Sunday, August 25, 2019

To Hook Up The Doll

Whatever crush I had on Molly Ringwald back in the day ended long ago but I follow her on Twitter for old times’ sake and was very pleased to see her 2018 New Yorker piece where she looked back at the films she made with John Hughes to confront certain plot points in them which, to be blunt, have aged about as well as Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Acknowledging such things are necessary, particularly since people out there are presumably showing these films to their kids but as for the films themselves I’m not sure how passionate I am about them. To be honest, I lost interest in high school about 48 hours after graduating from high school so revisiting THE BREAKFAST CLUB or FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF never holds much interest for me. The freewheeling all-in-one-night aspect to SIXTEEN CANDLES can still be fun although I can’t ignore that film’s problematic aspects nor do I want to. I still have a fondness for the Howard Deutch-directed PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL in theory even considering how they mirror each other but, in truth, I haven’t seen either one of those in years.

Coming in the middle of all this, WEIRD SCIENCE is just about the silliest of this group and the one most detached from any sort of reality, so much so that it almost overrides whatever issues there might be with the plot of inventing a gorgeous woman as plaything. Not that it makes any difference now but it’s the only one of these films that I’ve never seen in a theater; released by Universal in early August ’85, I was trapped in summer camp up in Maine at the time and it must have already left the local multiplexes by the time I got back. Looking at it now, WEIRD SCIENCE seems to represent a moment when Hughes let his attention wander away from Ringwald and PRETTY IN PINK notwithstanding never seems to have entirely gone back. Maybe instead of a muse he wanted an alter ego and that’s where his interests led him. WEIRD SCIENCE is maybe too slight to be offended by but as a full movie maybe there’s just not enough there. It does present the idea of a teenage weekend where everything goes right thanks to a fantasy woman who shows you the way and even now I can kind of relate to that as a daydream while still being very aware that maybe there’s nothing wrong with leaving this movie back in the 80s.

Teenage outcasts Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), whose parents are out of town for the weekend, are doing nothing on Friday night when Gary gets an idea to use Wyatt’s computer to make a girl, an actual girl. Miraculously this somehow works and the beautiful Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) appears in his doorway, ready to do whatever they want. And she wastes no time upending their lives but soon Lisa’s real agenda to makes their lives better, to give these boys a shot at becoming men, becomes clear and even as Wyatt has to deal with bullying older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) the two of them see a chance to win over the girls of their dreams and throw the greatest party the town has ever seen.

The key image of the film, not counting any shot which contains Kelly LeBrock, might be the two guys with bras on their heads which could be seen as a metaphor for the teenage male trying to find a way into the female psyche but on the other hand it could just be typical John Hughes immaturity. Looking at WEIRD SCIENCE now is a reminder that what John Hughes could do was write scripts that might have actually come from real high school students (most likely male) if they really knew how to write them. They’re slight, they’re goofy, they’re immature even as they reach for deeper themes and in many ways they’re fearless which allows them to capture something about the feeling of being a suburban teen in an affluent suburb that many other such films haven’t. For a film set over the course of a weekend—36 hours, really—it feels a little like WEIRD SCIENCE took just as long to write, which considering some of the stories about how Hughes cranked out things during this period may not be far from the truth. It’s a weekend movie that feels like it was written over a weekend but I don’t mean that in a bad way. It doesn’t even have the briefest time span of these Hughes films but it does feel like the slightest of any of them with even the big party, which you couldn’t be blamed for remembering as the climax, kicking off before the film is even half over. In broad strokes, it’s a story about two guys maturing due to the guidance of a woman but also how clueless you can be when fantasy unexpectedly becomes reality and only you can decide what’s going to happen next.

