Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Making Things Move

We all have regrets. Like this one time at a party I met Mary Kay Place and didn’t ask her about MODERN PROBLEMS. But certain memories stay with you. It’s a long time ago now but I was in the second row at the New Beverly for the packed 2008 screening of Joe Dante’s legendary THE MOVIE ORGY, directly behind several well-known people in the front which of course included Quentin Tarantino, some years before he completely took over the place. I don’t know what they were talking about but it could have been just about anything and all I know is that at one point Tarantino was heard by me to exclaim, “I love MODERN PROBLEMS!” in case you were wondering how he felt about that particular Chevy Chase vehicle I sometimes wonder about. And the existence of MODERN PROBLEMS has long seemed like some sort of private joke between me and, well, I’m not really sure. Maybe LexG and other people who remember MODERN PROBLEMS. The film actually did pretty well when it opened on Christmas Day 1981 but not many other people ever seemed to like it, let alone love it. Chevy himself has always been dismissive, although a near-fatal electrocution he suffered on the set might have understandably soured him on the whole thing. The film was directed by Ken Shapiro, who he had a history with going back to his pre-SNL days of the Channel One Theater and THE GROOVE TUBE but after this they never worked together again and Shapiro never made another movie. If I bother to think about MODERN PROBLEMS for more than a minute the whole thing feels stranger and stranger, possibly a darker satire begun by various National Lampoon-related personnel as an R-rated comedy that was later smoothed down to a PG which meant a kid like me could have gone to see it. Revisiting the movie now makes me think I maybe shouldn’t have been allowed anyway since there are enough remnants of that more adult tone still in there. And though it’s never as funny as I’d like, enough random laughs come through to make me watch it again once in a while even as I wonder why I’m watching it again. Why am I watching it again, anyway? These are the riddles of MODERN PROBLEMS.
Max Fiedler (Chevy Chase) is an air traffic controller living in Manhattan dealing with all the stresses of his life, including his girlfriend Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville) suddenly picking up and moving out with no notice. Driving home one night he finds himself behind a tanker truck which spills a mysterious green sludge onto his car and, not knowing that the truck is actually carrying nuclear waste, Max suddenly finds himself imbued with telekinetic powers to move objects and make things happen at his choosing. Attempting to get Darcy back into his life, the two of them head for a weekend outing at a house belonging to old friend Brian (Brian Doyle-Murray) who now lives with Max’s ex-wife Lorraine (Mary Kay Place) but things are soon tested by the arrival of self-help author Mark Winslow (Dabney Coleman) who makes no secret of the contempt he displays towards Max and his own interest in Darcy with Max beginning to lose it, finally making no secret about what sort of powers he has.
Apparently director Ken Shapiro described MODERN PROBLEMS (I’m guessing in the press materials) as “CARRIE meets ANNIE HALL” which isn’t a bad pitch and sounds like it could have been one of the fake movies made by the Woody Allen character in STARDUST MEMORIES. Written by Shapiro & Tom Sherohman & Arthur Sellers, tonally it’s a film that falls somewhere between the R-rated approach of ANIMAL HOUSE and the more kid friendly MEATBALLS, a stopover before GHOSTBUSTERS made things acceptable for all, post-John Belushi and all that drug humor. Somewhere in there is the grubby sexism of the National Lampoon fuck-the-world nastiness that was the forte of some of these people and maybe it needed Harold Ramis to figure out the right sort of balance when he directed Chevy in the first VACATION a few years later bringing an almost nostalgic, as well as therapeutic, approach to the sacred cows being satirized while still pausing for the fate of the dog that Clark Griswold forgets to untie from the car. The bones at the heart of MODERN PROBLEMS feel like the story of people (well, men) who grew up in the 60s trying to figure out what to do once they get to be 35 and the ‘80s begin, terrified by how fast things are changing but especially by women who have their own thoughts and the other men who might be showing an interest in that. Which is a more adult concept than gaining superpowers but it’s a fair guess that the studio wanted the potential wackiness of Chevy becoming imbued with telekinesis to be the draw so someone like me could see it and since SUPER FUZZ hadn’t turned up on HBO yet what else were they supposed to do?
