyone any ideas but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a remake set in the high-tech world, maybe a more light-hearted BOURNE. Hell, you could even try to give the satire a little more edge if you wanted to go that route. Since HOPSCOTCH isn’t exactly a classic there wouldn’t be much wrong with trying to do something else with the basic story. And I suppose I do have a fondness for it, the way I sometimes do with a few of these movies that I remember from when I was a kid but was too young to actually go see. I can’t really explain my attachment to these things but maybe they’ll always seem slightly special to me because of how I was one step removed from them and somehow in there my own fantasy of what the movies are, as well as what I’d like them to be, began. Ultimately, HOPSCOTCH isn’t too demanding, it gets a smile out of me and is a nice excuse to hang out with Walter Matthau for 104 minutes. And I may have an urge to begin another, more substantial movie immediately after finishing it but there’s nothing wrong with that. Minor as it may be, there’s not all that much wrong with HOPSCOTCH either and it’s a film I can’t bring myself to dislike.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Before You Wake Up

It’s hard for me not to think about summer movies of the past during this time of year. Some are films that I love, some remain enjoyable, many aren’t as good as they once were and many were never much good at all. More than a few are probably best left back in whichever decade they were first released, never to be thought of again. Of course, revisiting some of these films doesn’t always get me to flash back to my childhood but considering I’ve done my best to block out most of my teenage years it’s probably for the best. And more than anything while once again recently watching TOTAL RECALL, a film which begins with someone waking up next to Sharon Stone, I found myself thinking about a certain woman I’ve known for some time now when I came to the unnerving realization how much Stone actually reminded me of her. Not in terms of looks but certainly in mannerisms and in the persona Stone sometimes projects there’s a slyness to her which makes it a little unclear just what she thinks of the guy she’s talking to, something that would happen to me at times when I would be with this particular girl—does she like me? Is she studying me? Does she think I’m an idiot? Even after all this time, I still don’t entirely know for sure. So anyway, I haven’t had much contact with her in recent months but I went to the movies the other night at the Vista to see the big new summer blockbuster, one that was meant to pay tribute to the glorious summer movies of years past, and as I was in my seat waiting for it to start I glanced over to the row in front of me and there she was, way over on the left, sitting with some guy. I sent her a friendly text saying hello and before a minute had passed she responded by simply texting back “You are strange.” So it was sort of like just about every conversation I ever had with her. And that’s what I had in mind while watching the film. But, really, I don’t want to dwell on all this and, besides, I’ve written about her before. I need to chill out, pull back from all that. Summer movies. Popcorn. The good things in life.

It’s probably a strange time to write anything about Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL for several reasons. For one thing, there’s the whole Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal and there really isn’t anything good to say about him in terms of that. Many of us probably knew for years how much of a prick the guy was (as some people I know will confirm) and I doubt many people in California have very much good to say about him right now anyway so I guess it’s no longer a surprise. And there’s the issue of a TOTAL RECALL remake, of all things, to be released in August 2012 but we all know that doesn’t have a chance in hell of being any good so there’s not much point in dwelling on it since we know it’s not going to contain much in the way of actual ideas. The director making it is one of the worst working right now and the film will feature a number of very talented people onscreen who will probably be very convincing in their portrayals of actors getting very large paychecks. Some might say that the one interesting area of potential in remaking TOTAL RECALL would have been to revive the script that David Cronenberg was famously going to direct back in the 80s for Dino De Laurentiis, possibly with Richard Dreyfuss to star, until that project fell apart (it should be mentioned that this wasn’t even the only version of TOTAL RECALL which never happened) and the director moved on to his own acclaimed remake of THE FLY. I don’t know what this redo is going to be beyond seeing press notices which report that it has nothing to do with Mars but…oh, does it really matter? If you’re reading this wouldn’t you be interested in seeing an adaptation of a work by Philip K. Dick that hasn’t been made yet? Sure you would.

