Wednesday, September 28, 2011
More Honor Than A Winner
It wasn’t much of a surprise when after the emergence of Quentin Tarantino in the 90s with RESERVOIR DOGS and, especially, the massive success of PULP FICTION that we were treated to a wave of films featuring hired killers, snappy patter and blood-infused jet black comedy. That’s just what Hollywood does. My own recollection is that some of these offshoots are better than others with more than a few never even making it beyond the ranks of a miniscule theatrical release and shelves of video stores in those pre-DVD days. A few probably have minor cult followings of their own by now. Most are already forgotten and were probably never very good to begin with. At the very least several of them managed to find their own unique spin on the formula while also providing parts for actors who might not have gotten such chances otherwise and I have to admit that maybe enough time has gone by that some of them provide a certain kind of nostalgia for me.
Released in September 1996, 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is fifteen years old now and though it never comes close to the best of Tarantino the film has a certain slick, fast-paced quality with a tight construction that is enough to make it genuinely entertaining at times. Since I have my own ambivalent feelings about the place I do sort of wish that the film had more to say about the valley as promised in the title. Unless it has to do with work I never want to go there very much, so naturally I’ve had several jobs there over the years and I can understand about what it’s like to get stuck there. But whatever it may promise, the film doesn’t seem to have that much to say about what it’s like to live there beyond the tentative nature of people drifting past each other in daily life and how the place can prevent people from staying true to what they really are deep down. It might not even be that much of a stretch to say that it could just as easily be called 2 DAYS OVERLOOKING THE VALLEY considering how much of it takes place up there in the hills overlooking it all and doesn’t even go north of Ventura Blvd into the more middle class sections all that much (in ‘96 we still had to wait for Paul Thomas Anderson to make his presence known for the definitive cinematic look at the valley). Revisiting it years later does offer a reminder of why people paid so much attention to Charlize Theron right off the bat while also offering a clearer picture of both the film’s strengths and drawbacks. It’s a movie that ultimately wants to be about the losers finally coming out ahead which makes it somewhat endearing but it still feels like it could have used a little more weight, raising the question of how much can happen in a minute to change your life but the answers it comes up with are a little too gimmicky. Too bad, because as anyone who’s spent time in the valley certainly knows, a minute can be a very long time.
The plot revolves around several different groups of people. There’s the hitmen team of Lee Woods (James Spader) and Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello) who pull off the job of killing Roy Foxx (Peter Horton) as ex-wife Becky (Teri Hatcher) lies in bed next to him, knocked out by an injection Lee has given her. There’s gorgeous Helga Svelgen (Charlize Theron), Lee’s girlfriend who figures into the job somehow. There’s art dealer Allan Hopper (Greg Cruttwell), in immense pain from a kidney stone and his beleagured assistant Susan Parish (Glenne Headly) who are taken hostage by Dosmo after he escapes an attempt by Lee to get him out of the way. There’s washed-up film director Teddy Peppers (Paul Mazursky) who is trying to put a few last things in order before blowing his brains out and in trying to give away his dog encounters nurse Audrey Hopper (Marsha Mason), Allan’s step-sister. And there’s the two cops, ambitious Wes Taylor (Eric Stoltz) and hot-headed Alvin Strayer (Jeff Daniels), who stumble on to the murder scene and figure into it all. Of course, many of these various people come together in unexpected ways.
Tone is difficult, one of the toughest things of all for a movie to nail and a few of those post-Tarantino films would take some kind of misstep along the way, maybe being a bit too mannered with its approach, too obvious with pop-culture references or sometimes taking the darkly comic nihilism a step too far, one too many brains splattered against a wall. One of the strengths of 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, written and directed by John Herzfeld, is that it’s actually pretty successful with its own tone for the most part, managing to capture that feel of the sun hanging in the sky during another hot day out there in Studio City as a touch of darkness hangs in the air while feeling set more in the ‘real’ world than these things sometimes are and making the choice to keep away from pop culture references. Another is momentum and the film does know to keep things moving right off the bat, packing its narrative into a deliberately tight timeframe according to the title (although it does leave the valley on at least one occasion), slamming from one scene to the next while also continually willing to observe the behavior of the various actors in a way which brings a welcome energy throughout. There’s also a good amount of snappy dialogue (“I hate when people ask if they can ask me a question”) and some interesting use of locations from a massage parlor Stoltz takes an interest in to one of those massive parks Mazursky visits early on as well as vantage points from the hills overlooking the valley which always seem inherently cinematic-- mention also should be made of D.P. Oliver Wood who frames his Scope shots to give a feel of genuine expansiveness to the entire film along with providing the various leads with close-ups that may be among the best some of them have ever had (particularly Theron, no surprise) and helps to make the characters seem that much more vivid.
