Thursday, September 8, 2022

Other Ways Of Being Intimate

Let’s back up a little. Recently, thanks to a few of the streaming services out there I was able to watch FIVE EASY PIECES, THE LAST DETAIL and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS all close together. Two directed by Bob Rafelson, one by Hal Ashby, all starring Jack Nicholson, making me think about the creative forces behind these films and how they helped turn the actor into the icon he quickly became. But wait, that’s not the place to begin. Earlier in the summer, while visiting Santa Fe for a week, I sat outside each night to watch the sunset while reading Matthew Specktor’s excellent ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR, a series of personal essays which ties in his own life and history through the stories of various figures with their own L.A. connections. These names included Tuesday Weld, Frank and Eleanor Perry, Carole Eastman, Hal Ashby and others so for a short time each night looking out at that spectacular New Mexico view, the L.A. past got seared into my brain which meant for a few moments it was like I’d never really left. And with screenwriter Carole Eastman comes thinking of director Bob Rafelson leading back once again to that masterpiece FIVE EASY PIECES they made with Jack Nicholson.
But to go back much further in my own history all this gets me thinking about MAN TROUBLE, a now forgotten comedy the three made together much later on but also one of the first films I ever saw in L.A. back then, my first time at the glorious Village Theater in Westwood. The theater was too good for that film. With over 1,300 seats, it was certainly too big at least for the amount of people who showed up that night. While this marked the end of the collaboration between these three key figures of ‘70s cinema it all came at the beginning of my own L.A. story so, as usual, I missed out on the cool stuff and was far too young to grasp the significance of this so had no real appreciation for how notable this reunion really was. As a film, MAN TROUBLE is, well, not very good. Maybe this is putting it mildly. The film contains promising elements, certainly starting with the people who made it along with a cast that should very well make it bulletproof but almost nothing about the movie clicks and it never develops any consistent tone or rhythm plus for an alleged comedy it contains very little in the way of actual laughs or even charm. There’s a kernel of an idea even in the title, of a woman dealing with all the men in her life and the realizations these conflicts lead her to, but the film never seems to do much of anything with that. Something about it stays with me and I’ll get to the reasons for that eventually but right now all we have is the film, one that does little else beyond serve as a misbegotten latter day collaboration between some very talented people and as a memory from a time in my life that also now feels very long ago.
Classical singer Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin) has just split with her conductor husband when her apartment is burglarized. Understandably nervous that someone is stalking her, she takes advantage of her sister Andy (Beverly D’Angelo) going out of town to stay at her house and for protection hires a guard dog from a service run by Harry Bliss (Jack Nicholson), currently dealing with a bad marriage. Harry and Joan hit it off, helped by his not mentioning that he’s married, but during all this Joan still deals with threatening phone calls, the strange disappearance of her sister and the realization that a figure the papers have dubbed the Westside Slasher might now be after her as well.
Even looking at it now FIVE EASY PIECES is a remarkable film, a character study that digs deep into the persona that is Bobby Dupea as played by Jack Nicholson and his intense self-loathing, backed up by the phenomenal Karen Black as the girlfriend he treats so terribly. Rafelson provides an intense focus to it all with his direction and the script by Carole Eastman is so incisive in its portrayal of such alienation that its strongest moments, such as the legendary diner scene with the side order of toast being insisted on, never really leave you. Back in those days the writer often went by the pseudonym Adrien (or Adrian) Joyce, with other prominent credits during this period including the screenplay for Jerry Schatzberg’s PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD as well as the ‘English dialogue’ for what remains one of my very favorite films, Jacques Demy’s MODEL SHOP. But it’s FIVE EASY PIECES that she’s known for which among other things plays now as one of the definitive portrayals of the onscreen Jack Nicholson persona and all the possibilities of what could really be done in a movie found in the glory days of ‘70s cinema. MAN TROUBLE doesn’t really have much to do with any of those things and even after several recent viewings part of me is still trying to clarify just what it is beyond an attempt at a light, goofy comedy that contains traces of what could be a more intricate character piece if you peer close enough, made by people who are probably more at home with much darker material. At the very least there’s a specificity to the dialogue at times that helps it seem like it’s coming from a personal place, at least on an observational level for the screenwriter, along with a certain low-concept vibe to the setup which at times approaches being charming in a zero stakes way.