So MODERN PROBLEMS doesn’t feel made entirely without thought, even while it plays like the director wanted things to be as broad as possible at every conceivable moment. At least it’s weird, although this means there’s not much in the way of a consistent tone with a few of the supporting performances containing bits of interesting characterizations up against the lead role played by Chevy that never feels completely formed. One line blatantly tries to sell us on his hapless likability as if forced to by studio notes when his friendly ex-wife Mary Kay Place calls him, “a prince who thinks he’s a frog.” But he just seems like a drag a lot of the time, the film resisting making him the smarmy Chevy of Weekend Update and CADDYSHACK in favor of a regular guy who can say all the right things to a mannequin that he can’t say when his girlfriend is actually in the room but they can’t make him likable. He’s kind of a jerk but the film doesn’t come up with enough ways to make him an interestingly flawed jerk so all that’s left is his insecurity even if you’d think that the portrayal of what would now be thought of as toxicity could maybe even add to the satire. With everything that’s going on around him so much of the time, Chevy is kind of left glaring at it all.
There is an idea somewhere in all this of a guy who has to confront his own self-hatred before finally being able to open up himself to the love of his girlfriend but the focus is really more on the next big comic setpiece. The Vincent Canby review in the New York Times mentions “four short but hilarious sequences” sprinkled throughout and I could probably guess at what they are (sadly, Canby isn’t around anymore to confirm), like the brief stop in traffic during the opening credits where everything seems to go wrong which isn’t bad in a silent movie way or maybe the early scene at a restaurant, also played without dialogue, when Max catches the eye of a woman who it turns out is on a date followed by a chain reaction of other people catching the eye of someone at another table. It’s not badly done even if the blocking of the people at the other tables doesn’t feel quite so elegant but it does present this world where everyone doesn’t just want to be with another person, they want to be another person entirely and Max can’t even admit that to himself. All this feels like it’s going for a point, along with the portrayal of the word of bitter, exhausted air traffic controllers which conceivably represents all of society falling apart while still never very well developed.
Scattered in among the various elements like the annoying would-be romantic rival Barry played by Mitch Kreindel (maybe best known for trying to pick up Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner at the embassy party in BEING THERE) or pieces of dialogue like when Brian says that Mark Winslow is “always one step ahead of the Village Voice”, the film seems to want to spend more time on Max getting acquainted with his newfound powers and one imagines Ivan Reitman taking mental notes while watching it on how to adjust the tone when making a PG supernatural comedy. More random are possibly some of those other short but hilarious sequences which Canby was referring to, like Chevy causing chaos at the ballet (the ballet star is named Stolichnaya, ha ha) or maybe even be causing Barry to suffer a horrendous, and gory, nosebleed at a restaurant, which is actually much more unpleasant than I ever thought at the time and something that probably wouldn’t have been done just a few years later, even if the guy is going after Max’s girl and from the film’s point of view kinda sorta deserves what’s coming to him—he also reminds me of someone so maybe I’m projecting just a little, but we don’t need to go into that. Some of this is at least in the ballpark of funny if not actually funny, among several ideas that are half-formed like the sight gag of the first look at the beach house which isn’t that good a joke anyway but then the film is still stuck with it.
Max is allegedly the nice, normal guy but he’s miserable, up against the supporting characters who are everything he’s not. Girlfriend Darcy just wants to live a normal life, to love him and maintain her own career at the same time but he doesn’t know how to communicate with her and even when he uses his new powers to pleasure her in bed (another reminder of how I saw this PG movie at a certain young age) he’s still unfulfilled by the whole thing. Ex-wife Lorraine wants to avoid negativity and is excited to try something new, old friend Brian is able to laugh at his sexual misfortune in Vietnam and Dabney Coleman’s Mark Winslow, a prick right from his first line of dialogue, is all about taking everything for himself, a self-help author whose selfishly hostile approach seems designed to turn people against each other. On the other hand, he’s the one who gets the line, “Life sucks so why not be a schmuck?” which really doesn’t seem like all that bad a philosophy to maintain at certain times.