Coming out during the same summer as other teens-and-science movies like REAL GENIUS and MY SCIENCE PROJECT (Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS sort of counts, to say nothing of BACK TO THE FUTURE), more than anything WEIRD SCIENCE plays right from the start as a much goofier RISKY BUSINESS, maybe the closest Hughes came to that other Chicago teen film, combined with the wish fulfillment aspect of this woman willing to do anything with powers that are never clarified but so what, but is really there to turn the boys into men just not the way you’re thinking. All of this works as well as it does thanks partly to the sheer energy of the leads but the slapdash nature of it all means that it doesn’t have too many plot ideas beyond the big party. The way the high school kids are paired up from the leads to the girls they’re going after as well as the bullies played by Robert Downey (Jr.) and Robert Rusler all against the singular force that is Lisa feel like a set of parallels that a more fleshed out concept could have done something with, particularly since Downey and Rusler basically disappear by a certain point. When Lisa takes Gary and Wyatt to a sketchy bar downtown it’s actually not a bad idea as a comment on how sheltered kids are up in the suburbs but the whole sequence feels a little random coming so soon in the film and the racial element plays like leftover ANIMAL HOUSE material combined with some half-baked improv. John Kapelos, who gets the immortal line “What’s a beautiful broad like you doing with a malaka like this?”, is always welcome in these movies and if Hughes had written ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (he didn’t, you just think he did) I’d call this a very rough draft of the club scene in that film. But as usual this is very much set in the affluent white Chicago suburban Hughes world of Shermer, Illinois, with less screen time in the actual high school than the other films but we can get a taste of what it’s like. It feels just as segregated as ever with the brief glimpse of the one tough-looking, somewhat androgynous girl at the end of a line of guys ogling Lisa about as progressive as this world ever gets.

It feels like the future according to this film is computers and a colorized version of FRANKENSTEIN although it seems a little curious that they’re not watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but never mind. “I want her to live, I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize,” Gary tells Wyatt as Lisa is created and it’s a film where all logic is sent spiraling into outer space but as much as Hughes has no interest in rationality here, LeBrock somehow grounds it. From Lisa’s very first line she gets the tone and even finds an emotional logic to every scene, possessing no inner life—hell, nobody in this movie has an inner life—but she also never hesitates for a moment in what she does, pushing the guys into taking command of their situation as they bounce off her in scenes displaying disbelief although oddly, even though Hall was the star at the time he doesn’t get the big kissing scene with her. Parents are more irrelevant than usual in Hughes’ films this time out and Gary’s are a joke but one bit near the very end where Wyatt’s returning dad declines a hug has a surprisingly plausible edge in the middle of all this, another of those fathers trying to turn their sons into men in the most toxic way. The stuff with the grandparents showing up works pretty well, especially the line about “the Rex Harrison hat” even though the movie totally forgets about them too and when the film goes vaguely near T&A material with the girl at the party who gets her clothes ripped off when things go haywire and hurled out of the chimney I wonder how much of the slightly skeezy vibe can be attributed to producer Joel Silver (this was the only time Hughes and Silver worked together; a Silver-produced remake announced in 2013 has yet to happen). But even the girlfriends, mostly presented as insecure and confused in wondering why they’re with any of these guys to begin with, are still kind of playthings to be bartered over as well as rescued which turns out to mean more than simply having the courage to talk to them ever would.

There’s still a definite conservative streak to the whole thing and maybe another film might have tried to play games over whether or not anything ever really happened between Lisa and the two guys. Even back in 1955 it was only the production code that kept Tom Ewell from sleeping with Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, after all. It maybe feels more finely honed production-wise than SIXTEEN CANDLES but that film had better jokes as well as Molly Ringwald at the center and there are maybe a few too many shots here of the guys standing, staring incredulously at whatever’s happening. It moves so fast at the start, jumping into things as quickly as possible with the whole creation montage that makes no sense but who cares helped by that incessantly bouncy Ira Newborn music but it’s still pretty thin and when the movie hits the hour mark even though I know what’s coming I still wonder how there’s actually 30 minutes left to go. Broader than the other Hughes-directed films during this period it’s loaded with throwaway gags tossed into the frame like Hall drinking Coke from a brandy snifter but just as many of those jokes fall flat, another thing that makes it all feel a little tossed together so the mayhem doesn’t quite hit a peak.