This comes especially when the two leads are first sizing each other up while spending an evening out at Yamashiro getting drunk on sake so it’s tempting to say that a movie doesn’t need much more than Jack Nicholson and Ellen Barkin flirting with one another. For a brief stretch Jack feels dialed in to the moment, Barkin gives off that bashful smile of hers and for a few minutes all we have to do is watch them be charming so there’s nothing wrong with any of this. The dialogue allows them to circle each other, wondering if any of this is a good idea, while we know all too well the secrets hanging in the air so there’s a pleasure to them just hanging out and eventually hooking up. Somewhere in all this is a character piece which unfortunately has to give way to a plot that becomes sillier and more nonsensical as it goes on, or maybe it should be referred to as several plots since there’s a few, spending long, baffling stretches on things like blackmail and other secrets being kept to the point that it would be appropriate to ask what any of this is really about, particularly a lengthy hospital sequence in the second hour where some of all this comes together, but not really.
This was Eastman’s first screenplay credit since 1975’s THE FORTUNE which also starred Jack (and Warren too) and was directed by Mike Nichols, a screwball farce that to this day hasn’t been seen by many people and it’s a handsome, expensive looking production that never comes together, maybe notable now because of the production design along with an austerity that was a part of the Mike Nichols approach of the time but that’s about it. MAN TROUBLE is also in the screwball vein although never as ambitious but the pieces never click. Maybe Bob Rafelson wasn’t the right director for this sort of material and much of the time there’s a sense of flailing about a little too broadly, like an overly serious person trying extra hard to prove how funny they really are with an overall feeling to the performances that everyone needs to calm down a little. There are enough odd quirks that feel like if you squint you can make out the general tone it’s going for, like Veronica Cartwright as Joan’s best friend spending much of the movie on crutches with a cast on her leg, apparently due to a lawyer falling on her while sunbathing, and the actress doesn’t even do very much in the film but makes an impression solely by being Veronica Cartwright since this is the sort of movie where certain people are in the movie because, well, they just are. There’s also a certain nudnick nature to the dialogue which at times feels like it’s scrambling around in the dark searching for punchlines which it at least an attempt at approaching a certain irritating charm but while all this gives the script a unique flavor the film barely seems to catch any of it. In his book Matthew Specktor comments on Eastman’s proclivity for odd character names through her films and there is a certain pleasure to monikers like Harry Bliss, Joan Spruance, Redmond Layls and Helen Dextra but it makes me wish there was more to each of them beyond that. It’s an issue of tone and the film never seems to find it, feeling so low on tension that at times the looseness makes it feel like a bunch of friends getting together to make a movie on a whim, the way Jack’s old pal Harry Dean Stanton turns up playing the wealthy boyfriend of Joan’s sister in a role I’m not sure he’s totally right for but, in fairness, it’s not like we want to complain when Harry Dean Stanton turns up in any movie.
Jack is top billed and these days especially it’s hard to complain about a film starring Jack Nicholson but his presence does help diminish the idea of a film being about women’s problems with men, like in the title of the thing. Ellen Barkin makes sense as the lead, a woman who has always tried to use her own intellectualism to talk her way around the inevitable flirting and avoid what she refers to as ‘conflictual situations’ as if trying to rationalize everything in her life only to finally discover that it never made any difference, surrounded by men like the ex-husband played by David Clennon, the nice guy always getting the brush off played by Michael McKean (two more examples of how this should be a film made even better by its cast but that’s not the way it goes) and the new guy in her life who doesn’t even bother to mention that he’s married. It makes all the more sense that she wouldn’t want to be like her self-absorbed, man hungry sister played by Beverly D’Angelo, the sort of person ready to automatically act unimpressed by anyone who dares speak to her. Separate from all this is Harry’s wife Adele played by Lauren Tom who gets one of the big running gags of the film in how he insists on calling her ‘Iwo Jima’, a joke that might not go over so well these days but none of their scenes develop into anything beyond the hostility so any reason why they ever got married, even a comical one, is just left hanging there. Tom, who just a year later had one of the lead roles in THE JOY LUCK CLUB, does manage to give the performance some dignity but there’s still not much to it beyond wondering why any of these scenes felt like a good idea.