All of this leads to the final half-hour where everyone meets up at Brian’s beach house and Max starts to crack up giving us the long dinner scene where Max finally shows everyone his powers with things becoming more about the complicated special effects than the jokes but it still feels like not very much happens even if, in fairness, the film does give us a look at Dabney Coleman’s ass. The idea of an EXORCIST spoof only about battling one’s own demons isn’t bad but it still feels a little rushed through with Chevy’s possessed nature in the last third meaning that it doesn’t feel like he’s even present much of the time and a few of the characters just drop out of the movie entirely. Of course, it all leads to the climactic drug humor involving “voodoo powder” plus Chevy’s “I LIKE IT!” declaration that everyone seems to remember and when you think about it, if this isn’t cinematic immortality what is?
The homophobia of the leather bar/book party and casual racism in the portrayal of Nell Carter’s live-in Haitian housekeeper Dorita is all worth pointing out although a brief kitchen scene with Carter, Mary Kay Place and Patti D’Arbanville likely qualifies the film as passing the Bechdel Test, if we’re keeping track of such things. Maybe it’s an issue of energy in the way some of these short sequences, as Vincent Canby referred to them, just abruptly happen with no time given to building to anything so it’s like the film is missing a big setpiece in contrast to all the smaller setpieces. Whether or not MODERN PROBLEMS should be called good, it still fascinates in a certain nasty, sleazy way and considering how many people refer to this as one of the worst comedies of Chevy’s career/SNL alum history/all time, I guess my feeling would be that there’s almost something perversely comforting about it by now. Even the “Gonna Get It Next Time” theme by The Tubes that plays over the credits is still pretty catchy and the way it gets worked into Dominic Frontiere’s score helps it stick in one’s brain for the next forty-plus years. It’s a better film than FLETCH LIVES, at the very least. In the end, MODERN PROBLEMS is only 92 minutes so all this is over with pretty quick but also, maybe more importantly, separated from all these years after seeing it as a kid a few of its problems are more relatable than I ever expected.
This is still fairly early in the Chevy Chase movie star run and much as I like FOUL PLAY or SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES not to mention CADDYSHACK I’d argue that there isn’t a really sharp cinematic characterization from him until the first crack at Clark Griswold in 1983. There’s something in his look at the time as he wreaks that brings the right sort of madness to the moment where he wreaks havoc but when things need to be momentarily normal it’s like he doesn’t always know how to portray such a simple moment. Up against all that, Patti D’Arbanville (never mind the Andy Warhol background or relationships with the likes of Cat Stevens and Don Johnson, her film & TV career feels like the definition of random) displays a sweetness and even perceptibility at times even if the part is basically The Conflicted Girlfriend. Maybe she’s no Beverly D’Angelo as these things go but she still brings to it whatever emotional stakes the movie actually has. Mary Kay Place, from that party once upon a time, is always an engaging presence somehow creating a fully fleshed character out of not much at all, plus Brian Doyle Murray gets a few moments as well; the shot when he continues to cut his food as someone hovers above them at dinner even gets me to laugh out loud.
But it’s still not much of a surprise that the whole thing is stolen by the great Dabney Coleman who gives the funniest performance that is so good he even manages to perfectly time the moment near the end when he gets by a wave right after turning around as he marches out to the ocean. He has some of the best dialogue too, making the material feel stronger than it is with one particularly good scene when he recites a list of his favorite things out on the beach with a pronunciation of the name “Martin Scorsese” for the ages, maybe the single best moment of the entire film.
In the parlance of our times I suppose parts of MODERN PROBLEMS qualify as problematic, not that there’s any point in spending too long on such things. It’s unavoidable that Christmas 1981 feels like a long time ago now, for lots of reasons. The Belushi-Aykroyd NEIGHBORS was also playing then and did slightly better business but they both feel like a couple of the stranger SNL-connected product to ever get out there. It is an odd product of its era, down to the strange coincidence of being about an air traffic controller came out just a few months after Reagan fired the air traffic controllers when they went on strike so even the film couldn’t anticipate what sort of problems the modern ‘80s were going to include. Ken Shapiro died in 2017 having moved to Las Cruces some years before. Chevy is still Chevy, or at least he appeared to be the last time I checked his Instagram account. Also worth pointing out is how much used DVDs of this film out there seem to be going for so presumably someone else is still watching this thing. Maybe Tarantino can write about his love for it in his next book. For now, I guess the only thing to do is figure out a way to move on past all those regrets from long ago, some of them more substantial than having to do with people I met at parties. Of course, some of those problems are more modern, and painful, than others.