Monday, May 31, 2021

Life In The Big City

Sometimes, when writing about one thing, it can be impossible to avoid thinking about another thing, which is what happened recently when writing about JUDGE DREDD and I mentioned that comparisons to ROBOCOP were inevitable. Based on a comic book that predates ROBOCOP by a number of years, JUDGE DREDD is enough of a mess that it’s possibly the more interesting film to write about. The thing is that ROBOCOP, a comic book movie not actually based on a comic book (even if parts of it maybe have been somewhat inspired by the original Judge Dredd), is pretty damn close to perfect. Once you get past that, it can be a question of what else there is to say? Still, there’s nothing wrong with trying.
Of course, the future began at some point. We just didn’t know when it happened. Things changed as they always do, but we looked up one day and realized just how much had been altered with no chance of going back. My guess is it all started when E! put the Kardashians on. That seems likely. But while it was never made clear just how far into the future ROBOCOP was supposed to be set, that never mattered. It was all about the inevitable. The look at a future version of our world being swamped by corporate takeovers is certainly a part of that. But removed from its enormous success in the summer of ’87 and the faulty attempts by Orion Pictures to turn the concept into a franchise, this is essentially a pitch black satire about an individual trying to reassert his identity in a world being consumed by fascism. It shows people trapped within the oncoming horrors of the future in a message delivered during the inherent ugliness of the Reagan era, a time set on transforming them into just another product which, like everything, is expendable. Just another statistic.
But looking at ROBOCOP now, in the future, makes it clear how little has really changed, as certain people way up in those glass towers look down below on all those statistics to decide who is still left to hurt. ROBOCOP was Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s big introduction to the American market and it may still be his best English language film, as much as I worship a few of the others. It’s a portrait of America, showing what it has become with a filmmaking style so assured and unrelenting through every moment that the exhilaration becomes impossible to shake. It’s a film so invigorating through all that energy, thrusting us right in there as if it’s forcing us to become part of the narrative. This is a comic strip, yes, but it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s what our reality, our future, has really become by this point in time.
In the future, crime in Detroit has spiraled out of control. No sooner has patrolman Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) begun his new assignment at the Metro West precinct, teaming with partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), when he is brutally gunned down by a vicious gang led by the psychotic Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Meanwhile, at the all-powerful corporation OCP, which is preparing to begin construction on new futuristic Delta City, rising executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) takes advantage of a setback in development to unveil his new creation RoboCop, a new cyborg which takes part of a deceased policeman, in this case Murphy, and turns him into essentially a robotic supercop with several prime directives built into his programming. Murphy’s former partner is the only person who senses something familiar about him, while competing OCP exec Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) is ready to take advantage of Morton’s success and the new public hero for his own purposes.
In many ways, ROBOCOP has essentially been burned into my soul by this point, just as much as certain other late ‘80s summer releases like THE UNTOUCHABLES and DIE HARD, each of them part of a memory that is growing dimmer, yet in my head they remain as powerful as ever. But it’s also a perfect example of a movie that has gained in stature through the years as the world has continued to change around me, so its meaning has only deepened, making it look harder into Murphy’s eyes to see how much everything has been taken away from him, and how much has been taken away from us. That sense of danger is always at the forefront even as the laughs come, and this is a pretty goddamn funny movie, with the way each scene plays out making it all feel like it could go either way at any moment. Every television is presumably tuned into the same comedy show, the one with the certain catchphrase you’ll never forget, as if this view of America is essentially one giant vicious sitcom anyway, one where the laughs come when people get hurt and they don’t realize this until it’s too late. The scene that shows just how dangerous this future really is occurs not down on the mean streets, but up in a sleek executive boardroom, and even though he’s barely seen, it’s very clear that the head of it all, Daniel O’Herlihy’s CEO, known only as The Old Man, is more dangerous and powerful than anyone. Both worlds are equally nasty. It’s just that the suits are much nicer in one of them.
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, ROBOCOP’s script is unapologetic in its look at what is to come with an unrelenting display of all that horror, and the way things are cleverly laid out means that there’s not a wasted beat in the movie, coming in at a lean 103 minutes with barely a chance to catch our breath. It would be easy to speculate how Paul Verhoeven took a script, which in other hands could have been just another piece of genre junk, to capitalize on THE TERMINATOR and not only made it bigger and more emotional but this would be dismissive of the phenomenal sense of craft everyone involved brings to the film, from the sharp and incisive wit of the script to the crisp excitement to the way cinematographer Jost Vacano shoots every scene to the physical creation of RoboCop himself in a suit (brilliantly designed and built by Rob Bottin) that completely sells the illusion of what Murphy has become, including the intricacies of the sound work every time he moves a muscle with the weight of the character always felt to help us believe everything he becomes.
All of this is true, but much of how well it works also comes from the sense of sheer physicality brought to the film by the director in the way every moment is approached down to what would normally be simple dialogue scenes, the way Dick Jones and Bob Morton get in near each other during that men’s room encounter which gives it an unforgettable energy but there’s also the closeness of RoboCop and Lewis to readjust his targeting as those baby jars are blown away, as physically close as their relationship will ever get. There’s nothing subtle about this version of Detroit, one where everything is loud and garish, no one is really in charge, and even the lightning fast reporting of all the daily horrors seen in the newsbreaks scattered throughout, establishing the world and laying down some plot points, as the anchors move onto the next calamity with bright smiles (this film is what Leeza Gibbons should be forever known for) complete with breaking for a commercial before the movie is two minutes old and everything in the world outside of the technology is clearly breaking down. The science fiction elements are always compelling but it’s the deadliness of that arch feeling all around it in this ugly futuristic America that causes it to be more tangible, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre, but presented in a way that is so horrific the nominal lead has his hand blown off in the first twenty minutes. Naturally, everyone laughs. This is the future. This is what people are.
Before he dies, we barely learn anything at all about Murphy beyond that he seems like a decent and normal guy and that he has a wife and kid, as seen in those flashes of his past life that are as epic and banal as any of ours. And then he’s gone. Paul Verhoeven has directed star vehicles during his American career. In TOTAL RECALL, he used Arnold Schwarzenegger better than few other directors ever have and he made BASIC INSTINCT all about the glory of what Sharon Stone does in front of the camera in every possible way. But in ROBOCOP, the character called RoboCop becomes part of the very essence of the filmmaking. The way he/it carefully walks down a hallway almost becomes the visual style of the film’s fluidity, so every moving shot seems to go with the next, giving it an energy that comes from the way each of the characters walk and how it defines them, so every gesture is equally important. The way the film teases out our first real glimpses of the character as he arrives at the police station comprises one of those touches throughout that have something beyond what we were expecting, and that sheer sense of physicality gives every moment an extra jolt. On the surface, subtlety has nothing to do with what Verhoeven is doing and yet the director always knows to add in certain small moments that add to things, so even what he does with silent glances between people is something, reminding us that there’s always more going on, which keeps each of those characters alive and in our heads even when they’re not around.
