Thursday, July 29, 2010


Comedy is perhaps the most delicate of storytelling balancing acts. Most comedy, for better or worse, is based on cruelty. We are just as often laughing at someone as we are with them, and for decades all forms of comic media have poked fun at people for qualities of birth or circumstance entirely beyond their control, traded in stereotype and caricature, and made mirthful sport of every manner of misfortune imaginable, from homelessness and war to terrorism and death itself. But the basic reaction to a comedy is laughter, a joyful action, and if your material pushes the despairing undercurrents of its subject matter too far into the forefront, you run the risk of people losing the fundamental ability to laugh at it. So the comic writer, actor and filmmaker must always worry how far to push their work into that red zone. Do you want your audience to be laughing because it's funny, or because it's likable? Jay Roach's Dinner For Schmucks is a textbook example of this conflict, presenting a situation rife for devastatingly cruel comedy that finds itself frequently hamstrung by its simultaneous desire to make us care about, even love, its characters. Laughter gets in a few jabs here and there, but it's sentiment that wins the ultimate war here, and the result is a film that's never as funny or as sharp as its material promises.

A remake of Francis Veber's successful French comedy The Dinner Game, Schmucks stars Paul Rudd as Tim, an up-and-comer at a financial management company. Tim's head over heels for Julie (Stephanie Szostak), a charming art curator who, despite her love for Tim, nevertheless fends off his frequent marriage proposals. He needs a more stable situation in his professional life, she insists, before she'll be Mrs. Tim. It's a real pickle, but then opportunity knocks for Tim in the form of an invitation to a special dinner party hosted once a month by his caddish boss (Bruce Greenwood). At these dinners, each invitee is responsible for bringing a second guest...namely, the biggest idiot they can find. It's a glorious evening of behind-the-back malice, and at the end of the night, the king idiot of the dinner gets a trophy without ever once knowing that the entire thing is a travesty, and he's the goat. Despite Tim's generally sympathetic personality, he realizes that this dinner might be his one shot to get himself a leg up both at his job and with Julie. And it also doesn't hurt that one of his boss's guests will be a Swiss millionaire (David Walliams) looking for investment opportunities and dimwits to mock. Fortunately, for Tim, he literally runs into a prime potential guest when he crashes his car into Barry Speck (Steve Carell), a four-eyed, windbreakered doofus with a passion for small-rodent taxidermy (he crafts dead mice into striking tableaux he calls "mousterpieces"). Tim strikes up a friendship with this cretin, and it's up to him to get Barry to the dinner without incurring the wrath of Julie, who knows about the purpose of the dinner and thoroughly disapproves, or Barry himself. What he doesn't count on is Barry's destructive nature, as the simple fellow proceeds to wreck Tim's apartment, not to mention his job and potentially his relationship. It all culminates at the titular dinner, a cavalcade of freaks including a ventriloquist with his dummy "wife" and a medium who can only channels the spirit of dead animals. Also at the dinner: the odious Therman (Zach Galifianakis), a would-be mesmerist who also happens to be the man who stole Barry's wife. At this point, if I told you the party culminates with a huge fire and an escaping vulture, you wouldn't be shocked in the slightest.

You would not have been able to spin two separate films out of Dinner for Schmucks's premise if it wasn't inherently ripe with comic possibilities, and Roach and his screenwriters, David Guion and Michael Handelman, have not erred in their choice of source material. The main issue here is one of tone, as Roach seems unwilling to push the humor into the truly transgressive places it could very naturally go. In the past, Roach has shown himself to be unafraid of making his characters the butt of the joke. He gleefully turned Mike Myers into a grotesque in the Austin Powers films, and even the comparatively more sedate Meet the Parents largely traded in jokes that made Ben Stiller the fool. Here, however, with a premise that is entirely about mean laughs at the expense of others, Roach soft-pedals the nastiness, and the result is a somewhat flavorless stew with harsh but delicious spices just out of reach.