Of course, since TOTAL RECALL’s release on June 1, 1990 there have been numerous other adaptations of Dick’s work (even recently with the not bad thriller THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) as well as other science fiction films clearly inspired by his twisty approach and even the very nature of the “You don’t know what’s really going on” sort of storyline has become all the more prevalent in films & TV shows over the past several decades, so it’s possible that anyone seeing TOTAL RECALL for the first time now wouldn’t be at all stunned by some of the plot revelations. And if I’m going to be totally truthful here, I’ll have to admit that I’m probably not as big a fan of TOTAL RECALL as most of the world seems to be. I like it, sure, it’s genuinely entertaining and like most people I naturally take pleasure in shouting “Cohaagen! Give the people air!” or “Get your ass to Mars” over and over whenever the opportunity arises. But it’s still not one of my favorite films directed by Paul Verhoeven—some of what he does best feels muted to allow it to be more of a Schwarzenegger vehicle than anything and it’s not even one of my favorite Schwarzenegger vehicles. Even some of the elements that are blatantly Verhoeven don’t always work for me in this context, as if they’re being shoehorned in by the director so he can put his stamp on the film as opposed to really exploring the basic concept with the genuine subversion he’s been known for at other times. What can I say. I do like it, honestly, but when held up against something like Verhoeven’s own ROBOCOP, which even now is pretty much flawless, for me there isn’t much comparison in terms of how effective it really is.

Like I really need to do a plot synopsis here, but here goes: far in the future construction worker Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has incessant dreams of Mars and his own dream girl there but every time he suggests to his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) they take a trip there she turns him down. Wanting to satisfy his urge Doug goes to Rekall, an agency that can implant memories of a trip to Mars into your mind without your ever going there. Eager to go on the trip, Doug selects the special Secret Agent package which will give him the chance to not only go on the trip, but “get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet”. Only something goes wrong and as the procedure begins Doug begins screaming how his name isn’t Quaid and they’ve blown his cover. After the Rekall agents knock him out and send him on his way Doug has no memory of his trip to Rekall but soon everyone he knows, including Lori, is trying to kill him and Doug finds himself on the run with the ruthless Richter (Michael Ironside) on his tail. Soon Doug comes into possession of a mysterious package with a video of himself, telling him that his name is not Quaid but Hauser, a government agent who had his memory wiped. The Hauser tape tells Quaid to immediatey go to Mars to straighten everything out, which will involve tracking down his dream girl Melina (Rachel Ticotin) the ruthless Mars Governor Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), the mysterious rebel leader Quato and the rumors of alien civilizations hidden under the planet surface. But who is Quaid? Who is Hauser? And is this all still a dream?

On one level you can feel director Paul Verhoeven thrusting his cinematic personality into each possible moment of this film with the whole take of male/female dynamics in this future, the mindfuck aspect of the whole plot and just the overall feel of ferocity that comes from every single scene. But I wonder now if some of the focus it takes winds up aimed in the wrong directions, diluting some of the impact. The argument could be made that TOTAL RECALL is the only real star vehicle designed to service the name above the title he’s ever made, either here in America or in Holland. The likes of ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS and HOLLOW MAN serve the story and effects more than anything (of course, the story in HOLLOW MAN really isn’t much to speak of but that’s another subject entirely), while every frame of BASIC INSTINCT seems designed to go directly against the expectations of Michael Douglas playing a cop in an action movie always one step behind the murder suspect played by Sharon Stone, the one who really became a star because of her performance in that movie. The concept of subversion in connection to how Verhoeven uses the screen presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL is there and the director seems continually interested in how to shoot him but it’s not quite the same thing and it goes without saying that having this superstar playing a person stunned by how he’s single-handedly just killed several men isn’t the same as if a Richard Dreyfuss-type had played the role…or, to use an example that actually happened, the surprise of seeing how effective Matt Damon was at this sort of thing in the first BOURNE movie. There’s no way for it to have this sort of impact with Arnold so we’re left with the twisty mechanics of the science fiction plot, pieces of the puzzle that aren’t as surprising as maybe they once were and, unlike the complex ambiguity of how to really take what’s going on in STARSHIP TROOPERS which is all the more intriguing in the post-9/11 world, the is-it-a-dream-or-isn’t-it portion of TOTAL RECALL is too clear cut—it either is or it isn’t, no real shading either way beyond the sledgehammer-type clues that are laid out. It probably is. Or it isn’t. More than anything, the answer is that it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle so it really doesn’t matter and it’s not like there are more clues or layers to discover on multiple viewings.