Things are pretty recognizable in this future, maybe most notably the city councilman who won’t accept that he lost his re-election which feels funnier and more terrifying now than ever before. The legendary “I’d buy that for a dollar” catchphrase is maybe dumber than just about anything on TV now, so it makes perfect sense that it’s a catchphrase in the world of the movie, too, because of course it is. The police are going on strike which is probably exactly what OCP would want anyway. In fairness, the ideas filtered through Verhoeven are sometimes more compelling than the action which is solid (with some second unit work apparently directed by Monte Hellman, RIP) but not as inspired as the parts that haven’t been seen before in other movies; the shootout in the drug factory is one of the least compelling sections since it’s ‘just’ pretty good action, for a few moments a scene about nothing but guys shooting at each other. What stands out in this film shows either the twisted humor in all the action beats, whether the vignettes of the title character’s first night out or the unexpected sense of emotion occurring in the gas station when he’s unexpectedly recognized scene that makes this special, something new. All of this coming together builds the story piece by piece, the onslaught of Robo being gunned down mirroring the killing of Murphy at the start, a character forever dying for our sins and feeling the pain of our ignorance. There are still reasons for him to fight back and the heart of the film is that power.
The climax is set in an abandoned steel mill, just about the dullest possible setting for any movie but this one gets away with it, feeling appropriately medieval visually to go with the clanging sounds of the Basil Pouledoris score, as well as a counterpoint to the gleaming OCP skyscraper where things will really end a few minutes later. But that setting is also is beside the point. It’s really about everything that Robo has discovered about himself and the world around him, the feeling we get when he says to Clarence Boddicker, “I’m not arresting you anymore,” what this has all been emotionally building to. And the final minute or so of screentime, since this film doesn’t stick around any longer than it needs to beyond the last word we get to hear, is a work of beauty as well as the most gratifying payoff imaginable after everything that we, and the character, have been through. It really is one of the great endings. With Tim Burton’s BATMAN still two years in the future, superhero movies were barely a thing in ’87 (one week after this film was released, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE opened and instantly died), but even at this early stage ROBOCOP uses itself to glorify the concept while also making clear the storytelling limitations inherent in the very concept of the superhero film; after all, it’s about a person who no longer exists, the emotions fighting to come through and he isn’t able to have sex which most likely in the Verhoeven world means you’ll never be a complete person. His programming, after all, gives him no real awareness of the trauma brought on by the sexual assault he prevents in one scene, the male organ he shoots off just one more obstacle to help him take down the bad guy.
Except for a few (presumed) hookers hanging out at Bob Morton’s place doing coke with him, there’s not much of a sense of overt sex in the film anyway, but it’s always there if you want to find it, often in the nastiest ways whether the undercurrents of that men’s room scene between Jones and Morton or Boddicker leering at the OCP secretary, leaving his gum behind as a reminder. Only the quick flashes of Murphy’s wife saying she loves him feels like anything resembling normal behavior between two people who love each other. In a way, the film is about finding meaning in this future even without that. The power of the extra violence only seen in the unrated version (no real surprise that this film went through extensive haggling with the ratings board at the time) found on the various disc releases isn’t essential storywise, but the overall effect helps to provide a clearer look at this futuristic Detroit which makes the overall message that much stronger. This is what people are in this world. This is what humanity means to those in charge.
The giant, lumbering robot ED-209 that Dick Jones presents to the board is clearly a product of this corporate world, a killing machine that blows away an innocent person turned into a joke by the end - a big, dumb, clumsy joke with the crying baby sounds perfectly encapsulates everything about the mindset behind it. Bob Morton’s idea that became RoboCop is the opposite in its effectiveness and of course that guy was no saint since he is the one who set Murphy up to be killed in the first place by placing him in that precinct. It’s the individual inside that has to fight its way out, even if maybe the one thing that hasn’t aged so well for this point in time is the film’s portrayal of ordinary cops as average, likable Joes that doesn’t quite match up with the way we’re thinking about them these days. But no film is perfect even if ROBOCOP comes close. All that fury brought to almost operatic heights by Basil Poledouris and his phenomenal score makes me want to stand up at the end even when I’m by myself. There’s not a boring shot in the entire film, not a single dull moment. The message it contains is as clear as it ever was and instead of fading the film is more powerful and, yes, emotional, than ever.
On the surface, maybe it seems like a thankless role considering how he’s covered up for much of the film but the energy Peter Weller brings to that focus as the character is essential, as if he was cast for not only the shape of his chin but that haunted look in his eyes as much as every specific movement he makes to make the cyborg the believable creation that he is. This also matches up with the heroism and humor that Nancy Allen brings to Officer Anne Lewis, a reminder of a humanity that most of the rest of the world has left behind. It’s an unforgettable line-up of actors doing some of the best work of their careers as these scumbags in suits, Ronny Cox displaying the extreme arrogance of Dick Jones, Miguel Ferrer and the cockiness of Bob Morton as his new creation achieves success. Kurtwood Smith achieves instant immortality with his reading of the legendary line “Bitches leave” but the cackling viciousness found in his entire portrayal of Clarence Boddicker is unforgettable, matched with everything that Ray Wise, Jesse Goins and Paul McCrane bring to it as his crew. Robert DoQui finds the right amount of honorable fury as Sgt. Reed, the way Felton Perry as OCP exec Johnson walks says so much about the sort of corporate guy he’s playing and Daniel O’Herlihy as The Old Man in a grand total of two scenes remains a pitch perfect satirical vision of true corporate evil, one who you just know will never have to concern himself with anything going on where people are really going to get hurt.
And one thing that’s for sure after everything we’ve been through in the past year, is that it’s tough to know if you’re still a person. Even after all that staring in the mirror, you’re still not sure. Isolation does that to you. Having no idea what the future holds does that to you. And all that’s left to do is to keep waiting for the answer. Funny thing is, the way ROBOCOP concludes, there’s no real character here to build a franchise around unless they were going to put the helmet back on him and return to the status quo. Of course, it didn’t stop them from trying and that’s exactly what they did. Coming three years later, Irvin Kershner’s ROBOCOP 2 is a big, messy, miscalculation, but seems to have a fanbase maybe because of how much of an extreme mess it is. No one seems to defend, or even much remember, Fred Dekker’s ROBOCOP 3, which was made without Peter Weller (who turned it down in favor of David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH and you can hardly blame him), had a delayed release hobbled by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and was even saddled with a PG-13 rating. There was also a one-season TV show I never saw and a remake just a few years ago, or so I’m told. But I never think of any of these things as being ROBOCOP, a film that by itself remains a masterpiece of pop cinema. We don’t see anything like it anymore. The pain has been bled out of what these movies are just as much as the cinematic intelligence found in the stylization. Still, I suppose things could be worse. Watching the Republican debates back in 2016, I made a comment on social media that it wasn’t so much like ROBOCOP but ROBOCOP 2. Maybe the past few years really have been that badly put together. Real life, after all, doesn’t resemble finely honed satire. It resembles messy, unsubtle satire and more people actually get hurt because of it than you ever imagine. But ROBOCOP remains the great film that ROBOCOP is even if we’ve passed it by now. We just need to remember who we are and how we fit into this world. If all this still counts as a world.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Intangibles Are Everything

Not sure how long ago it was but some years back, I spotted James L. Brooks in my neighborhood. At least, I thought I did. The guy looked like him. It’s impossible to be certain, but there’s no reason why he wouldn’t take a weekend drive over to Los Feliz with some people for lunch or whatever. While I know next to nothing about the man’s personal life or where he lives or any of that stuff, I just imagine it to be way over on the west side in somewhere like Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, or up in Malibu, one of those places I only rarely venture to these days - the sort of place the characters in his film SPANGLISH lived is what I’m saying - maybe just going to and from the Fox lot to work on THE SIMPSONS. Of course, I have no idea if any of this is the case, but my point is that I sometimes wonder how much time he spends out in the real world to see how people actually behave these days. Los Feliz counts as the real world, right? I’m never sure anymore.
