Monday, June 22, 2020

To Live In That Picture

It was a Friday night, several weeks into being stuck at home, when I decided to order HBO on streaming via Amazon Prime. This was mainly to see the recent season of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, which I watched and loved, but it didn’t take long to start looking for what films were on there. I discovered they had ARTHUR, realized I hadn’t seen that entire film in years so within seconds I was watching ARTHUR. That led to looking for similar pieces of comfort food along those lines, films that I hadn’t seen for decades or maybe ever. They’re not all ARTHUR, of course, that one is pretty close to perfect, but it was the tone that I needed. Comedies of the 80s-90s, maybe romantic comedies and if they feature a saxophone playing over shots of the Manhattan skyline all the better. Maybe I’m just not in the mood for explosions right now. There was ALL OF ME (nice), VOLUNTEERS (meh), SOMEONE LIKE YOU (the Ashley Judd movie; hey, Ellen Barkin was in it), JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH (let’s hear it for the 80s), CAN’T BUY ME LOVE (hard for me to dislike), DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (now that’s what I’m talking about, this one I love). Even BIG BUSINESS on Disney + (they have some real movies on there, I enjoyed revisiting this one). And then there was HOUSESITTER. You remember HOUSESITTER, starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. Released in June 1992 on the weekend between the openings of PATRIOT GAMES and BATMAN RETURNS which is when I saw it. Maybe you caught it on cable at some point.

But the question is, does anyone anywhere think about HOUSESITTER for any reason these days? Possibly not. I put it on late one night just figuring it would at least be relaxing and, truthfully, halfway through I got one of those panic attacks I’ve been having on occasion through this whole thing. But eventually I finished it, so let’s not blame that on the film. Directed by Frank Oz, it strikes me how this is neither the best nor the worst film ever made by the people involved. Definitely not the worst for the director, not when he did that STEPFORD WIVES remake and as far as Martin & Hawn go they even had their own lousy update with the 1999 version of THE-OUT-OF-TOWNERS. Compared to these, HOUSESITTER isn’t badly done at all but it’s just missing some sort of comedy X factor that would help it pop and make a real impression. At the very least it’s pleasant, not a bad thing right now and in the way it adequately cruises along the film even manages to provide a smile here and there. It’s so much the very definition of adequate that it might even be the most average Hollywood movie ever made. Something has to be, right? May as well be this one.

Three months after Newton Davis (Steve Martin) had his marriage proposal to longtime love Becky Metcalf (Dana Delany) rejected after building her a beautiful new house in their hometown, he is back at the Boston architecture film where he works in a minor capacity. At a work function Newton, called Davis by pretty much everyone, meets a waitress named Gwen (Goldie Hawn), a drifting free spirit who he spends the night with but sneaks out before the next morning. When she awakens to find Davis gone, Gwen gets the idea to travel to his hometown and find the abandoned house he spoke of so she can stay there which very quickly leads to introducing herself to people in the town, including the infamous Becky, as his wife. When Davis finally shows up and is shocked to discover what’s been going on, which has included Gwen getting to know his parents, he agrees to keep the charade going in exchange for her help in using the troubles their ‘marriage’ is going through as a device to help him reignite Becky’s interest in him and finally get her back.

After some fairly simple white-on-black opening credits, the first shot of the film is Dana Delany wearing a blindfold which in the film serves as a symbol for the careful way she proceeds in life, unable to respond to the bravery Steve Martin’s Davis as displayed in building a house for her, itself a symbol of how much he wants to stand out in the world but is unable to commit in a way that would get anyone to notice. And, yes, digging this deep into a film as mild-mannered as HOUSESITTER may be a little silly but that’s what you start to do at times like this. The film tries to make the point of Davis being open to original thought, objecting to the sort of cookie cutter office buildings his firm designs, he’s just not the sort of yes man who can make that approach stand out which the free spirit played by Goldie Hawn picks up on right away. She even calls him average right to his face which is an ideal designation for someone to be named in this film and it seems to wound him considering he’s trying so hard to be more than that even if from our perspective, the most unique thing about the character is that people refer to him by his last name. So it’s basically a film about how there’s a way towards happiness to remove the fear and help you stand out, even if it means making up the truth as you go along. Or something like that.