The film begins with a quite lovely sequence showcasing one of Barry's "mousterpieces". This tranquil scene of gamboling, picnicking, quite deceased mice, scored to the Beatles' wistful "Fool on the Hill", had me expecting something really special. But I didn't realize at the time that this sequence wasn't meant to be ironic. Roach and his writers genuinely sympathize with Barry. They're rooting for him, and by placing themselves firmly on the side of the character who's supposed to elicit the film's biggest laughs, they neuter the picture's comic potential at its source. Barry, really, is more of an innocent than an idiot, more naive than nimrod. He's a little clumsy, and makes some bad decisions, but there are none of the moments of transcendant stupidity that were found in a comedy like Dumb & Dumber, which was utterly willing to make its feeble-minded characters truly thicker than bricks (and nevertheless masterfully danced the dance of making those characters both funny and likable). Try as I might, I found it extremely hard to laugh at Barry and regard him as an idiot simply because his wife has left him for another man. Granted, Therman is indeed a five-alarm moron, with his hard-staring mind-control techniques and ridiculous master-hypnotist cape...but that's not Barry's fault in any way. It just means his wife has bad taste in men. Even the oddest thing about Barry, his dead-mouse art, is more charming and quirky than idiotic. Barry's actually quite gifted as a taxidermic craftsman, and those pieces of his would probably wind willing homes in many art collector's galleries. This man, in short, is hardly an epic idiot. The film likes him just fine, though, and so Roach and the writers refuse to make Barry into the authentically dense, weird, creepy idiot they nevertheless want the characters to believe him to be. This keeps the very core of their comic idea tethered on a short leash, and it never really manages to break free and take flight.

It's not, however, that Dinner For Schmucks is without characters who push the boundaries of freakishness. In addition to Therman, there's also the hideous Darla (Lucy Punch), a lunatic stalker-type who is inadvertently brought back into Tim's life when Barry mistakes her for Julie on the phone. Julie likewise has another potential suitor, this one a pretentious Cindy Sherman-style photographic artist named Kieran (Jemaine Clement) whose work consists of erotically ridiculous animal-costumed graphics and who insists that crazy, random sex with many partners is an essential part of his process, because of course it is, right? Galifianakis and Clement admittedly make the most of their roles. The former is right now unparalleled at creating creepily intense comic characters (I insist to anyone who'll listen that he should have been a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for The Hangover), and with this performance and the little-seen Gentlemen Broncos, Clement is emerging as cinema's go-to self-absorbed creative-arts buffoon. The script also gifts him with the funniest dialogue exchange in the film, an absurd bit of business about his stint living with a family of goats. As Darla, Punch labors mightily to create a "wacky" misfit character, but she's trying way too hard, and the effort shows in scenes that add nothing to the narrative and don't even generate real laughs. The conceit of the character is a smart one, but Punch's strident performance kills any chance it might have had of working. Truth be told, though, both this character and Clement's are ill-served by the material, anyway, being essentially isolated from the central story and with bits that seem almost like self-contained sketches within the main film. Since they're the biggest clowns in this circus, after all, why aren't they at the dinner with Barry and Therman? If it was an idiot he was looking for, there's much better people in the world of this film that Tim could have hit with his car.

Dinner for Schmucks mostly veers between scenes that seem set up for big laughs but don't push for them, and sequences that cram "comedy" down our throats and fail to make us laugh. An early board meeting, in which Rudd presents goofy lamps made from disarmed World War II rockets, could have been an excellent showcase for Rudd's gift for good-natured comic smarm, but it's not approached from any interesting angles, and the scene fails to garner more than a cursory chuckle at how silly the lamps look. Conversely, a lunch scene in which Tim is forced to gladhand the Swiss investor with help from both Barry and Darla, who's posing as Julie, could have been a manic farcical set piece, but once the main situation is established, the laughs do not arrive, despite Punch straining so hard for them that she practically sprays her co-stars with sweat. The climactic dinner, which climaxes with Carell and Galifianakis locked in absurd hypnotic combat, could have been a bravura comic sequence, but the brakes are put on the laughter during Barry's mousterpiece presentation. These are beautiful little creations. Why are we supposed to laugh at them, and at the talented artisan who created them?