Now having passed its tenth anniversary, HOW DO YOU KNOW is the last film to be written and directed by James L. Brooks. To date, at the very least, and technically there’s still the chance for another but a decade is a long time. Opening the week before Christmas 2010 the film died immediately, even with a reported $120 million spent on it and a cast that included Jack Nicholson in what is also his final film to date. It has its admirers out in the wilds of Film Twitter and, hey, I get why. It’s recognizable as a film by James L. Brooks and I’m willing to defend it to a certain extent on that basis in the way it explores the neuroses of its characters to their utmost depths as if this is the final statement on everything people in his films and TV shows have ever gone through. It’s a film that asks the question of how two people can be compatible and what to really do when faced with the impossible possibility of being together. But it’s also a film that seems to continually ask itself what sort of movie it is for much of the running time and what the story actually is, until it ends so it seems like the film has barely even started and all you’re left with is wondering what it was. How do you know when you’ve even seen a film, anyway? What are you really able to take from it?
Professional softball player Lisa Jorgensen (Reese Witherspoon) is unknowingly on the verge of being left off the team’s roster for the coming year when she begins dating hotshot pitcher Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson). After getting an awkward call from George Madison (Paul Rudd) to let her know that he won’t be calling to ask for a date after being set up by a friend of hers, George is served with a subpoena for corporate maleficence at the company he works at, run by his father Charles Madison (Jack Nicholson). With his life suddenly in shambles, he calls Lisa again to ask for that date but by the time they meet, Lisa has gotten news of being cut from the team. The dinner goes awkwardly but they soon run into each other again and Lisa is faced with the decision of which of these two men is the right person for her at this point in time, while George has to decide how much the possibility of this woman matters and what that means for his relationship with his father.
The basic notion of two people on a blind date the day both of their lives have fallen apart is a promising kernel of an idea, meeting as they try to figure out where their lives are supposed to go now - asking should they fight what has happened or should they accept that ending and find a new way towards an actual, fulfilling life? How do you know, right? The thing is that I’m not entirely certain this is the idea the film wants to explore and it gets so fixated on the simple, Brooksian aspect of behavior with the separate inciting incidents done in such a way that it’s hard to really get invested in what has happened. The softball team setting feels promising, but it’s discarded almost instantly so we can barely understand what Lisa has lost. The corporate plotline is never clear enough to be all that interesting even when what’s behind it gets revealed. It’s hard to be sure what to focus on here, and while HOW DO YOU KNOW does have a story, it’s often tough to figure out just what that is as if the purpose of many scenes in the film is to figure out why they need to be in the film in the first place. Two of the leads who never actually meet live in the same building, which you’d think could have been established in a clever way but, just like all sorts of other possible connective tissue to get us acclimated to things, this never happens, so we’re left to find our own way from scene to scene. In a way, this is a narrative that wants to strip everything about the plot down, discarding several interesting characters in the early scenes who feel like they’re going to be prominent but then aren’t in order to focus on the main characters away from the worlds that they’ve gotten to know best. There’s an idea to that, but it still insists on dealing with various other elements without any clear idea of why it needs to focus on them.
Having recently written about Brooks’s first theatrical screenplay STARTING OVER, this made me even more aware of the echoes found in HOW DO YOU KNOW as if he was mining the past for inspiration—the back and forth of a woman moving in with a guy she’s seeing, the rare (for films) occurrence of people using buses and even the proposal of two people having their first dinner together in silence. This film actually lets the idea play out during the date in question but even so, STARTING OVER always felt like part of a recognizable world within its own tone while this film never sheds a certain antiseptic feeling that makes it play like the whole thing was shot on a backlot even when it’s clearly filmed on location (the film is set in D.C.; parts were also shot in Philadelphia). The street scenes always look so clean, sparkly and oddly lifeless, everything constantly wet down to make them glisten without a drop of rain ever spotted. It turned up on Netflix for a period in 2020, and that continual, incessant brightness of every scene went perfectly with what has become the Netflix romantic comedy aesthetic in recent years, everything looking perfect and seemingly never part of any recognizable reality. Some of those films never seem to have any apparent goals beyond simply getting you to zone out, which at least can’t be said for HOW DO YOU KNOW, which has characters who spend much of the running time overthinking things to the breaking point. It beats the alternative these days, but it still never quite achieves a flow to allow each scene to go naturally from one moment to the next.
Of course, this reality of behavior is all part of the Brooks approach going back to his sitcom days. Still, especially during the likes of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, he seemed to revel in the messiness of day to day life and how people interact, driving each other crazier with each new decision of how they’re going to screw things up. The scripts of both that film and especially BROADCAST NEWS feel so finely honed, every moment matters so much, but here it becomes a continuous question of why people are behaving in a certain way and what all sorts of moments are even doing there. Even the opening scene, showing Lisa as a young girl discovering softball and how that gets boys to behave towards her, feels off and not establishing any particular themes that would justify it being there. A lot of time is spent with the characters played by Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson as if to justify why they’re being played by such big stars when it’s not really needed, and the film never figures out the right way to resolve either one of them. Wilson as the womanizing hotshot millionaire ballplayer, with a closet filled with souvenir sweat suits for every woman who spends the night in his place, gets scenes on his own where he explores his feelings for Lisa but it never makes sense why he’s technically one of the leads. Jack Nicholson automatically becomes one of the leads due to his very presence but the scenes between him and Rudd, simmering with a presumed hostility coming from whatever the backstory is between them that we don’t hear about, don’t click enough to warrant so much time spent on that either and the bones of the conflict never feel genuine.
There’s a certain push-pull to the plotting that feels familiar with Brooks—the going somewhere that gets interrupted like the Correspondents’ Dinner we never actually enter in BROADCAST NEWS, the trip to visit parents that never happens in AS GOOD AS IT GETS—but here the path it takes constantly seems to lead to dead ends that circle around and start over again, never really leading anywhere. If we needed to siphon the film down to the stuff that feels like it’s essential, I’m not even sure that the results would be what the film itself thinks is right. Maybe the scenes that were taken out needed to be left in. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s review of HEAVEN’S GATE, where she said finding stuff to cut from that 219 minute running time was easy. It was figuring out what to keep that was the problem. A movie withholding what it’s really about is one thing. This film feels like it spends much of the running time groping for an answer.
In every way, Reese Witherspoon seems like ideal casting for a James L. Brooks heroine, the sight of the inspirational quotes that surround Lisa in her bathroom mirror that have resulted in nothing feeling like it crystalizes what is going on inside her, not a single one of them containing what she needs. But, too often, the film doesn’t know what to do with that inner conflict unless it wants to say that the opening flashback showing her as a girl means that she’s destined for a life of always getting knocked down by men and the softball thing never mattered anyway? One turning point for the character, silently realizing that she has no place anymore with the team she’s been cut from, is brushed over so quickly as if it was salvaged from footage meant to be used for something else. The things in the film that register happening within scenes often feel too isolated as if it barely matters that they’re in the film at all. A scene where she visits a psychiatrist played by Tony Shalhoub feels promising, but anything learned from it is dropped just as one bit where Owen Wilson loses his temper while trying to make a point. For a moment, the character actually seems human, but all we’re left with is that one brief glimpse of relatability.