Somewhere in that theme is a concept but the execution is a little too freeform which means there’s a looseness to HOUSESITTER that fits the plot almost as if it’s a movie about someone making things up as they go along which itself was being made up as it went along, but that approach really amounts to only so much. Frank Oz’s directing style is consistently assured with lots of long takes and elegant camera moves thanks to the great cinematographer John Alonzo which lends a sense of grace to the film that it wouldn’t have otherwise, going nicely with the bucolic setting of the town. But the story never really winds up going anywhere, missing the big laughs that could be built out of the solid structure in something like the previous Frank Oz-Steve Martin teaming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. This script plays out in a way that sort of makes sense but it all comes off as pretty inconsequential, more about the characters trying to determine what each scene is going to be during the scene and the sense of them interacting with their surroundings which at least gives it a style but it becomes about that more than actual jokes.

HOUSESITTER, screenplay by Mark Stein from a story by producer Brian Grazer and Stein, plays at its most promising as a screwball update with a setting that brings to mind a sort of generic Golden Age of Hollywood feel. In my mind all those films seemed to be set in Connecticut (I’m either thinking of MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE or something else I can’t remember) but this one moves the story further up north to Boston and the nearby fictional town of Dobbs Mill, all the better for the occasional New England accent, I suppose. The basic concept has potential but it really just cruises along so it never becomes more than a middling early 90s studio comedy with a couple of big names. Those two stars bounce off each other pretty well in each scene but I never really believe them as these characters they both seem maybe ten years too old for, not that the age thing matters very much. Their interplay at least feels well utilized with a cleverness to the beats of their arguments and how far each one of them pulls the other further into the improvisation of all those made up stories. Structurally, the screenplay comes off as neatly organized as it moves from one giant lie to the next with Davis’ parents played by Donald Moffat and Julie Harris, both excellent, acting concerned and Peter MacNichol’s co-worker/best friend serving little function but to give Steve Martin someone to clarify plot points to. The real set pieces come out of those lies thought up by the ‘Ernest Hemingway of bullshit’ as Davis calls Gwen and the way they work out as they get told; Hawn making up the story for the first time in the grocery store, the various scenes with the parents, Newton’s anguish as he realizes he can only do so much as long as Becky thinks he’s married. And for all the effort the film seems to be putting in to finding things for them to argue about, nothing is really ever at stake which means that it doesn’t really do much but bounce from one scene to the next, looking for a reason to keep going and never reaching any comic boiling point.

That low-key vibe at least keeps the tone consistent from scene to scene and the small town feel offers a nice, laid-back energy while also making me think of how excited people in the real town likely were to have movie stars hanging around for a few months. Even the layout of the all-important house that gets the plot going adds to this, based on a design that was named House Beautiful’s Best Small House of 1990 so at least it’s a nice movie to linger in. And it’s almost as if Oz knew that the high concept was missing something so a number of scenes play like he encouraged the actors to do whatever they could to add their own bits of business to moments with elements tossed in like a giant sheepdog at the house who runs through things but is almost never mentioned. The way this is all staged feels like he correctly knows that the best way for such scenes to work is to keep the shot on Martin and Hawn as they each flail in tandem with each other, searching for the next part of the lie. Even the bouncy score by Miles Goodman (who was really good at this sort of thing and died way too young) adds to this elegance along with how the camerawork seems to glide along in unison with an added beat sometimes to punctuate a laugh. When Steve Martin takes a spectacular pratfall that ends with him perfectly straightening up again it’s a sharp piece of timing but maybe almost too rehearsed and the overall schematic of the film is as well so all that work by everyone to give extra life to scenes makes the film amiable but not much more than that. Maybe because of this, the best moments seem to slip in almost unannounced like when Moffat lapses into his high school principal mode to lecture someone or a scene with Martin and Dana Delany, which is maybe the best moment in the film, when the two of them almost finally start to play out their hoped for romance. The physical interplay between each of them slowly turns into what he desperately wants in a shot that goes on longer than you’d expect and their chemistry is almost too good here but in that moment the movie briefly comes totally alive.

Such moments like this where comic gold turns up feel like they’re made out of very little in the best way which makes them stand out all the more, as if somehow the movie could have gone further. There’s something darker that could be done with this basic idea of this woman who is a con artist but really a free spirited manic depressive with a propensity to take all these games way too seriously in her desire to put roots down somewhere, the way she mentions the dream of belonging somewhere as part of the desire to live in the picture of the home that Davis scribbled on a napkin. If the part was played by an actress who really stuck out in this sort of small town it might have had some teeth but, of course, that’s not the movie any of these people were making. Which is fine but the approach they went with is pretty surface, groping around for a theme in how the way to live is not about logic but the sheer feeling of passion whether it’s true or not. The lies get rid of the fear and allow you to really experience things and it doesn’t matter what the truth really is, I suppose. Fight for what you want, be brave and take that step to do something to stand out. Which is all well and good but if only the film has that sort of courage.