It's a comedy from the people who made FIVE EASY PIECES that opens with an animated title sequence which isn’t necessarily a bad sign in itself but it does say something about how maybe these were the wrong creative types to make this sort of movie. When Twentieth-Century Fox released it in July 1992 they didn’t even bother screening it for critics. It stands to reason that Nicholson was demonstrating loyalty to his old colleagues Rafelson and Eastman, and he presumably received whatever his fee was at the time, but the question was why this movie go made and not some of the other unproduced projects mentioned in Specktor’s book. Various stars and directors were attached to the project over the years and in some frank quotes to the Los Angeles Times shortly before release the normally reclusive Eastman insisted that this was never designed to be a reunion and seemed aware that maybe it shouldn’t have been saying, “Bob and I would kiss each other if we ran into each other on the street, but we probably shouldn’t make a movie again,” which suggests there were conflicts on this production that goes beyond anything she would give a quote on. So it’s a valid question why Rafelson chose to make this beyond commercial reasons or just an excuse to work with old pals since his earlier films never really demonstrate much in the way of broad comedy or farce. Time and again there are attempts at laughs which may not have been much on the page but even though you can tell what the joke is supposed to be it still gets fumbled in the timing, one more reminder that Rafelson just isn’t a director for this type of humor, even when it’s a joke that isn’t all that good to begin with. There’s never any real sense of flow to the pacing and with some abruptness at various points in the narrative the film ultimately feels sliced down to roughly 98 minutes to get it over with as fast as possible, which includes rolling the end credits before the final sequence has ended. Also not helping is a score by the legendary Georges Delerue, who died four months before the film’s release, which tries so hard to be ‘funny’ that it takes a tone which is already a little too broad and heightened to start with then pushes it up beyond any reasonable point.
Something like FIVE EASY PIECES or THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (not written by Eastman, but just go with it) felt like films that were made by people who had to make them. MAN TROUBLE feels like it was made by people who decided to make…something. And there’s nothing wrong with making a film that doesn’t want to be earth shattering. But it’s hard to find ideas here beyond the broad feminist strokes that would have allowed it to work. Harry shows Joan how to train her dog, she frets about while in the house alone late at night, they hit it off then they don’t but time and again while watching MAN TROUBLE you could ask, what is the point of a given scene? What is the conflict? What is any of this really about? Part of the movie can just be taken as a lark, looking at the way the two sexes deal with each other in a world where ads for slasher movies with women getting hacked up apparently play on TV all the time, but that’s not a good enough answer plus it also comes with a few straight suspense scenes like where Barkin gets terrorized by the stalker coming at her with an ax. Any thematic intents aside, in the middle of such a light tone it feels wildly out of place so once again just raises the question of what the overall tone is supposed to be, another indication that maybe this was a film being made by people who weren’t agreeing on things. It’s hard not to read more into what all this could have been—in addition to focusing more on the women it could have asked the question, what is the Jack Nicholson persona in the 90s? How does that relate to who women are at that point in time? Can he treat them any better than the way he treated Karen Black back in 1970? So help me, in the Me Too era this wouldn’t be a bad idea for a remake, not that there’s much value in the IP. Maybe at its heart is an old school, screwball ‘dog plays matchmaker’ sort of thing but even the dog, much as the characters gets attached to him, never has much presence either.
In my mind it’s like all through the career of Bob Rafelson, from his early Nicholson films (including EASY RIDER which he produced) all the way to the likes of BLACK WIDOW and MOUTAINS OF THE MOON that came later, he explores character through genre and are about people so lost they end up wandering, possibly going too far in the end. There’s no wandering in MAN TROUBLE. Everyone is already where they want to be, right Los Angeles, with one key location right in the heart of Hollywood down the block from Miceli’s (now I want to go over and get their chicken parm). At one point Jack Nicholson even references the main house as being up on Mulholland Drive, a reminder that for all I know he lives right around the corner from where the scene in question was being shot. A few years later, Rafelson reteamed with Nicholson one more time on BLOOD AND WINE which is an enjoyable nasty, if minor, neo-noir that didn’t do much business and didn’t get much of a release by Fox Searchlight even though you’d think the presence of Jack Nicholson would have gotten them to put in a little effort. MAN TROUBLE was a high-profile flop in the middle of summer while BLOOD AND WINE just sort of slipped out unnoticed but it’s definitely worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it. Carole Eastman didn’t write that one but the most interesting similarity is how it also features a Jack Nicholson character in a bitter, loveless marriage (Judy Davis in BLOOD AND WINE is portrayed as more sympathetic than Lauren Tom in MAN TROUBLE, whatever that’s worth) which makes me think of Bob Rafelson’s first wife, Toby Carr Rafelson, who worked behind the scenes with him in a way possibly similar to the Peter Bogdanovich-Polly Platt dynamic during what can really be called his strongest period, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS and STAY HUNGRY. Her other credits include working as production designer on Martin Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE as well as Jack Nicholson’s directorial effort GOIN’ SOUTH. So the similarity between the films along with wondering about this history raises questions that MAN TROUBLE is not really substantial enough to answer, even as Joan comes to the conclusion that she doesn’t need to please any of the men in her life and never did. Or maybe these questions don’t even need to be asked. It’s just MAN TROUBLE, after all, which is just a reminder that we were robbed of the promise of what once sounded like a potentially delightful Jack Nicholson-Ellen Barkin romantic comedy, a movie that is, or should be, about finding ways of being intimate through trust and truth. At least, I think that’s what it wants to be.