A few Frank Tashlin-style sight gags as the party spirals out of control along with the missile that emerges from the floor to stick out of the chimney makes it seem like the movie could have gone crazier and even the blocking in the big confrontation with the bikers who invade the party is pretty dull as if they had no real time to shoot it. But more often than not the film maintains a sense of looseness through its rush to have almost nothing of actual consequence happen and some actors even visibly break character in one scene, smiling during some Bill Paxton antics near the end but it’s the sort of film where this isn’t a big deal. Mainly, it’s a movie about overcoming fear and trying to find the real person in an illusion, a lonely Friday night fantasy of what you wish could happen over a weekend before going back to school. Plus the title song by Oingo Boingo is pretty great. The film was released in August and even though I didn’t see it then, it’s a dog days of summer movie that’s a product of a more innocent time. Nothing wrong with revisiting, of course, I just never want to stay there.

It’s so broad that if it was a movie with more naturalistic performances it wouldn’t work and unlike his character Anthony Michael Hall seems up for trying anything; no reaction is too big and his acting style becomes the equivalent of the fearlessness in Hughes’ writing. With Ilan Mitchell-Smith (who starred in the Cameron Crowe-scripted THE WILD LIFE the previous year) as Wyatt, the charm is in always looking like he might start cracking up at his friend even when he’s supposed to be upset so the relaxed vibe bounces off him nicely and he even gets a sly fourth wall break. Kelly LeBrock is confident, loose and seemingly up for anything as Lisa, always working the frame that she’s in so no one pays attention to anyone else and using the commanding tone of her voice to full advantage, as if always daring the younger guys to take command of a scene they’re in together.

The forever awesome Bill Paxton almost steals the movie as Wyatt’s brother Chet, going even bigger than Anthony Michael Hall if that’s possible and doing things to contort his face that are still mesmerizing and finding the joy in this prick that Robert Downey and Robert Rusler never do as their bullies who aren’t as much fun in their assholishness. Boy, I miss Bill Paxton. Suzanne Snyder, who went on to play two separate roles on SEINFELD and Judie Aronson, who appeared again with Robert Downey, Jr. as “Gift Bag Girl” in KISS KISS BANG BANG, have a sincerity to their scenes which comes off as genuinely likable and their bits together have a genuine chemistry that makes the friendship seem totally real in the middle of all this. Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and Michael Berryman of THE HILLS HAVE EYES are a few of the mutant bikers who invade the party while the perfume salesgirl is played by Jill Whitlow who one year later starred in NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, a film Suzanne Snyder had a small part in which always gave the impression the two had switched places for some reason.

WEIRD SCIENCE was released only six months after THE BREAKFAST CLUB and maybe it makes perfect sense to follow that one with a movie which is pretty much its total opposite in tone but it does feel like the genuine sensitivity that people have always responded to in John Hughes’ films, for better and also for worse, is a little absent this time out. It wasn’t the hit that some of his other films of the period were although it actually did slightly better than SIXTEEN CANDLES just over a year earlier. Go figure, but of course it has the expected cult following these days. WEIRD SCIENCE was also the last Hughes film to feature Anthony Michael Hall, which is still surprising maybe since we just assumed at the time there would be lots more and feels like what we remember about the 80s was already starting to fall apart halfway through the decade. Maybe the filmmaker’s biggest hits were still to come but it’s as if the things people responded to in them as well as the looseness they had which feels so rare these days (SUPERBAD comes to mind) was lost along the way. There’s never any reason to think all that much about WEIRD SCIENCE, a film that doesn’t really ask you to anyway. It has its charms but strains a little too much to get there and maybe isn’t really worth defending all these years later. Guess I still have to think about it anyway, whether it’s because I missed it at the time or because I never had a weekend like this one in my own suburb. Of course, eventually you have to move on.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Know Your Limitations