There’s also the heavy violence Verhoeven is known for which doesn’t really bother me (though I’m sure it’s bothered many) but as opposed to something like ROBOCOP where it all had both a satiric and thematic point, in the secret agent fantasy world of TOTAL RECALL it just feels like a lot of…stuff that happens, more gunplay than is probably needed that is ultimately off-topic to the science fiction themes that maybe the film should be focusing on in order to allow for more layers. It’s clear that such ultra-violence is intrinsically part of the director’s approach which is fine but in this context that approach holds at some points more than others. Unlike the feel in ROBOCOP where the camera continually felt like it was roving down those hallways, making even simple dialogue scenes exciting, here he feels somewhat constricted by both the star he needs to be focusing on as well as all these sets meant to be the futuristic Earth and the indoors of Mars. Even the editing within certain action scenes, particularly some of the fights, doesn’t seem as sharp in a way that’s tough to precisely pin down when compared to several of his other films (let alone any number of other action movies from the period) and maybe TOTAL RECALL just seems slightly more slack than it should be to get the energy going. Many of those sets also wind up feeling a lot like sets and maybe make the film look cheaper than it really is, an artifice that along with the ‘futuristic’ production design and all those shoulder pads on the women makes the film feel about as locked into the era it was made in just as something like LOGAN’S RUN never looks anything like 1976. Those mutants buried under Rob Bottin makeup are cool looking and of course everyone remembers the three-breasted hooker as well as the revelation of Quato but not much is really done with the psychic powers the mutants possess and if there’s some sort of subtext happening here in terms of who the downtrodden of Mars are supposed to represent, it’s pretty half-baked. I still like TOTAL RECALL but I think even at the time I sort of felt, really? Is that it? The mind-twisting elements are fun but never really dealt with beyond a surface level making it all a sort of ‘sci-fi twist 101’ and neither is the look at both future Earth and Mars--one of the things that really works in ROBOCOP is how it sells the world, the insidiousness that is obviously going on within OCP that we never get to see and there’s a good deal of this in the later STARSHIP TROOPERS as well. The world of TOTAL RECALL, featuring product placements with logos that are distractingly how they looked in 1990, just never feels as rich or lived in. And a good deal of motivation feels tossed aside in favor of the Arnold-ness and general mayhem--Quaid kills a woman who he’s believed to be his wife after barely having much time at all to process that she presumably isn’t the person he’s always thought. Another film might have done something with this issue. TOTAL RECALL just makes the moment a misogynistic one-liner (a famous misogynistic one-liner, to be fair, and I’m going to pass on relating this moment to the star’s own marital issues) so this isn’t that movie. Whether it should be that movie may be another argument entirely.

And as I sometimes want to do when I’m being just a little too critical, it would be unfair for me not to point out how much of the film really does work—the male-female dynamics are always interesting whether it’s Arnold and Sharon Stone wrestling in bed at the beginning or even the Rekall doctor played by Rosemary Dunsmore giving a good hard slap to the face of the dweeby lab tech. Random sly moments give it all its own unique feel such as when Schwarzenegger is asked which sexual orientation he prefers while going over the details of the Rekall package or the ridiculously random humor of the Johnny Cab (given the features and voice of the easy-to-spot Robert Picardo) that drives Quaid home. The tension provided every time Michael Ironside’s Richter shoots things up tenfold every time he enters the frame to make sure no one else touches Stone’s Lori and there’s enough sleaze, violence and willingness to stick giant things up Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nose to make one drop to their knees, grateful that there are directors like Paul Verhoeven willing to take full advantage of the R rating. And more than all that, as much as I may criticize the movie it still flat-out plays. With writing credits that probably give only a glimmer of the project’s complicated history in its myriad forms--“Inspired by” Dick’s story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (several demerits for misspelling Dick’s name in the opening credits), Screenplay by Ron Shusett & Dan O’Bannon and Gary Goldman, Screen Story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O’Bannon and Jon Povill but no indication about who wrote the line about being home in time for corn flakes--the plot is continually moving forward, barely resting for a minute and just taken on its own it succeeds as a funny, fast-paced Arnold action movie which is definitely more entertaining than lots of other such films from this period.