If it’s a question of tone than part of it has to be the way the actors are directed and how they all go together. There’s an argument to be made that the films where Jack Nicholson sports a mustache (THE LAST DETAIL, THE BORDER, THE PLEDGE) have a little more edge to them, somehow preventing him from falling back on his usual tics but this film doesn’t do much to help that theory. Still, you watch him for a few isolated minutes here you might think it’s a better movie than it is, the way he always seems ready to dive in and look like a crazy person if need be with undeniable glimmers of that sharp coming timing when you least expect it. There are also such glimmers in Ellen Barkin, at her best here when she’s relaxed but at times feeling like she’s not getting the right direction. Revisiting THE BIG EASY recently was a reminder that Ellen Barkin in that film is one of the reasons the motion picture camera was invented in the first place and getting her in another romantic comedy should be flawless but the film around her doesn’t offer the support that she needs. Beverly D’Angelo, another personal favorite now and always, has moments but they seem isolated, never giving her enough of a chance to take over a scene the way her character seems to want to. Maybe the film just needed more of those moments and figure out how to use them, like the way everything stops to let Harry Dean Stanton’s lawyer played by Saul Rubinek compliment Barkin on the time her saw her perform the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the Hollywood Bowl and when he begins singing it himself it feels like the sort of effortless digression the movie could use more of. Paul Mazursky turns up too and, like a number of other actors in the film who maybe aren’t always seen at their best, at the very least it’s nice to have him around for a few minutes.
But to go all the way back to 1992 once again, MAN TROUBLE somehow managed to play for two whole weeks at the Village (23 years after EASY RIDER opened there, which likely interests no one but me). The theater is miraculously still open, although Westwood mostly feels like a ghost town these days when I get over there; the exclusive run of LICORICE PIZZA in 70mm late last year was a nice reminder of how cool it once was to go to the movies in the area. But, and here is where my own memory kicks into place, walking out of the theater that night long ago I fell into a brief conversation with a woman who said she was friends with Carole Eastman and felt so bad about how the film we’d just seen had turned out. I’m not sure any reply I made was that interesting but the very idea of chatting with someone at an L.A. theater who knew the screenwriter was then such a new concept to me and there’s no more to the story than that but to this day I can’t help but wonder, who was this woman? How well did she actually know Carole Eastman? She seemed interesting in our brief talk and for all I know is a name I would now recognize. It would be funny if it turned out to actually be her, going out incognito to see her own movie, but somehow I suspect this wasn’t the case. This is all a long time ago but enough time has passed that I feel bad for the people who made it too. So I’m left wondering about a lot of things, including the writer who is a key figure in the mythology of such an important period in Hollywood history but still remains such a figure of mystery. Matthew Specktor doesn’t spend much time on MAN TROUBLE in his book and it’s not like there’s any reason for him to but after reading it I was compelled to order a used DVD of the film for a long overdue revisit. The day the disc arrived, July 23rd of this year, Bob Rafelson died and may he RIP. It didn’t seem right to put that one on right away so I watched FIVE EASY PIECES first, then followed it with MAN TROUBLE which makes for one hell of a double bill, let me tell you. Does any of this matter? Does MAN TROUBLE matter? Does any of the past thirty years since I saw MAN TROUBLE matter? It feels like an important memory, in ways I can’t even explain, all attached to what is a totally forgettable movie. And yet, I’m forced to remember it. I’m forced to remember all of it. I’m not sure any of this matters at all but as long as I’m still thinking about it I suppose it does. Just like these movies still do. Just like my life.