It’s an unavoidable observation about comedies that sometimes the concept of cinema is just a little too incidental. Of course, in certain cases it can be argued the only thing that matters is whether or not a film succeeds at being funny. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with comedies or that they’re some sort of lesser form but when it comes to writing about them sometimes there’s simply not much to say. It may be insulting to point out that often comedies aren’t meant to be good movies and the history of film calls this out as a lie but it’s still the approach many of them seem to take, especially when a film plays like they shot a lot of footage, went crazy with the improv and assembled it out of the pieces of that, plot be damned, construction be damned, logic be damned. Whether or not it’s a good movie be damned. The recent film THE HUSTLE is a remake of the fondly remembered 1988 Frank Oz comedy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS but this in itself is not a terrible thing especially since that film is also a remake, specifically of the 1964 BEDTIME STORY starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. The plots of the three films are so close that original writers Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning even get full credit on the scripts of the other two films (THE HUSTLE opening credits lists the two along with DIRTY scripter Dale Launer and the new writer) but on its own BEDTIME STORY isn’t very good at all, acted by leads who are mostly waltzing through their parts and it’s directed like a sitcom of the time which makes sense since that’s what director Ralph Levy mostly did otherwise. It’s an early 60s studio comedy which contains all the bland artificiality that implies with a particularly bad ending so today it doesn’t play as much more than a reminder that those movies back then weren’t all fortunate enough to be directed by the likes of Blake Edwards or Stanley Donen. Coming 24 years later, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is such an improvement in every possible way that it’s a safe bet it would be regularly named on the list of best remakes if anyone knew or even cared it actually was one.

As for THE HUSTLE, there’s not much to say about that film, certainly not much to write about it, even if it is surprising that roughly 95% of the plot has been retained. It’s simply not very good and maybe the nicest thing I can say about the film is that it makes me want to send a letter to Anne Hathaway saying some of us are getting worried about her. Along with the lack of actual wit is the poor construction to what should be a pretty solid narrative, especially compared with DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS which possesses a tangible sense of elegance to its storytelling and through that an undeniable economy in how it’s told. THE HUSTLE merely rushes things and when it does diverge from the other film the reasons don’t feel correctly thought out, seeming to have little awareness of what worked before and why, possibly making changes simply to give more screentime to star Rebel Wilson for no reason other than she was one of the producers. And, this should probably be said, it’s not very funny. But there’s little reason to dwell on that. Better to figure out why a comedy was successful and what can be learned from that since THE HUSTLE certainly didn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that a comedy isn’t a great film. Sometimes you instead get a sense of the care which was put into a film and how much attention was paid in order to make it all come together. Too often we get reminders that the things which allowed certain films to work so well are long in the past. But even in the 80s when DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS was made, it was still possible for that to happen.

Wealthy con artist Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) resides in the seaside town of Beaumont sur Mer in the South of France with the Chief of Police as his main ally, spending his time almost effortlessly bilking money from wealthy women traveling through, often in the guise of a deposed prince looking for funds for his freedom fighters. All is well until the arrival of Freddie Benson (Steve Martin), an American who has traveled to the region in search of the finer things and looking for women to fleece himself. After failing in an attempt to get Freddie out of the way, Jamison accepts his presence and instead tries to teach him in the art of his trade. But when their brief partnership ends due to a falling out, Freddie suggests a bet to have them both go after an agreed upon woman and the loser will have to leave town. They settle on visiting American soap heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) with each man willing to stop at nothing to get her money and prove that they really are the best at the game.

There’s a surprising melancholy tinge to DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS mixed in among the laughs, particularly in the way Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson explains to Freddy that in spite of his ambition of becoming an artist he had little actual talent, merely the appreciation for the finer things so life as a con artist was the way he chose to pursue that. In a way, achieving the goal of spending money on beauty and culture served its purpose just as much as being an artist ever would have. In its own way, what he does is an art. Not everyone is qualified to aim so high and sometimes you never know that the other person already has you beat. Released during the Christmas ’88 season when most of the comedy business went to TWINS, the fantasy of SCOUNDRELS (written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning) is rooted in the old world money of the south of France and the characters of this movie are part of this fantasy, ready to take advantage of the women looking to be a part of all that opulence whatever the cost. BEDTIME STORY was the title of the original so it was told in that fashion but what DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS does is make that feeling so matter of fact it comes off as effortless and every laugh seems perfectly natural as if there was no other correct way for certain moments to play.