You can feel the film searching for those themes to focus on through all of that, and occasionally it comes within reach. Paul Rudd has a few moments, especially silent ones like the calm displayed by George after his first dinner (the pasta also looks appealing) with Lisa and even Reese Witherspoon’s abrasiveness, annoyed that the guy she’s with might actually be looking at her, sometimes makes total sense. The film at least knows to look for these quiet passages, like the way the camera follows behind her as she heads for their first dinner, but just as many such moments feel like the movie is just killing time. And when Brooks isn’t willing to let things stay quiet, the question of tone also becomes an issue, revealing how much he needs to get the actors to take it down a few notches. But at times, it comes close to feeling right, especially during the long hospital scene late in the film after George’s secretary, played by Kathryn Hahn, who’s getting all sorts of attention these days, who has given birth. The single funniest reaction of the entire film happens here, thanks to her, and it’s the one scene where everything makes sense. Even a joke involving Nicholson that feels shoehorned in works because it feels like it came organically out of the character’s feelings towards each other. Much of it involves Hahn’s boyfriend played by Lenny Venito (who’s just great here) coming in to propose to her and the mess that develops involving getting the moment on video almost seems to make sense of the entire film, turning it into a display of life improvising what once happened to try to make it even better. You could say that none of this feels like a part of the real world. Still, it is a part of the director’s world, as much as anything made by Howard Hawks after 1960 was, resulting in films that stripped the interests of the director to its essentials while also displaying an older filmmaker presenting what he still thinks of as the world out there. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s something else entirely. In this case, it’s the minutiae, the nervousness, the reasons for why they feel like they need to be together in the end. If anything, this is what HOW DO YOU KNOW has and what the story feels like it needs to be.
At one point, Paul Rudd’s George states, “Optimism is sanity,” as a way of approaching what he hopes will be his relationship with Lisa, a curious restatement of the way Jack Nicholson’s character declares, “Cynicism is sanity,” early on as a way of protecting yourself in the world. The repetition in the phrasing is barely noticeable. At least, it took me several viewings, but maybe one of the things that the film is saying is that making the second choice can be the only way to connect with people, even if it means going against what you’ve known your entire life. And, if I’m going to be honest here, the things that connect are the things in the movie that I identify with almost against my will and don’t even feel entirely comfortable pointing out. Certain moments of the developing relationship between the two leads are scattered in there, when Reese Witherspoon gets a little too testy with Paul Rudd in ways that still seem genuine followed by the actual connection. The overall message seems to be that even when something perfect that you’ve already achieved in life gets fucked up, you can still find your way with help from the people around you who matter and care and want to understand who you really are, that one small adjustment George gets to tell her about when he finally has the courage. I have some affection towards HOW DO YOU KNOW and even find some of the messiness endearing since the idea of searching through all that clutter in life is something I can relate to, but whether that’s my own screwiness in trying to find value in a lesser James L. Brooks film or actual things found inside of the film, I’m still not sure.
You can feel Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd trying to make this work, and occasionally between the two of them it does when they’re able to connect in the moment. Witherspoon balances out the uncertainty of the character in the broad sense with what the character is always ready to insist on without even being asked while Rudd is best when he’s just in the moment looking at someone, able to relax in just playing off someone. Even Owen Wilson clearly wants this to work even though his character, always willing to talk around the idea of how monogamous he is, never connects in a broad sense so he just falls back on the Owen Wilson vibe which never feels entirely correct. It’s the sort of curious energy that makes what Kathryn Hahn is doing all the better. She feels like the most human presence here no matter how big she plays it, a very emotional person getting more emotional without even trying. Deceptively simple reaction shots of her are astonishing. She’s the only person who seems to have a life that continues when she’s offscreen, a feeling that only grows when Lenny Venito makes his appearance as her boyfriend. We can only imagine the rest of this romantic comedy starring them that we’re only getting to see the climax of. A few other people like Mark-Linn Baker, Shelley Conn and Molly Price have roles that seem promising like they will be important but turn out to be briefer than expected. Maybe they were always small roles. Maybe the film got reworked so many times that that’s what they became. And then there’s a performance by Jack Nicholson which feels like he’s doing a favor for his old friend Jim Brooks with every scene playing a little as if he’s letting his glasses do most of his acting for him, with a standoffish vibe to the father-son storyline, but also maybe like he wanted to use it as an excuse that he just wasn’t feeling it anymore so why not simply bow out. It’s hard not to think about how this is his last movie after forty-plus years of stardom, but there’s nothing in the material to warrant reading too much into that.
But it takes time for dreams to fade, like it or not. If we admit the truth to ourselves about what the reality is, that can help, but sometimes all we can do is fight through those feelings until there’s nothing left to fight anymore. Even if we believe that truth, even if we can look at ourselves in the mirror and admit it, it still isn’t an easy thing to face. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t really see James L. Brooks in my neighborhood that time, but that’s not the issue. This film, which opened the same day as TRON LEGACY, is mostly forgotten now except for likely being Jack Nicholson’s last, along with that reported $120 million budget, presumably made up from star salaries, reshoots and Brooks’s own indecisions. It’s very likely that we’re not going to get something else like it anytime soon. Maybe the thing about HOW DO YOU KNOW is that the film asks too many questions it doesn’t know the answer to instead of being willing to come out and say something, anything at all, which, come to think of it, is kind of like life, especially this past year. But at least it’s a film trying to improve itself in the search for whatever it’s supposed to be. In that sense, it’s honest. To find the answers in a movie like this, you sometimes have to dig for it. That’s kind of like life, too.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Send In The Clones

Sooner or later, probably sooner, I’ll go back to the movies. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will. Not sure why I’m taking my time with the return but maybe it just has to feel right. I keep thinking about how the world is opening back up the but a place like the Cinerama Dome remains closed, part of the Arclight/Pacific announcement that the chain will be permanently closing, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to that place. After the past year anything is possible but I have to believe that the Dome isn’t going to go away. I have to believe that. The place means too much. To me, to other people, to this town and its history. This is the place that opened back in 1963 with the premiere of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD before running for 67 weeks, the place where I saw THE AGE OF INNOCENCE on opening day, the place where I saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD on opening day, the place where I saw THE MASTER in 70mm twice on opening weekend each time in a packed house, the place where I saw the Sidney Lumet remake of GLORIA on opening weekend in a theater that was practically empty. There was also something else that I’ve been thinking about but I’ll get to that shortly and the very idea of this glorious place never reopening is simply unacceptable.