The performances, inevitably in such an uneven film, are a mixed bag. Rudd can be as charming and funny as anyone in movies today. But here he seems constrained by the material's split personality; anyone who enjoyed his manic self-delusion in Anchorman knows that Rudd would be more than capable of the comic flights this film seems reluctant to take. It also doesn't help that, as with Barry, the film seems determined to make Tim a likable guy...death to laughs when you're dealing with a character who's basically throwing another human being under the bus for personal and financial gain. Carell does score a few laughs here and there, but he's given much more inspired idiot material each week on The Office. It's also an interesting comment on the importance of proper direction to actors' chemistry that Rudd and Carell, so dynamic together in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, here fail to spark off of each other in truly interesting ways. Szostak is a pleasingly outside-the-box choice for a role like this with her kicky pixie haircut and sexy accent, and she manages to make Julie a sweetheart despite the fact that she's holding Tim's feet to the romantic fire. Greenwood does everything that he can with the douchebag boss, but Walliams is too restrained by half as the Swiss magnate. This is a character who could have been the film's most inspired creation, a piece of nouveau-riche Eurotrash with a penchant for mocking his betters, but Walliams never musters the cruelty necessary to make the character zing (perhaps Clement taking this role would have been a better fit; Kieran really adds nothing to the main story, anyway). Also disappointing is the cast of dinner guests, none of whom get enough screen time to really make the impression they deserve. The whole film is building up to this dinner, after all; why give the assembled idiots such short narrative shrift? The casting of Jeff Dunham, a real-life superstar ventriloquist, as the man with the wooden "wife" is a sign of the film's middle-of-the-road ambitions. A more daring film might have picked an edgier comic talent and cranked this character up to eleven. Instead...hey, Jeff Dunham's a ventriloquist! Let's cast him as the ventriloquist!

I grant you that making a successful mainstream comedy is no easy task. But I believe that Dinner for Schmucks should not have even been a mainstream comedy. This material, with its basic plot rooted in poking fun at the less fortunate, was crying out for treatment as a rough, caustic, perhaps indie comedy, the kind of film that strafes the establishment with satire and takes no prisoners. What we've gotten instead is a safe, slight, unremarkable Hollywood comedy that should please audiences looking for a few easy laughs, but won't win Rudd or Carell many new converts to their cause. I know that most of this smacks of me reviewing the movie that I wish had been made instead of the movie that was made, but you know what? The movie that was made was a comedy. And it didn't make me laugh nearly enough.

Monday, July 26, 2010



The Writers

Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren; story by McDowell and Larry Wilson

Why It's Here

Film scholars tend to underestimate the importance of screenwriting to the success of Tim Burton's early directorial career. Given his wildly creative visual imagination and penchant for the macabre, it was natural for the cinematic establishment to credit Burton almost exclusively with the qualities of his first feature films, but the director himself has acknowledged that he was fortunate enough, his first few times out, to be working with top-quality scripts. On the DVD commentary track for his first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Burton takes numerous opportunities to praise the work of the film's screenwriting team, and though Burton's second film, the lunatic supernatural comedy Beetlejuice, provides an even grander showcase for the filmmaker's flights of imagistic fantasy, much of the credit here must go to the writing as well. Burton certainly brings a lot to the table as the director of Beetlejuice, but it doesn't hurt that he had found, in the work of screenwriters Michael McDowell and the late Warren Skaaren (from a story by McDowell and Beetlejuice co-producer Larry Wilson), an absolutely perfect showcase for his visual style and thematic interests. The resultant collaboration is a film that, as much as any artistic work I can recall, spearheaded the acceptance of the morbid, the macabre, and pitch-black death-obsessed humor into the American mainstream. Such humor was always there, but on the fringes and usually nurtured by obsessive, insular coteries of fans (Monty Python's Flying Circus, for example, frequently showcased death and bloody mayhem in their sketches). Beetlejuice struck a different chord in people, and somehow managed to be accepted by the average moviegoer with true warmth and affection. How many other films about cockroach-eating pervert ghosts can you think of that inspired a Saturday morning cartoon series? I truly believe that without Beetlejuice, there would be no Marilyn Manson, no Hot Topic, perhaps even no Twilight. It's a film that turned America into a culture of virtual necrophiliacs. It helps, of course, that the film itself is a marvelous entertainment, consistently funny, inventively thought out, and in several of its narrative implications and relationships, surprisingly thoughtful and even touching.

In its first ten minutes, Beetlejuice gives the appearance of being a much different kind of comedy. The Maitlands are a young married couple living in the lush green hamlet of Winter River, Connecticut. Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) share a beautiful country house high on a hill, where Adam putters over a scale model of the town while Barbara fends off the overtures of her friend Jane (Annie McEnroe), a real-estate broker who is constantly trying to sell the house out from under them. These early scenes establish a gentle, bucolic tone, with Adam and Barbara playfully pulling each other down onto the couch for kisses and Adam, when he runs into town to get some supplies from his hardware store, wishing a friendly hello to Bill the barber (Hugo Stanger), who rambles on about a young hippie who came to his shop for a haircut ("He's got hair down to his goddamn shoulders...") without noticing that Adam has already come and gone. It almost feels like we're watching a film adaptation of one of Garrison Keillor's "News from Lake Wobegon" monologues. The town is too pretty, Adam and Barbara almost sickeningly perfect.