The films Frank Oz has directed, just going by the funny ones, haven’t always totally succeeded as comedies and a few of them aren’t all that great as films (hot take: BOWFINGER, for example, is funny but a little slapdash). But while DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is as broad as it needs to be at times to get the joke across, never holding back on the stupidity if it’s necessary, the film never forgets to exude a sense of elegance and class to fight against that, to give us a sense of the fine life this con artist lives at the expense of all those others. If the film weren’t so impeccably made this wouldn’t come across at all and Oz intentionally directs his film as an old school Hollywood entertainment, giving each of the three leads big movie star introductions and in filming his actors he always knows where to put the camera to let us observe them playing these roles as big as possible in tandem with each other. There’s a sense of calm to the direction, aided in how the look of the film is pulled off by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (whose other 1988 credits included THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and WORKING GIRL) and along with that expert camerawork is a confidence to how the visuals are laid out. Shots gradually reveal what they are as they happen and even the transitions seem to glide perfectly from one scene to the next. The subtlety to the laughs are all played with expert timing; there’s almost no way to explain just why and how Barbara Harris being pushed up against a series of plants as she’s let into what she thinks is the private life of a deposed prince is as funny as it is but when played out the joke makes perfect sense. Just the sight of the two leads sizing each other up in the early scenes wastes no time in showing off the expert rhythms they display together and by the time Caine as Jameson takes on the guise of the very Germanic Dr. Emil Shaffhausen to examine his newest ‘patient’ it’s a beautifully constructed sequence of reveals and blocking with each of the three leads bouncing off each other beautifully. Even the throwaway touches, like the bookmark Freddy keeps in his copy of Mad Magazine, are just the right sort of appropriately ridiculous details that the film pulls off as it glides along.

Through that impeccable plotting the film is always looking for the comic beats that can be brought out within a scene, doing this while being in no rush whatsoever. It pulls off the trick of having almost no real conflict until roughly the 45 minute mark but once it does the developments quietly snowball, one after the other. On the DVD audio commentary Oz, very analytical about his approach, gives lots of credit to Shapiro & Henning for the original structure but seems too modest to say that his film is an improvement over what was already there and even when much of the dialogue is the same it’s often been improved, taking comic beats beyond points where they stopped in the original and pushing those moments in the pursuit of greater payoffs, even down to the way the plot beats of the second half build bit by bit to a final twist which BEDTIME STORY didn’t have. The brief musical interludes also fit in so well with the relaxed yet spirited vibe like when Martin’s Freddy is being trained for this lifestyle, utilizing old standards of the “We’re in the Money” and “Putting on the Ritz” sort via the score by Miles Goodman, playing so close in tone to an actual musical that it’s no real surprise it became one on stage later on. And the French locations that make up the fictitious Beaumont sur Mer offer the perfect storybook quality, just as fitting as the innocence that Glenne Headly’s soap queen projects while the two men squabble over her. Because, really, it’s not like there’s anything at stake here and, as it turns out in the end, even less than we ever realized.