Way back when I first started going there, the Dome was all by itself, next to nothing but a giant parking lot that I would traverse, having parked on the street to save money, on my way to see THE CABLE GUY or DONNIE BRASCO or whatever, knowing that something would take up that space eventually. Inside the actual theater it was a glorious place with that enormous curved screen enveloping you, making every film that played on it more special, more epic. Admittedly, not every movie worked on that screen with the curvature but when the right film was there it felt like there was no other place to see a movie that made any sense. By 2002 the Arclight was up, becoming one giant complex so I grew to love that place too and together this became just about the best and most exciting place in Los Angeles to go to the movies with memories there over the past few decades that I will cherish. And through it all, the Cinerama Dome is the most special part. There’s nowhere else like it. Going over everything I’ve seen there through the years in my head—a reissue of EL CID was the first, not a bad way to start—one fond memory is for a film that never actually played there. It was some sort of advance screening, maybe for press and media but who knows, of the Sylvester Stallone JUDGE DREDD exactly two weeks before it opened in June 1995. Even at that late stage playing to a packed house the film was actually still unfinished with credits missing (opening or closing or maybe both, who can remember) as well as at least one big difference. Maybe it’s not all that good a movie but it is the sort of thing you want to see at the Cinerama Dome, the sort of reason the theater is there in the first place.
It feels a little forgotten but JUDGE DREDD comes from a time before the comic book movie explosion so the people making it apparently felt the need to explain such a concept with a montage of Judge Dredd covers over the opening credits. Watching the sequence now makes me think of the Spider-Man segments back on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY but the film which follows isn’t quite as educational. It’s entertaining in an empty calorie sort of way but it’s also kind of a loud mess, lots going on in every scene but little of it sticks around long enough to make an impression, a giant sense of scale felt in the imagery while still playing like it was sliced down to around ninety minutes as if it knows we’ve got things to do and places to be which, in fairness, we probably did in 1995. As a completely honest admission, I remember liking the film that night. Maybe I was just younger, maybe it was the excitement of that advance screening. Seeing it again about a month later (at an AMC way down in Santa Monica, which was nowhere near as impressive) caused me to think that mayyyyyybe I’d overrated it slightly. But this happens to all of us. Revisiting JUDGE DREDD for the first time in some years it’s not that I think the film is all that good but there is a sense of scale to the jumble that it is which makes me feel a little nostalgic for the days before CGI took over everything. The film has actual sets, for one thing, so everything feels tangible and since the comic book formula hadn’t been cracked yet this gives the film a sense that at least it’s trying lots of different things to see what sticks. It’s got way more machine gun fire than anyone ever needs but there is a certain enjoyment to the mess at least in small increments. It also helped that my first viewing was at that particular theater. We were more innocent then. At least I was.
There is a plot in JUDGE DREDD, but also a lot of noise surrounding it. Far in the future with the planet turning into a wasteland known by all as The Scorched Earth, much of humanity resides in what are now called Mega Cities with massive populations where the huge surge in crime has caused the traditional justice system to be replaced by street Judges, part cop but very much also judge, jury and sometimes executioner. The most famous and powerful is the feared Judge Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) who never has any doubts about the criminals he passes sentence on, living or dead. When a TV news reporter who has been investigating Dredd’s methods is killed he is arrested for the crime and with falsified evidence is quickly convicted, not knowing that one of the people behind this is the mysterious Rico (Armand Assante), who he shares a little known past with. Also in league with Rico is crooked Judge Griffin (Jurgen Prochnow) looking to replace Dredd’s mentor Chief Justice Fargo (Max von Sydow) and take over the Council of Judges. After being banished to a penal colony Dredd is able to escape with help from fellow convict Fergie (Rob Schneider) and once the two of them are back in the city they team up with Judge Hershey (Diane Lane), Dredd’s friend and defender at his trial, to track down who set him up in the first place and uncover the full extent of Rico’s ultimate plan.
To get another admission out of the way, I have pretty much zero awareness of the Judge Dredd comic and even the better received DREDD reboot from a few years ago isn’t something that stuck with me beyond the fact that I was ok with it. Released by Hollywood Pictures, gone but still not forgotten, the 1995 version feels like it uses the comic book as mostly a jumping off point to make a the biggest sci-fi/action summer movie imaginable, sort of ROBOCOP set in a future that’s a cross between BLADE RUNNER and Tim Burton’s version of Gotham City (production design by Nigel Phelps, previously the art director of the 1989 BATMAN). But it’s also very much a Sylvester Stallone vehicle and in the end wants to be that most of all with the mask that always covers the main character in the comic (so I’m told) being removed about fifteen minutes in. The two words that come to mind when thinking of the film are Loud and Expensive, loud in terms of all the gunplay, expensive in terms of all the sets and special effects and star power. For a few minutes at the start when the film takes Fergie on his flight through the city during the opening credits the sense of scale is genuinely impressive giving it a feeling of excitement that primes us for the world to come it feels like it might be more than this. Looking at it now feels a little like a preview of the city planet Coruscant in the STAR WARS prequels and the overall look to the effects isn’t as advanced as it would be just a few years later but the heightened feel of the images brings a kick of excitement to the moment as if it’s getting primed for some other futuristic adventure instead of the one we’re actually about to see.
Directed by Danny Cannon (who went on to direct I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER and lots of TV including the CSI pilot), there’s a lot of visual clutter which makes the look inconsistent but at least it’s active. And the cluttered writing credits (story by Michael De Luca and William Wisher, screenplay by William Wisher and Steven E. de Souza, from the comic book by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) are fitting for a story that’s pretty cluttered too, rushing through moments of breathless exposition, speechifying and imagery which gives the impression that the script went through many, many drafts to nail down the necessary story beats but in the end wants to pay more attention to coming up with all the one liners (“Who says politics is boring?” says the bad guy as he blows away the entire council or bad guy Joan Chen spitting “Bitch!” at good guy Diane Lane who replies, “Judge Bitch!”) instead of making the plot compelling.
That kinetic feel now seems very much a piece of nineties would-be blockbusters with cinematography by Adrian Biddle (ALIENS, THELMA & LOUISE and later the 1999 THE MUMMY) that always gives it a fittingly epic feel but the pacing is so rushed, moving from one set piece and plot point to the next that the general feel is all over the place. The grandiose quality of the world’s gritty design has weight but it doesn’t match up to the goofier elements, especially the uniform on Stallone and the other Judges designed by Gianni Versace that feels so ridiculously stylized it doesn’t seem to have much to do with everything around it making me wonder if this film is one of the reasons why such costumes in later comic book movies, like in X-MEN just a few years later, decided to drain the comic book feel out of everything to make them seem more grounded and ‘real’. That wasn’t quite as big a deal back then and even though lack of reality isn’t the problem with JUDGE DREDD it still has too much going on to develop any sense of consistency, parts feeling out of a satirical comic book while others feel totally straight faced in a big action movie sort of way. The sense of scale is impressively big with a genuine sense of craftsmanship felt in all those giant sets and there’s a lot to appreciate in the design especially something like the giant ABC Warrior robot commandeered by Rico that is something that would definitely be CGI these days. It’s a silly concept the film doesn’t really do much with but just seeing it there actually able to interact with the actors is impressive all on its own.
For Sylvester Stallone, this came in the middle of his mid-90s semi-resurgence, right between the sleazy fun of THE SPECIALIST from the previous fall and Richard Donner’s overlong ASSASSINS later that year. More than any other of his vehicles from the period, JUDGE DREDD feels like a concept where he doesn’t entirely belong no matter how much it was reworked to accommodate him. Maybe the basic concept shouldn’t have been a star vehicle for anyone, Stallone or not, but the plot still seems tailor made for his persona with the basic structure of being framed for murder, sent away, then escaping with buddy/sidekick and finding his way back for the big confrontation with the main bad guy never all that different from TANGO AND CASH (or being thrown into prison at the start of DEMOLITION MAN, or being let out of prison at the start of the second RAMBO or being in prison for all of LOCK UP), trying to squeeze the Stallone comeback narrative of so many of his films into a sci-fi/comic book world whether it belongs or not. Judge Dredd stands in the middle of the street during his first appearance bellowing “I AM THE LAW!” to the criminals above and it feels meant to be iconic or at least a spin on his first appearance in something like COBRA but it plays like he hasn’t been let in on the joke yet.