Having said all that, one thing which stuck out to me on this viewing was just how thin 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is at times. True, for a film in which not very much happens it does have a nice, snappy pace and a game cast working at full throttle. But the expected complications never quite twist around as much as might be expected and the overall design doesn’t quite feel as layered as it should. There are certain surprises but some of what happens is just a little too easy, the way people wind up intersecting never coming off as the jolt it should be. The characters seem to casually meet up with each other as opposed to colliding with them and there’s also a late-in-the-game McGuffin which has such a ‘so what’ tinge to it it’s as if it was added several drafts in to give a legitimate reason for the climax to take place. Maybe it’s that the film is trying a little too hard to get the plot to connect up while not taking advantage of tertiary characters or situations on the sidelines for any statement it wants to really make about ‘the valley’ and what it represents to take hold. Some bits like a random cutaway to Lawrence Tierney (like Stoltz, a carryover from Tarantino) in a hotel room complaining about the noise caused by the fight upstairs offers a hint of that sort of thing but the movie could use more of it and it stays with the main players too much for that to ever happen.
Along with several TV movies to his credit, Herzfeld had years earlier also directed the notorious John Travolta-Olivia Newton John comedy TWO OF A KIND which interestingly went unmentioned in the 2 DAYS press materials that referred to the film as his feature directorial debut—the Los Angeles Times even ran an article at the time calling him on it. As effective as the flashiness and energy often is the film also has a certain shallow quality of the sort that I think Tarantino is unfairly accused of at times and, at the very least, some of the attempts at genuine depth to the characters feel a little underdeveloped as if another draft or two was still needed. There are themes in 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY of people who have to make the decision of whether or not to change who they are, of so called-losers going up against so called-winners, of certain people finally getting their comeuppance in their homes up in the hills and of beauty being overwhelmed by ugliness as represented by the fate of the utterly stunning Charlize Theron, looking fresh out of the Replicant vat in that skin-tight outfit until she takes her own game one step too far. As well-paced as it is some ends feel a little too loose and a few things make me wonder if the movie was cut down at points—much of the growing connection between Mason and Mazursky’s characters feels truncated whether it was or not since she we never get to hear the backstory behind the person she’s visiting in the cemetery or even get a good reason why she correctly determines to all that he’s suicidal. The way the film discards a few of the main characters before the climax is also frustrating, particularly in the case of Daniels which just makes his character arc seem muddled and incomplete.
If it’s an attempt at interlocking narratives where the game of 52 pick-up all comes together in the end that’s one thing, if it’s Altman-style anecdotes where we don’t need to necessarily follow people all the way to the end that’s another and if 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is trying to do both I’m not sure it totally pulls off that balance along with some comedy that’s a little too obvious like Aiello’s hitman who’s afraid of dogs and decides to cook for himself while holding his gun on his hostages—in fairness, Aiello manages to makes these scenes work pretty well and for some reason I particularly like when he asks if they have any rapini for what he’s preparing. The movie also has some pretty bad music, particularly a needlessly distracting song played on the soundtrack as Mazursky puts a gun to his forehead in a cemetery ready to blow his brains out, totally wrong for such an emotional moment and it’s the sort of choice that dilutes the entire film as a result. It’s surprising to learn that Jerry Goldsmith of all people composed a score which was rejected and based on the clips found on Youtube what he provided (more emotional, less arch and for all I know not at all what Herzfeld wanted) it clearly would have made it a different film, for better or worse. Maybe it would have provided the sort of depth that I wish it had. Maybe that’s not what it was going for anyway. But there is an undeniable energy and momentum to 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY—it moves, it’s never dull and at times really is enjoyable in a late 90s Tarantino knockoff kind of way. Plus it has that famous fight between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron, a pretty awesome scene which makes me wonder how I can even think to say anything bad about the film at all. I like 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, I really do, I just wish that maybe a few extra blanks had been filled in to make it even richer. I can certainly relate to the quixotic thought that a loser may indeed have more honor than a winner, as Mazursky’s washed-up director states at one point or of the frustration Teri Hatcher’s Olympic skier feels with having come in fourth place several times running. It’s something that one needs to remember in this town, as you’re trying to make your way down one of the side streets in North Hollywood, doing anything you can to get back to Los Feliz before nightfall. Trust me, I always do the best I can to be out of the valley after the sun goes down. It just seems like common sense.