Everyone who has seen DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS of course remembers the absurdity of Martin’s guise as Ruprecht holding that trident and his quizzical “Not mother?” will always be funny, I don’t care what you say. Whether it’s the pure physicality of Steve Martin or what Michael Caine does to play against that, sometimes without moving a muscle, not to mention how this may be the only film with a Deny Terrio joke, for crying out loud, so many of the laughs pay off but the quieter moments balance them out whether Caine’s musings or Martin’s indignant claims that men are the weaker sex as the justification for doing what he believes is right by taking their money to give an edge to all the silliness. The sexual politics of the film are largely of another time, I guess the early 60s, and it makes sure we know that most of these snobby women don’t deserve anything less (“You were saying the poor shouldn’t be allowed in museums?” Caine asks one played by SIX FEET UNDER’s Frances Conroy). But just as Martin’s civilian wardrobe is a little 80s to clash with the surroundings, Glenne Headly’s unknowing Janet who believes just about anything anyone tells her is the sort of innocent no one in the Riviera has ever encountered and whose unquestioning goodness seems to be part of the new way of doing things, lulling us into a sense of sweetness and humanity almost without realizing it.

Miles Goodman’s lovely and boisterous score offers some of that as well, heavy on the violin but in addition to lending the film a richer sense of luxury it also contains a wistfulness that develops near the end as if to underscore how impermanent all this fantasy really is. Through his direction, Oz is always looking to underline this feeling, even in the economy of how a farewell at the airport late in the film holds on one character with another reflected in a nearby window and the surprising emotions being felt. But in another beat soon after that holds on Martin and Caine during a certain realization, the shot becomes about how they react as well as who moves and who doesn’t, turning it into a perfect reflection of their chemistry and in a nutshell this moment encapsulates what the film is more than anything. It’s possibly the best directorial work of Frank Oz’s long career, at the very least his most impeccable as well as the one most fully aware of where the jokes should go in order to truly matter.

The film always knows how much it’s about the two leads in the frame together facing off and even one of the slyest directorial moments has them gradually coming closer to camera during a tense moment, daring the other to go one step further. It’s safe to say this remains one of my favorite films of both of them; Steve Martin is more of a broad comic figure in his performance, obviously, taking his various characterizations as far as they can go particularly during the unspeakable insanity of Ruprecht but he always finds the right joke in moments like his desperation to remember someone’s name but also the way everything about his jittery energy throughout gets on people’s nerves. And it makes sense up against the fully fleshed out portrayal Michael Caine brings to his part beginning from the simple physicality of him turning around into close-up but particularly displayed through his timing in the guise of the officious Doctor Emil Schaffhausen. Even what Caine does with his hands can be fascinating to watch in this film and he cuts through every line of his dialogue with just enough of an edge to remind us of how much of an act the elegance is. The great and sadly underappreciated Glenne Headly is perfectly matched with the two of them in the way Janet Colgate seems to totally accept every ludicrous thing she’s told and the total sense of goodness it seems to bring out in her, with even the mere sight of her walking becoming a key part of that characterization. It’s very much a three person show but there’s also the way Barbara Harris as Fanny Eubanks of Omaha is so wide eyed in believing everything she’s told, Anton Rodgers (who later played a French chief of police again in Blake Edwards’ SON OF THE PINK PANTHER) bouncing off Caine nicely and in particular Ian McDiarmid aka Senator Palpatine as Jamison’s butler Arthur who amusingly gets extremely little dialogue but slaughters a few of the lines that he does get.

A film becomes a product of its time. This is unavoidable. Both BEDTIME STORY and THE HUSTLE are products of their time at least in the way of how mediocre they both are (although discovering what Brando does in the Ruprecht scenes makes a look at that film worth it). And as much as there’s nothing wrong with doing this particular plot with women in the lead roles maybe this is a case where keeping the final twist just seems wrong, in a thematic way or maybe just for comedy and the way the new film handles it simply gives the impression that it wasn’t very well thought out making the whole thing feel like a step backwards. Even comedies need to feel like there was some thought behind them, after all. In his memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood”, Michael Caine has nothing but fond things to say about filming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS in the south of France (you can hardly blame him) along with calling it one of his favorite films as well as the funniest. It’s the epitome of a film that you think of fondly years later, remembering both the jokes as well as the spirit of the whole thing, playing as light as it should but with just enough depth to remind us of that dream of jetting off to the south of France in the summertime. You still need those dreams while stuck in the real world and that’s the fantasy DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS reminds you of. And it’s funny. That matters too.