There are ideas buried in the script to go with Dredd’s inner turmoil, especially getting him to learning what the idea of justice really is and how he pre-judges someone like Fergie without a second thought but they’re either the wrong ideas or they’re being placed into a movie that doesn’t have much use for them so if the character has even learned anything by the end the movie doesn’t bother to tell us, it just needs to reestablish him as the strongest force in this future dystopia, the one person who can be counted on to protect the innocent, or something, and prevent this futuristic fascist world from becoming…an even more fascist world, I guess. Much of the system he serves has been destroyed with a pretty high body count by the end but that barely seems to matter. Lest we forget, this film isn’t ROBOCOP, a film that was not only perfect but more than anything was ultimately about a person trying to recover his humanity in a futuristic hellscape. JUDGE DREDD has the hellscape but feels like it’s really about Stallone being Stallone, the special effects and all that machine gun fire. Even the massive production doesn’t always feel consistent with a few daytime sequences filmed on those enormous sets meant to represent Mega City with sunlight somehow getting in there, make them look like enormous sets and remind me how the likes of the more noirish BLADE RUNNER kept so much mystique by being set mostly at night.
When Paul Verhoeven directed ROBOCOP, a film that didn’t have to depend on one single personality in the lead, he brought to it a deadly combination of the inner turmoil the lead character was going through with the nastiness of its satire and the collision of tones worked beautifully, making it a film that became even richer over no matter how many repeat viewings. JUDGE DREDD has an off kilter sense of humor around the edges of the thing; the roving gang of cannibals out in the Cursed Earth that attacks Dredd and Fergie makes it briefly feel like a Sam Peckinpah film in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi world as well as the street corners named after Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen for reasons that I can’t imagine. Plus when Rico says, “Send in the clones,” to introduce the new army he’s creating, well, it’s nice to know that a futuristic bad guy has an appreciation for Stephen Sondheim. Stallone even seems ok with how appropriately ridiculous in the outfit but since he’s not in it much that doesn’t really matter. Having him run around without it so much of the time gives the feeling that the film takes so much of the goofiness of the concept seriously to the point that not much of it can be taken seriously at all and there’s never a reason to really care about anything.
Judges are assassinated, Rico chomps on a cigar and kills a bunch of people, a plan involving clones to take over the city becomes clear, Dredd and Fergie outrun a fireball, there’s a chase on flying motorbikes with Rob Schneider joking that he has to clean his seat and it all goes by so fast you barely notice any of it. The movie spends so much time building up the clones that are seen briefly while coming to life then presumably burn up in the climactic explosions that quickly occur, or at least they’re just forgotten about. There’s enough striking imagery to suggest that Danny Cannon, not even thirty when he made this, has the right sort of directorial eye whether the husk of the Statue of Liberty where the climax takes place, Von Sydow setting out on the long walk into the Cursed Earth when he makes his greatest sacrifice or even just the way the shape of Stallone’s face goes with the mask in the few scenes he actually has it on. Not to mention the whole anamorphic vibe that always helps the thing seem appropriately enormous. Maybe that’s why it came to mind when I was thinking about the Cinerama Dome, a place that would be nothing without a film showing there, even a piece of junk like this. It’s a theater that was made for this sort of movie, even if it’s not very good and that sense of scale is felt in every scene. Hoping for that feeling is one of the reasons why we go to the movies to begin with. Or at least why we go to something like this even when we suspect it’s not going to live up to our dreams.
I could also point out that in the year 2021 there’s not much use for a movie venerating a character like Judge Dredd, even in the service of a futuristic dystopia that needs saving. The plot is about teaching him what he hasn’t bothered to learn but in the end we know everything he does is for the greater good anyway. So post-1995, it feels like there’s not much to say about JUDGE DREDD. If anyone, like the writers, tried to make the film critical of the concept there’s not much of the idea left. Before he’s killed, Mitchell Ryan’s reporter points out that maybe the main council of judges should be dissolved which is exactly what happens indicating the film knows he’s right but that doesn’t seem like it matters either. It’s a film I have a fond memory of seeing under heightened circumstances but also a weird case where it isn’t very good, doesn’t have much to say and there isn’t even that much to say to defend it yet I don’t mind it all that much. It’s fast. It’s kinda fun. There’s a lot going on, enjoyable character actors, it’s a reminder of when movies actually built sets and even the early digital work still has a kick to it. It’s also kinda dumb and after watching it a few times for writing this I don’t feel too much need to revisit it again any time soon. To say it could have been called GENERIC 90S SCI-FI/ACTION MOVIE is a little harsh but it gets the point across that JUDGE DREDD never becomes its own unique thing.
The cast seems into it, I’ll give it that. Sylvester Stallone is as committed to the role as he always is even if something like the running gag of his saying “I knew you’d say that” never really clicks. But he seems determined enough to go big which means that Armand Assante, especially in their scenes together, is more than happy to go even bigger so when he shouts “LAWWWW!!!!” right back at Stallone it’s like he’s throwing the entire theme of the movie in his face. In that sense, everyone seems to know what they’re there to do even if it’s not very much; Diane Lane is earnest and determined, Jurgen Prochnow is deadly serious, Max Von Sydow gets the big speech about the meaning of justice and is as distinguished as you’d expect, Joan Chen seems more than ready to play a bad guy except she doesn’t get to do much beyond that big fight with Lane during the climax. Even Rob Schneider brings the right sort of energy, I’m just not sure he needs to be here unless it’s to remind us that he co-starred with Stallone in DEMOLITION MAN (which is better, just for the record) but the main issue is that the movie can’t seem to decide if he’s the comic relief or an audience surrogate co-lead. A few familiar faces like James Remar playing a very James Remar role and Scott Wilson, bringing a nice spin to what feels like a Dennis Hopper part in his brief appearance as one of the cannibals, are uncredited for their small roles which adds to this eclectic feel of what the hell are these people doing in this movie while also giving the impression that maybe this plot could continue to spiral off into even more unexpected directions even if it barely has time to do it before the 95 minutes are up.
My guess is the unfinished state of the film that night at the Cinerama Dome meant that the completion went way down to the wire before the film’s release on June 30, the same day APOLLO 13 opened. One additional sign of post-production issues could be that Jerry Goldsmith was set to do the music before dropping out for whatever reason, leaving behind only an enjoyably propulsive theme found in the film’s brief teaser trailer, a pretty tantalizing glimpse at what he would have done even if I don’t mind the absurd sense of majesty that Alan Silvestri brought to his crack at the final score. And, for the record, the big difference in the film that night, at least the one I remember, was that (spoiler for a different ending, I guess) the climax included the death of Rob Schneider’s Fergie after being mortally wounded by the giant ABC Warrior robot, pausing for a moment as Dredd leans down to say some final words to him followed Fergie saying, “You are the law…” and he keels over, dead. Pretty sure one of the first things I said to my friend after the movie was, “They killed off the comic relief?” Which I guess would be why the release print of the film cuts to him alive and cracking jokes while being led away on a stretcher, even if the final movie never bothers to pay off the plotline of Dredd refusing to apologize for wrongly judging him at the beginning. Considering how noisy the movie is, nobody probably cared.