Given a slight touch of the James Bond template the story is laid out to continually unfurl new aspects of both the character of Hauser along with the mysteries of Mars that everything leads to and even if it’s not as mind-blowing as it once was, the way the most famous scene questioning everything that is happening when a certain character played by Roy Brocksmith turns up works extremely well with just the right feel of rising tension delivered as the scene goes on. With the film coming at that point during the transition from old school to digital, even some of the imagery as things move to the big climax comes off as reminiscent of covers of old science fiction novels in a way you never get anymore so even if things do become a lot of sound and fury enough of it manages to stay with me. And there’s the exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith, which after an odd intro that resembles the opening bars of Basil Poledouris’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN theme a little too much, builds into an exciting and memorably energetic sci-fi action score. This was one of Goldsmith’s biggest hits of the period, at least until he teamed again with this director on BASIC INSTINCT, and while it doesn’t necessarily transcend the formula of this film in a way his work for that next Verhoeven film would do, it’s very much a reminder of how during this period there really wasn’t anyone better for this sort of thing. He not only scores the TOTAL RECALL we’re watching but he scores the TOTAL RECALL that it really should be and it raises the level of the entire movie as a result--after spending time writing all this I find I can’t get some of the action themes out of my head and feel like I should go run around for a while as if I were being chased. The final result of the film still feels like less than what it could be but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. Look, I’m just grading the whole thing on a very high curve. It happens.

But it is fun and even if I have a problem with the basic concept of how Verhoeven meshes with his star it still feels like a shame that they never worked together again, even though the epic CRUSADE was very much on the drawing board in the early-to-mid 90s, which has to be one of the great unrealized projects. He might be a prick, he might be miscast, but Arnold seems completely determined to make himself right for the part, widening his eyes as he prepares for the Rekall injection and selling the desperation when he still doesn’t know what’s going on. This was the period where between this and something like TWINS Arnold seemed to be attempting to tweak his established persona and play things as a more normal guy—here, he seems determined to pull off the balance of somehow being an innocent among all this, ready to be ruthless when needed and also seeming very much in on the joke of being Arnold, as if he somehow knows that years later people are going to quote “Give the people air!” just as much as the obvious one-liners. As for Sharon Stone, it’s no surprise that she caught the director’s eye for his next film and pretty mesmerizing to watch. Stone is so phenomenal in her clear determination to make the most of every moment she has like that one giant close-up in her final scene where she shifts personalities right before our eyes and the Kim Novak vibe she gives off which couldn’t be more appropriate makes it hard not to wish that they had somehow rewritten things to take a little more advantage of her, particularly since though Rachel Ticotin sells how “Athletic” Melina is and never gets intimidated by sharing the screen with Schwarzenegger she really can’t compare in terms of sheer screen presence. That close-up on Stone when she says “Sorry Quaid, your whole life is just a dream,” has more impact than any visual effect here does and also makes me wonder just how much Sharon Stone’s stardom is owed to Jerry Goldsmith. Michael Ironside also rules through every nasty moment that he has, doing more with his henchman part than you may expect just through his own sheer physical intimidation and Ronny Cox chews through every piece of scenery he can as Cohaagen, sort of a more cartoonish version of his ROBOCOP exec but since he’s more of a clear bad guy the whole way there’s not quite as much he can do with the part.

In the end, my feelings for TOTAL RECALL are kind of summed up in the moment where the cab driver played by Mel Johnson Jr. reveals to all present that he’s actually one of the mutants of Mars in a strikingly staged moment which is ruined when the film loops in someone offscreen saying, “You’re a mutant, huh?” as if they were worried somebody in the audience wasn’t going to figure it out on their own. Just to make it clear, I still think some of the movie works very well, not so much as a demonstration of the madness its director can brilliantly demonstrate at but as an enjoyable sci-fi vehicle for its star, even if he is basically a prick. I’m just saying that I don’t think it remains as interesting, well-made or enjoyable as some of the very best films made by some of the people involved. I even kind of find myself imagining a better version that I think they were capable of but since the movie is about imagining certain fanciful things anyway maybe that kind of makes sense. Still, I feel like I’m going to be getting phone calls from people saying, “Hey, why’d you have to be so hard on TOTAL RECALL?” There’s not much I can do about that. At least the movie still does something for me, even if it’s just to get me to think about certain women in my life. There’s not much I can do about that either and I’m well aware that they have absolutely nothing to do with what’s onscreen beyond the reflection of my own dreams. Even summer movies are sometimes able to bring this sort of thing to mind.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