Then, the Maitland's two-week staycation is tragically interrupted when their car crashes off the Winter River Bridge. They arrive home to find that things are not right. They have no reflection in the house's mirrors. Not remembering how they got home, Adam steps off the house's front porch to find himself in a swirling interstellar space menaced by a gigantic sandworm. And then there's the book they find on their coffee table: Handbook for the Recently Deceased (published, of course, by "Handbook for the Recently Deceased Press"), which outlines, in excessively vague and complex fashion, all the rules and regulations of being ghosts...which is just what Adam and Barbara have become, condemned to haunt their earthly home for the next 125 years. Despite the fact that Barbara can't properly clean anything with the vacuum cleaner stuck in a garage they can't get to, spending a century-plus in their beautiful home might not be the worst fate imaginable. But then Jane sells the house to the Deetzes, a horrible family of misfits from the Big Apple. Charles (Jeffrey Jones) is a real-estate broker, recovering from a recent nervous collapse, who has come to the country to get away from it all...but his shrew of a second wife, trendoid sculptor Delia (a boisterous performance by Catherine O'Hara) insists on bringing the city with her in the form of her grotesque sculpted work, which looks like discarded props from Eraserhead, and by inviting her smirky interior designer friend Otho (Glenn Shadix) to join her in completely redoing the house the Maitlands loved so much. Only Lydia (Winona Ryder), Charles's emo-style, amateur-photographer daughter from his previous marriage, seems marginally acceptable. She likes the house (and hates Delia) as much as the Maitlands do. Plus, it turns out that she, alone among the new residents, can see and communicate with the ghosts. (She explains it thus: "Live people often ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.") Lydia develops a strong bond with Adam and Barbara, who have no children of their own, but the Deetzes's destruction of their home and way of life becomes too much to bear...and it becomes worse when the whole family gets wind of the ghosts and Charles hatches a plan to turn the entire town into a supernaturally themed amusement park. Desperate, and against the advice of their spiritual case worker, Juno (a wonderfully dry Sylvia Sidney), the Maitlands call on outside help from a freelance "bio-exorcist" who claims to be able to "exterminate" the living from haunted houses, and who happens to be hiding out, in miniaturized form, inside Adam's model. That would be the titular ghoul, Betelgeuse, a rowdy, sleazy, spike-haired huckster of a creature, played by Michael Keaton in a performance that (along with his work in the same year's Clean and Sober) won him the National Society of Film Critics' Best Actor award. But Betelgeuse has his own dastardly schemes, and he uses the Maitlands and Lydia as dupes in a plot to escape from the underworld and back into the land of the living, where he can really do some serious damage.

As you can perhaps tell from the description above, Beetlejuice has an unusually strong narrative structure for a comedy. The writers have worked out a genuinely compelling dilemma for the ghost couple to grapple with, and they introduce a smart narrative wrinkle in the form of Lydia, who sympathizes entirely with their predicament (to the point of making plans to kill herself and join them on the other side) and causes them to question their entire drive to get the Deetzes out of the house. Likewise, the overarching conflict of the story, with the small-town, just-folks Maitlands against the monstrous hipsters from the big city, was expertly suited to the film's end-of-the-Reagan-years release date, when the staunchly American midwestern values espoused by Reagan were in combat with the greed-driven, poisonously self-centered yuppie philosophy that the era likewise spawned. (It also makes the film an interesting time capsule, as we now live in an era where big-city dwellers are more commonly painted as bulwarks of sanity and intelligence against the tide of perceived middle-American ignorance and intolerance.) The film's characters are admittedly broadly drawn, but within their individual parameters, they act believably and with consistent logic. When Adam and Barbara first attempt to "haunt" the Maitlands, their methods, which consist of throwing sheets with eyeholes over their heads and moaning like remote-control Halloween toys, strike one as exactly what a naive young pair of ghosts would do to scare someone. Then, when they finally figure out their haunting style, they do not hit the Deetzes with demons and danger the way Betelgeuse later does, but instead possess the family and their dining companions and throw them into a raucous dance number set to Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" (Adam is a big fan of calypso music, a nice quirky character touch). The characters all have perfect little moments like this, from Charles chirping a sotto voce "birdies" as he flips through an Audubon book to the relentlessly self-dramatizing Lydia composing a suicide note and changing "I am alone" to the much more anguished-sounding "I am utterly alone". Otho, a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type, makes constant references to a seemingly endless string of bizarre and short-lived jobs; it is in fact his past stint as a paranormal researcher that finally brings the family in direct contact with the ghosts in a seance gone horribly wrong. Of the main characters, only Delia remains essentially a caricature, but since she and Betelgeuse (more on him later) are, for lack of a better word, the film's villains, the writers can get away with making her a little more shallow. Poorly developed villains are more or less standard in most comedies; if you make your villain too strong, after all, you run the risk of making the threat too dire and overwhelming the humor entirely.