The story behind showing this version to the public mere days before release is something I’ve always been curious about. All this seems important somehow, at least to my own history of seeing films in this town. The Cinerama Dome is part of that, on this night and many others, a place that I dream of going back to and, in the end, this memory means as much as anything else I ever saw there. I miss going to the movies. I miss movies I used to go see. Even something like JUDGE DREDD. It’s not going to be what I see on my first visit back to the movies, or on that day somewhere in the future when I return to this particular theater, but I could still do a lot worse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Questions We Can't Ask

Change is inevitable, like it or not. Even now. Especially now. If we’ve learned one thing over the past year it’s that eventually everything goes away. People and place disappear, and there’s no going back to the way it was. So when it comes to the future, figuring out what to hold onto is never easy. And when it comes to the past, understanding how much certain things actually mattered can make little sense. If only I could have figured it all out sooner.
The 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER is a reminder of this, a look at middle-aged angst and the struggle to hold onto some kind of hope, to not give into the way you think it has to be. A well-received box office hit at the time with a couple of Oscar nominations, for the most part it’s an enjoyable film with fairly sharp dialogue and well-drawn characterizations even if it does feel a little soft for this day and age. Looking at the film again recently it’s become the sort of ‘70s comfort food which has been nice to have around for late night viewings, maybe as some sort of primal return at this point in time to what I once thought adult life was supposed to be and maybe deep down still wish really was. Even watching the film now there are bits and pieces around the edges of the frame, department stores and the like, that provide a late ‘70s nostalgia rush of what the world looked like through my eyes back then that would be nice to live in for a few minutes. These days we wish for a lot of things.
When Phil Potter (Burt Reynolds) splits with wife Jessica (Candice Bergen) after she has an affair he leaves New York and heads up to Boston, taking an apartment near welcoming brother Mickey (Charles Durning) and wife Marva (Frances Sternhagen). Setting up his new life which includes attending a church support group for divorced men, Phil finds himself at Mickey’s for dinner one night which turns out to be a setup with schoolteacher Marilyn Holmberg (Jill Clayburgh). After their extremely awkward introduction Phil displays his interest but wary of how recently he’s been separated Marilyn turns him down when he asks her out. He finally talks her into it and their relationship begins but just as it gets going Jessica, now achieving success as a songwriter, reenters the picture leaving Phil to decide which way he really wants his life to go.
STARTING OVER was directed by Alan J. Pakula, more than several steps removed from his paranoia-infused trilogy of KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN earlier in the decade, but it’s likely more notable now as the first feature screenplay by James L. Brooks, coming after a long stretch in television that most famously included being one of the creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Looking back at the film over 40 years after it was released there are echoes here of the sitcom dating world that Brooks had already explored but it’s clearly intended to move things into a more grownup, therapeutic vein, ready to take advantage of the R rating even if the closest it comes to earning it is a couple of f-bombs. But when it does use them it’s memorable, especially during the unexpected meet cute between the two leads that plays a little as something that Brooks had dreamed of writing for Mary Richards all those years so with that along with a more relaxed pacing away from the sitcom world the film is able to take its time through the language used by the characters as they try to figure each other out. It’s done in a style that now feels like an early version of some of the films Brooks would later make whether TERMS OF ENDEARMENT or BROADCAST NEWS all the way up to his final film (to date) HOW DO YOU KNOW, with the neuroses of the characters always apparent but not as intentionally quirky as they would later become.
As for Pakula’s directing style, he’s clearly working in a more relaxed key than what he’s famous for with a sense of control to the filmmaking that feels like he’s dipping his toe into an unfamiliar style while trying not to upset things too much. The year before this film he directed the western drama COMES A HORSEMAN (one of many first time viewings from this past year during quarantine) which has a certain Sydney Pollack quality to its romantic sweep but STARTING OVER is closer to the the ‘70s Neil Simon-Woody Allen vein while taking a quieter, more mannered approach to the material, taking its time with the one liners about the singles world and viewing that battle of the sexes through the insecurity everyone is fighting. Based on the novel by Dan Wakefield, the film is grounded and feels like part of the real world, or at least a relatively plausible late 70s romantic comedy real world, one where Phil Potter writes articles that appear in airline magazines for a living, which sounds like a movie job if there ever was one, and even if his ex-wife is in the process of becoming a successful singer-songwriter it still manages to feel somewhat relatable.
This is also a mustache-free Burt Reynolds, clearly part of an attempt to branch out from car chases even toning down his laugh so the result is likely the most subdued performance the actor ever gave during his superstardom period or at least the most successful example of displaying a more sensitive side to that star persona. It’s not the only time he went clean shaven for a movie but here it feels like watching a man who has had his armor removed so it causes his entire body to droop, not quite knowing how to move himself anymore and he uses that for the character, uncertain how to sit down or at times even talk to another person. It’s felt in the way he seems to crumble in a few key moments when his charm doesn’t work, finding a love letter to his wife that includes the word ‘evermore’, and you can feel everything in him collapse. Those bastards probably always include the word ‘evermore’ in those letters. It’s a discomfort that is even felt in the divorced men’s church group he tries to connect with as they all talk around each other, fighting off the women’s group waiting for the next hour in the hall, the sense of fear of what’s out there coming from everyone always around.
That body language matches up well with Jill Clayburgh, two years after she and Reynolds starred together in SEMI-TOUGH (another first time viewing during quarantine) and coming one year after her performance in Paul Mazursky’s AN UNMARRIED WOMAN the actress is perfect for Reynolds here in the way she’s ready to challenge him, playing what is in some ways an extension of that character while fighting against the heartbreak she figures is inevitable. In one scene Phil shows up at her place to find Marilyn essentially in the middle of a date with herself and there’s the feeling of a life fully lived off camera where she has fought to become her own person, a single woman with her own valid viewpoint that has nothing to do with what the male lead is going through, even determined to stay home in her glasses and robe rather than go out there and have the same bad night one more time.
The fall-winter setting as photographed by Sven Nyquist takes the story through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas season giving the film an undeniable coziness, a feeling so prevalent that if this had been made during spring or summer it might have been a totally different movie. Shots only call themselves out on occasion, one moment circling around the despondent men in the support group the most impressively cinematic flourish of all, but the element that sticks out more than anything is the prevalent sense of quiet through the film, the way it holds on Phil’s nervousness or the half empty restaurants where the camerawork gradually becomes more intimate through the scene. This also includes the whisper Candice Bergen seems to speak in as the ex-wife whenever she shows up, the movie half-treating her newfound success as a joke, a bored, aimless woman who cheated on him and doesn’t want anything more than what she’s grabbed for herself. It’s as if the character got the idea to pursue music from a few viewings of ANNIE HALL but still wants to use him for her songs and, I suppose, the vaginal orgasm she proudly tells him about in one scene. But the film also knows how to use the intensity of Bergen’s very presence to let us believe how much Phil is drawn to her so she becomes more than just a running gag even as it builds to her big scene, likely the reason for her Oscar nomination, where she overdramatically belts out her latest song to her ex-husband’s astonishment. It’s one of the best moments of the film thanks to the fearlessness of that performance, not holding back and doing it all for him while still taking no notice of him in that moment at all, with the stunned look on Reynolds’ face making it just about the biggest, most rewarding laugh in the entire film.