You Might As Well Live

Since I’ve written about these matters before, I may as well mention that as of now I’m employed again. Which, it certainly goes without saying, is a huge relief. I don’t want to say much about the job at the moment since I prefer to keep those worlds separate but I think things may actually be looking up for me right now. I feel good about this. Not that I didn’t spend the days leading up to starting the new job extremely nervous, worried about what was going to happen, continually going over these last months, pondering how I got to the place I am now. Some of it seems like one giant haze of worry, of fear, of long walks, of freedom, of new people in my life. What had really happened to me in the time since late that drizzly afternoon in December ‘09, wandering through the CBS Radford lot to my car having just been laid off? How much had I changed?

The only way to watch MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE is to drift through it. Like you wind up drifting through life sometimes, trying to make sense of your friendships, the people you remain closest with, the ones who you never really knew all that well no matter how much time you spent with them. There are certain women in my life where when I speak to them I sometimes find myself slyly saying their married name like “Mrs. (NAME REDACTED)” with Campbell Scott’s portrayal of Robert Benchley in mind, slightly putting myself into the wish fulfillment place of being such a writer, slightly indicating my own unspoken feelings as well. The real Benchley was also from Scarsdale, so there’s something I already have in common with the guy. As films go, this biopic of the legendary writer Dorothy Parker seems like a dream and maybe it’s mostly remembered by people as a dream. Recently I ran into an old friend for the first time in a while and mentioned what a coincidence it was, since I had just been watching some of MRS. PARKER earlier that day. He looked at me confused, not getting the connection, until I reminded him that his wife was in the movie. Things get forgotten. People get forgotten. Or maybe they just fall into yet another haze.

Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film which details the story of Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) introduces her in the flush of reluctant success as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 40s married to her writing partner Alan Campbell (Peter Gallagher). Shortly after meeting up with old friend Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott) she flashes back to her days in New York in the 20s where we see Parker’s rise to prominence as Vanity Fair drama critic, famous short story writer and one of the key members of the historic Algonquin Round Table. The drama critic Benchley is also part of that large group of notables as well as being a close confidante to Dorothy with the film focusing on the relationship between these two people married to others and their never-romance amid the intellectual wisecracking mayhem of all their cohorts. Dorothy does meet and quickly fall for famous playwright Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick) but even when that romance falls by the wayside, Benchley is always near Dorothy as the roaring twenties go on and the relationship between the two never becoming anything more, their fame continues as she falls deeper into a well of depression and booze with only her talent keeping her going but even that by a certain point is never enough.

There’s a line in the Wikipedia page about the Algonquin Round Table where it mentions that when various members reassembled years later for a funeral they came to the realization that without the commonality of their group they had absolutely nothing to say to one another. Along those lines I’ve always been slightly haunted by a passage in the biography “Charlie—The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by lifelong friend Ben Hecht in which he writes, “Most of us grow old without protest. We stop dreaming, we expect less and less. We cut ourselves down to fit our smaller years—and people’s smaller opinions of us. They’ve heard our stories, and there’s no mystery left to us. We’ve become what we were going to be, and there’s nothing more to watch for,” with Hecht going on to say how much his friend who turns up here as a crucial piece of the Dorothy Parker puzzle was never like this. When I first read this passage many years ago I was greatly affected by it, placing myself and some of my own relationships along with what they might become into this prism. Now these words are the sort of thing that haunt me almost daily as I contemplate how certain people have drifted out of my life, how they’ve changed, become something else, how certain women I’ve spent time dreaming of have nevertheless remained on the outskirts of whatever’s happened to me. Wondering what I’ve become.