As strong as the entire cast is, it’s clearly Charlize Theron who stands out not only because of how absolutely stunning she is but because of how much her genuine, unusual presence really pops off the screen, bringing an intensity to her role that makes you always wonder what’s going on with her and what she’s thinking. It transforms the movie into something more than it might have been otherwise, taking what might have been a standard neo-noir femme fatale role and turning it into something unexpected, all the way up to her very last moment which has always stayed with me through the years, looking like the utterly damaged porcelain doll that she really is. James Spader, with that stopwatch he uses to always giving his prey one more minute, is as queasily intriguing as you would want him to be and he plays the part effectively but as scripted he never really has a single human response to anything so the character feels like more of a construction, the post-Tarantino hired killer that he is, than a living, breathing person. Teri Hatcher nicely balances the possible duplicitous feelings going on within her good girl exterior, Danny Aiello takes what might be the most clichéd role (hired killer nice guy) and manages to give him depth, Glenne Headly endearingly bounces off of him, Greg Cruttwell sells the agony his art world prick is going through while Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels build enough tension between the two of them that it’s too bad it’s never really paid off—Daniels, an obvious case of casting against type, in particular makes his underwritten part fascinating and deserving of his own movie. Mazursky, possibly building off any personal feelings of where his career really was in the mid-90s, is simply dynamite, just about the single best performance here with a pain in his eyes no one else approaches and it’s hard for me not to root for him to regain the dignity his director has obviously lost. It’s also interesting that Aiello played what was essentially Mazursky’s surrogate role in the 1993 comedy THE PICKLE and the physical resemblance between the two allows for an interesting effect, providing some extra tension in their scenes as if there’s much more going on than is being spoken. And there’s also Marsha Mason, directed by Mazursky years earlier in BLUME IN LOVE, who provides a nicely sensible balance to the rest of the danger that is felt with Aiello holding the gun on them and she correctly seems like more of a normal person than these movies usually have. A few of the smaller roles pop out as well--playing an idiot actor who smilingly says the worst things imaginable to Mazursky, personal favorite Austin Pendleton absolutely nails his one scene (plus one small extra beat later on) big time, Kathleen Luong brings a beguiling ambiguity to her Vietnamese masseuse and making “special appearances” are Louise Fletcher as a landlord and Keith Carradine as a valley police detective.
I don’t know if I’m always thinking ‘this is a nice place to live’ like Daniels barks out at one point since that’s not always what comes to mind when I drive down certain streets, but I guess I can understand. He was born there, he stays there, it’s what he is. 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY does get me to feel strangely nostalgic for those days in a way that I’m still trying to figure out but thinking about how much it’s a part of that time reminds me that while some of these films were being made Quentin Tarantino himself was stepping away from this approach as would become evident with the following years much more contemplative JACKIE BROWN, underappreciated in its time but by now it almost feels like there’s more passion for it out there than even the legendary PULP FICTION. But for a few years in the nineties this kind of approach to dark, violence infused comedy just seemed like part of the pop culture beast, when the thought that there would only be a minute to change our lives still seemed prevalent. Now that I’m older I know it takes a little longer. One of the final images of the film has someone heading to the future, for one more chance to do better than fourth place, regardless of what it’s taken to get there so I suppose you could say that 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY is really about finding some kind of hope in the possibilities of what still might come in the future regardless of what’s already happened in the past. Now that I think about it, there are far worse things to take away from a movie.