HOUSESITTER climaxes at a party. Well, of course it does, what better way to get everyone together at once and bring all the farcical complications to a head. For whatever reason it feels like the party being ridiculously overcrowded should be part of the joke but it never really is and the ultimate effect of the whole sequence is Steve Martin flailing around from one group to another, doing everything he can to stay in control. There are some nice beats in the staging thanks to the way Oz and editor John Jympson (who also cut A FISH CALLED WANDA and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS but also Hitchcock’s FRENZY and A HARD DAYS’ NIGHT) make it all go together, serving as a reminder that this sort of thing is hard to pull off even when it only sort of works but like so much of the film the overall effect is…fine while never really landing on a satisfying payoff. I can’t remember which critic back in ‘92 was appalled at the way the film used a couple of supporting characters who are homeless as a punchline which isn’t too unfair a slam even if the tone of the film has so little to do with the real world they may as well be called hobos like in the old screwball days but I get the point being made even if I can’t bring myself to get too upset over that. This almost brings a sour tone to things but in the end, the film isn’t significant enough to get upset over and manages to stay likable most of the way that it doesn’t ruin the momentum even if I still get the issue. The thing about HOUSESITTER is that maybe there is only so much to squeeze out of this premise, either comedically or otherwise. It wants to be about that freedom of succeeding through impulse and fantasy in a world of logic, how in the end certain things matter more than the truth. You have to fight for what you want, be brave and take that step although even as a formulaic romantic comedy it never quite breaks free of its own chains, or blindfold, as it were. It’s still a pleasant 102 minutes and, these days especially, I suppose there are worse things.

For both of the stars, HOUSESITTER comes in the middle of a surprisingly heavy period of activity. Steve Martin was making one or two of these movies a year with this coming six months after both FATHER OF THE BRIDE and Lawrence Kasdan’s GRAND CANYON. Goldie Hawn, who apparently was a late replacement for Meg Ryan on this, always had long stretches without working yet this one oddly comes during a twelve month period that included four new films after which she didn’t do anything for another four years. All of this is a reminder that HOUSESITTER was one more comedy made along the Hollywood assembly line back in the days when they did these things, just not remembered as much as some of the others these days (Hawn’s other summer ’92 comedy, DEATH BECOMES HER, is the one with the cult). But the chemistry between the two leads pops just enough with them always in synch with each other, giving the performances just enough of an edge. Steve Martin grounds it all with excellent timing through his growing anxiety and little moments throughout like when he gropes for a single word to describe Gwen’s effect on him, all a reminder of how much better he got as an actor over the years. Goldie Hawn’s best moments are when she’s performing the high wire act of all those stories being told to people unaware of what’s really going on and the energy she gives off clicks even if the character sometimes feels a little too familiar so the effect she has keeps the movie going. Dana Delany, particularly good as a sort of preppie Gail Patrick, continually gets laughs out of small moments while balancing out the farce with just enough real world skepticism, making her almost more appealing than she’s supposed to be. It’s the sort of performance which feels that much freer since the movie isn’t on her shoulders and there are lots of strong work from the various supporting actors who each get moments to stand out—Donald Moffat has what is maybe the one true emotional moment in the entire film as well as Julie Harris along with Richard B. Schull and Laurel Cronin in the problematic roles as Gwen’s pretend parents. One surprise appearance looking at the film now is Cherry Jones who turns up in an early role as a waitress at the Hungarian restaurant and looking it up this wasn’t even her first film.

HOUSESITTER is pretty minor stuff made by some very talented people, a film that makes me smile more than ever laugh out loud but it’s harmless enough, a reminder of studio comedies which feel like such an endangered species now, for better or for worse. And compared to films like it that do get made now, HOUSESITTER is practically Lubitsch. Maybe there isn’t really that much to say about it in the end but for a film where I had a panic attack midway through this time around it’s not that bad and this is one of those cases where writing about the film itself is secondary. This sort of thing is comforting for me right now and I’ve been watching so many of them lately in search of something, I’m just not sure what. It’s like I’m trying to make my way back to a simpler time and start over although it’s possible my recent revisit of BETSY’S WEDDING may have been taking all of this a step too far. Maybe while stuck in this limbo I’m simply trying to figure out my own past, why I went to see these films in the first place and what they really meant to me, whether I liked them or not. Sometimes I think I liked all of them anyway, regardless of what the truth really was. I suppose if HOUSESITTER has to serve any sort of purpose at this point in time, it may as well be that.

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