These are just a few of the things I think about as I watch MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE, which unfurls in its own sort of haze, a mistier version of Robert Altman, who produced this one as he often did for Rudolph. Instead of a fast talking rat-a-tat telling of this story I always kind of expect and maybe wish for—kind of an understandable association of Leigh with THE HUDSUCKER PROXY which had come out earlier that year—I think I was somewhat alienated by that lack of a kick, the absence of a real payoff on my first viewing back in ’94. But through the years I’ve found myself returning to it repeatedly, looking forward to once again drifting through this jazzy reverie (certainly aided by Mark Isham’s wistful score) presenting these people, many of them writers, as I study these characters and their interactions in a way that it’s hard not to be fascinated by the lives they lead. And of course, fascinated by the beguiling Dorothy Parker most of all. Yet not only are many of them not particularly likable, falling further and further into drink during the height of prohibition as they seem to desire nothing more than another afternoon of lounging around at the Algonquin, by a certain point they don’t even seem to do very much to warrant their famous reps as denizens of this table, the very first people famous for being famous. It’s the birth of celebrity in the modern age. That misty, boozy feel familiar from much of Rudolph’s work that presents this camaraderie has never seemed quite as appropriate as it does here.

In the script he wrote with Randy Sue Coburn, director Rudolph emphasizes the relationship between Parker and Benchley with some additional focus on what goes on between her and MacArthur in the middle of the film when that famous writer enters the picture as the other legendary figures of the vicious circle are allowed to float through scenes, sometimes barely observed as they move past the camera, some making more of an impression than others. Since the film never clarifies such things maybe someone would have to read up on who a few of these people like Alexander Woolcott were and what they did (as for even more famous ones, even the briefly portrayed Harpo Marx is so fleetingly identified you could easily miss it) but is there really very much wrong with having to do that? The famous Round Table is only partly the focus but the film makes the atmosphere around the legendary Algonquin Hotel much of this is set in feels somehow tangible—you can almost smell what it must be like in that restaurant—as the group seems to be forever moving from there to one of the countless parties thrown by one of them and back again, some of these sequences extremely addictive for me on multiple viewings (that’s me, always loving movies with party scenes). All as the focus is on the forever fascinating Dorothy, bracketed by stylized interstitials as she recites her poems to the camera making all the more clear how much those words make up who she is, how much of her is to be found in them, revealing more than she ever would to anyone otherwise, with the insecurities of herself and her work (PLEASE GOD, LET ME WRITE LIKE A MAN she types to herself early on) that says all we’ll ever understand about her showing through in every phrase--the only poem she ever recites to people in the film proper is the legendary “Résumé” (you know it, it’s the one that starts with, “Razors pain you…”) and it makes sense this one which really does say it all is given such a moment.

Of course there’s all Dorothy's cavorting with fellow Round Table members throughout their parties as well, drinking as much as any of them (one line from someone that floats through, “Best way to avoid a hangover is to stay drunk” is a credo they each seem to live by) and clearly more brilliant as well with her own sly one-liners continuing to fall off her tongue with someone close to her bafflingly observing, “Dottie can’t be suffering and still say all those funny things…” It’s in that self-obsession that the movie zeros in on (“Did they talk about me?” “Of course they talked about you.”) but it also becomes clear how it’s something each of the circle’s members, all very intelligent people, might actually realize they have in common if they ever cared to say something other than trading pithy one-liners at each other. Late in the film David Thornton as legendary playwright George S. Kaufman (I guess the part couldn’t have been played by John Turturro) enters a psychiatrist’s office after Dorothy and the first thing he does is ask if she said anything about him. On the commentary Rudolph reveals that this was actually a callback to a specific moment cut from the film so while it doesn’t specifically refer to anything in actuality the moment encapsulates it all perfectly. I suspect not much has changed. At least not for me.

“I suppose it was colorful,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy of those days when she’s introduced in a black & white sequences set in the Hollywood of the forties at the start, but the flashback narrative doesn’t quite conclude as we’d expect it to, proceeding forward almost to make clear how cruel time can be, how much there is no way to recapture what is past, of relationships that are lost and all the regrets associated with that. It makes sense considering what’s been written in places about the people who were part of this famous circle—playwright Marc Connelly, portrayed here by Matt Malloy, once commented that remembering when the Round Table ended would be like remembering falling asleep. And, for that matter, the one person who seems to end up in a content place when last seen in the narrative is never even really a part of the group—certainly that New Years’ Eve party late in the film where temperatures are rising and someone even asks “Isn’t anybody happy?” gives an impression of where this is all going, even if there is no actual ‘break-up’ to be dramatized. The last moment we see Mathew Broderick’s Charles MacArthur hardly seems like a ‘final scene’, more like a bit of business between actors that Rudolph couldn’t resist using, but it makes sense that he just drifts off to the rest of his own life (marriage to Helen Hayes, actually), one which doesn’t involve Dorothy anymore. I suppose it’s this strong feeling of dissatisfaction, of how I apply that to some of my own regrets, things that haunt me even now long after they stopped mattering, that the film achieves in a way that I rarely ever see. I didn’t need this movie to be fascinated by Dorothy Parker. Or some of the other people portrayed here. Or writing. Or the 20s. Or women. Or the past. Or friendship. Or regrets. But it certainly helps, providing a certain amount of clarity to some of these feelings that continue to swirl through my head, never fully reconciled with my own memories.