One scene at a nursery school shows Clayburgh’s Marilyn working there, showing her kids the best way to let out some anger and this is also a film about people who sometimes need to be reminded that they aren’t kids anymore while still trying to understand the best way to reveal their feelings. The look at the dating world is very much a product of that decade with the always welcome Mary Kay Place turning up ready to pounce on Reynolds as soon as she meets him for their blind date but unlike AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, which Roger Ebert seems to spend much of his review comparing this to, it doesn’t seem interested in making some all-purpose grand statement about the period or the singles world, let alone feminism, as much as just the individual insecurities of the various characters. Even with a valium joke that feels as late 70s as it gets and probably got the biggest laugh at the time, the focus is more on the inner workings of the characters, the things they are drawn to and what causes those neuroses. It’s not all that far removed from the world of Brooks’ TV work but it is an expansion of those themes with the extreme mellowness of the Marvin Hamlisch score that I can never quite get out of my head feeling like it’s from a lost MTM sitcom because of course it does and Marilyn hooking up late in the film with a basketball player also feels like something Mary Richards or Rhoda Morgenstern would have spent an entire episode on.
But it really does feels like the first step in the direction that the films later directed by Brooks would take, the specific nature of all the quirks becoming more pronounced and comical later on. Maybe the biggest difference in the Pakula directing style is that this filmmaker seems inclined to underplay things at key moments and brings to it a sense of low key class that permeates the overall feeling, some of the most cutting dialogue in the film spoken no louder than a whisper. Other directors might have gone for a broader Neil Simon style but here the sense of quiet becomes so prevalent with the feelings playing as that much more intense; oddly, while watching Pakula’s THE PELICAN BRIEF recently for the first time in ages this very same type of whisper coming from the performances in a few scenes stood out to me but here it feels more surprising in looking for a way to find what the characters are holding back, what they’re afraid of and the dumb mistakes they’re always trying to keep from making yet again.
Maybe that’s why some of the moments that always stick with me aren’t jokes so much as simple bits of behavior whether Clayburgh during some of the moments when she thinks no one is looking, the completely genuine warmth of Charles Durning, Reynolds sitting awkwardly at the start of his date with Mary Kay Place (“The place we’re going specializes in duck,” he tells her in a moment I always enjoy) or Bergen’s aside about a song while she’s in the middle of singing it. Since the characters are more than just types there’s an unpredictability to them that keeps the movie alive and it goes by in the blink of an eye even if the way it keeps the plot spinning longer than it needs to, whether plausible or not, becomes a little frustrating. If it has to be compared to AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, then I think of the clarity of the deadness in Jill Clayburgh’s face as Michael Murphy makes his confession to her, but STARTING OVER is more about talking its way through all that uncertainty so it’s not as angry, instead trying to look for that connection while afraid to find out if it’s actually going to be there.
Things never stay the same, even if they should which is something we know now more than ever. In many ways STARTING OVER is a nice film about realizing that, moving away from the cynicism which might have been more apparent if the film had been made earlier in the decade to actually finding an answer to the question of why they need to change in the first place. Both sides are afraid. And, as the movie seems to think, it will never work if they’re not afraid. The trick is to face that fear and take the risk to be happy, not miserable, to refuse to let yourself stay at home forever, having dinner with yourself. By the time Brooks got to BROADCAST NEWS some years later, this formula be perfected, but the way it plays here still in development is rewarding in itself. It says something about the time it was made that the last line of the film isn’t so much a joke as a warm payoff to a crucial plot thread. It almost feels like that final moment, and maybe the rest of the film, needed something a little punchier to drive the point of it all home. But it’s still nice. That’s ok, too.
If the film is in some ways a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds then it’s also about showing just how vulnerable he can be onscreen. He embraces that, fully invested in every moment while taking his insecurities and trying to find the likability in all that. The chemistry he shares with Jill Clayburgh is perfect for this, allowing him to carry each scene but also giving her the chance to take what he’s doing and make it even better, as if challenging the script just as much as her character is challenging him. Her moments are the most genuine in the film with a naturalism to those quirks and it makes everything between them matter that much more so we want it all to work out with them, even as we don’t know why he doesn’t automatically see that. The intensity of Candice Bergen’s ice queen mode mixed with her own awkwardness around Reynolds adds to what is happening between the two of them and gives her performance a gravity; even if she’s funny in a scene it’s never just a joke. It’s a terrific supporting cast with the always smiling face of Charles Durning, the way Frances Sternhagen spits out “Why? Because she doesn’t have large breasts?” when Phil hesitates on asking Marilyn out along with the intimidating energy that Mary Kay Place brings to her few scenes. Austin Pendleton, who appeared with Durning the very same year in THE MUPPET MOVIE, is the most memorable part of the support group playing someone who has married the same woman four times but Wallace Shawn and Jay O. Sanders are in there as well and Daniel Stern, the same year as BREAKING AWAY, appears briefly playing one of Phil’s students.
On a personal level that feels extremely random, there are my own distant memories of when STARTING OVER was playing in theaters way back before I ever saw it even if they barely matter. I wasn’t old enough to see it at the time but I was also aware that I wasn’t old enough to see it yet something about the advertisements caused it to represent to my young mind what movies aimed at adults were supposed to be. The advertising campaign, including commercials that showed Burt Reynolds snapping Polaroids of a woman in the shower (probably the broadest moment in the whole movie), likely made an impression. This is what life is going to be like when you grow up, I must have thought. This is the way things are going to be. As you’d expect, this did not turn out to be the case. But since it’s a film partly about learning how to stop holding onto the past, thinking back to the past seems to matter somehow. And now I’m forced to face it as a film I’m watching now in the world of adults that really exists. And all the pain that comes with it. So much has changed in the past year and it’s not that I even wanted certain things to be the same but this was still a surprise. I’m not so sure what some of it is anymore, what it is about escaping to New England. Those answers never feel very clear. In addition to Oscar nominations for Clayburgh and Bergen (sorry, Burt), the box office for STARTING OVER ranks among other 1979 hits such as MANHATTAN and THE IN-LAWS but now feels so forgotten that Pakula’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it outside of the filmography. It apparently even opened the same day as Blake Edwards’ “10”, that other film about white middle-aged dating angst which apparently was all anyone thought about back in the late ‘70s. This was a long time ago.
Burt Reynolds followed up the success of this film with the likes of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II and THE CANNONBALL RUN, then a few years later famously turned down the chance to reunite with Brooks, making his directorial debut, when he was offered the role of Garrett Breedlove in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT to work with Hal Needham yet again on STROKER ACE, likely the worst career choice he ever made. Hell, it’s probably one of the worst career choices anyone in Hollywood ever made. We still love Burt anyway. After all, everyone has that time in their lives when they turn down TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, if you know what I mean. And sometimes we just need to forget the past and accept that everything changes. And try to be thankful you knew some of those people, some of those women, at all. Which may be the only hope these days of ever actually starting over.