It seems silly to toss superlatives onto Jennifer Jason Leigh for her work here, but she simply is Dorothy Parker, right down to her bones and maybe because people have always slightly associated the period affectations connected with this and HUDSUCKER she’s never really gotten the attention for it that she deserves. It may be mannered but mannered seems appropriate and as she becomes Dorothy Parker in front of the camera the cumulative effect of it all becomes mesmerizing, an ideal fusion of a lead performance complimenting what the director is doing. Maybe giving his best performance here, Campbell Scott is possibly even stronger as Robert Benchley, forever insistent on being unflappable, bringing a blithe rhythm to every moment he has and making the little things count more than anything—it’s as if he makes his feelings for Dorothy forever known in the way he drags out the word ‘teeth’ in an early scene between them and the phrasing remains hanging through the air in every scene they play together that follows as he remains unwilling to take things to the next level. Placed up against this pair who seem perfect yet destined to remain apart, Matthew Broderick is almost a touch too modern for the ambience—strangely, looking at photos he has just about the strongest resemblance to the real person as anyone here—but he keeps up his lackadaisical feel and in some ways his different form of behavior seems appropriate considering his outside status.

You can tell that there’s much more of the side characters following each other into their own stories that we never get to see and I wish some of these deleted scenes had been put on the DVD. After all, quite a few of these figures have stories which would make for interesting films on their own and there are maybe too many other actors to list here. Standing out from the crowd (lots of familiar 90s faces) as they make the most of their small moments are Martha Plimpton, Sam Robards, Nick Cassavetes, Rebecca Miller, Chip Zien and Tom McGowan as Alexander Woolcott but also undeservingly unheralded are 80s icons Andrew McCarthy and Jennifer Beals as neglected spouses Eddie Parker and Gertrude Benchley each one doing particularly strong work as people who never figure out how to fit in with the fast-talkers of the Round Table. A pre-fame Gwyneth Paltrow is “Paula Hunt”, a fictional actress who seems to be a composite of various people including Tallulah Bankhead (I suspect the actress plays it as slightly more soulful than how the part was written), Wallace Shawn is Algonquin maitre d’ Horatio Byrd, Robert Benchley’s grandson Peter Benchley is Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield (making this one of his few non-JAWS screen appearances), Cyndi Lauper appears uncredited as a party guest and Leigh’s half-sister Mina Badie has some enjoyably spunky moments as Joanie Gerard, a would-be actress thrilled to meet “a real living writer” in Parker.

Dorothy Parker herself once dismissed any involvement with the group by saying, “The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them.... There was no truth in anything they said.” To its credit, MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE doesn’t quite deny that statement, clearly pointing out many of these people weren’t the major literary figures of the day, let alone the ones who are remembered now. And Alan Rudolph is clearly very much aware of this as well yet the film acknowledges how much some of these figures remain fascinating, just as the film itself is something I continue to remain fascinated by with pleasures that for me are continually worth discovering over and over. I suspect that feeling will only grow over time as some of the feelings of regret that are portrayed become even more palpable for me. “If you want to write, write. Don’t turn forty wishing you had,” Lili Taylor’s Edna Ferber says at one point to Nick Cassavetes’ Robert Sherwood, a phrase which is ringing through my head a great deal at this point in my life but I have my own reasons. Some of the moments in the film will stay with me as I think about some of those Mrs. Parkers that I’ve known myself and will continue to know, as my own past becomes just as misty and I do my very best to remain in the present. I just hope there’s still a chance for all this drifting to possibly lead somewhere.