Beetlejuice's writers very wisely avoid doing this by limiting the onscreen time of their titular monster. Many audiences may have been surprised, upon first seeing the film, to find that Betelgeuse is only onscreen, in the entire 92-minute picture, for about twenty minutes total. Save for one fleeting appearance where we don't see his face, and a hilarious used-car-style commercial beamed to Adam and Barbara's TV (where the cowboy-hatted Betelgeuse promises "a FREE demon possession with every exorcism"), the bio-exorcist is not in the first half of the film at all. But he is spoken of several times by other characters, always with fear and disgust (Juno warns the Maitlands not to even say his name...for reasons that become clear later, as it's saying his name three times that calls him into conscious being), and this slow buildup to the character's true narrative emergence makes the audience giddy with anticipation. Because of all this, the writers know that they are going to have make every second of Betelgeuse's time on the screen count, and when the character finally bursts forth from his grave, he definitely does not disappoint. He cuts a genuinely horrific appearance with his wild mane of hair, rotten teeth, dark-ringed eyes and face flecked with patches of filth and moss. He grossly forces himself on Barbara, spits loudly into his own jacket (telling Adam, "I'll save that guy for later"), feasts on insects, and praises himself ostentatiously as "the ghost with the most". He also has moments of goofy, unexpected drollery, as when Adam asks him his bio-exorcism qualifications and he coolly rattles off a resume including stints at Julliard and the Harvard Business School. Betelgeuse is like some nightmare combination of lecherous pimp, carnival barker, sleazy game-show host, and the worst stand-up comic you've ever seen (after one particularly explosive stunt, Betelgeuse declares, "That is why I won't do two shows a night anymore, babe."). He functions almost like a trickster figure in ancient myth, the pitch and tone of his humor so radically discursive from everything around him that he seems, as "wild man" characters in comedies so seldom truly do, like a genuinely disruptive force in the film's universe, an effect he would likely not have been able to achieve had he been front-and-center from the beginning. One does not want to discount the contribution of Michael Keaton, who here gives one of the most spectacularly unhinged comic performances in film history, but as they say and as is the case here, if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.

It is of course the world of Beetlejuice, as much as the film's characters and story, that make it soar, and the writers have set their tale in an inspired and utterly unique vision of the afterlife. The netherworld of Beetlejuice is like the most awful bureaucratic experience of your life, magnified tenfold. It starts with the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, which is actually full of useful information, but all delivered in a cryptic or sometimes completely inscrutable fashion (in a slightly dated but still effective joke, a frustrated Adam declares that the book "reads like stereo instructions"). Adam and Barbara find themselves at one point in a dingy, uncomfortable otherworld waiting room, surrounded by beings who bear the marks of the manner in which they died. There's a charred-to-the-bones ghoul who apparently went up while smoking in bed (trouper that he is, he's still puffing away), a man in a food-spattered bib with a lodged chicken bone bulging in his throat, even an unlucky magician's assistant whose severed torso sits on a sofa next to her legs. Exorcised spirits and demons are banished to the hellish Lost Souls Room, described as "death for the dead", and if that wasn't bad enough, even the "life" of a ghost is a seemingly endless welter of rules and regulations. Adam and Barbara can only have three meetings with Juno over the course of their 125-year stint in the house, and when they can't figure out how to properly scare the Deetzes, the case worker directs them to the dreaded Handbook's "intermediate interface chapter on haunting". Though Adam mentions at one point that the Handbook doesn't mention heaven or hell, if this afterlife world's heavy emphasis on bureaucratic frustration is any indication, then the Maitlands are definitely in hell. And they seemed like such a nice young couple. Maybe they cheated on their taxes or something.

As the description of the waiting room denizens above makes clear, Beetlejuice was also radical for a mainstream '80s comedy (keep in mind, this film was not an indie cult item, but a major studio release...and a box-office hit at that) in its detached, almost blase manner of joking about the most horrific subjects imaginable. Being burned or choked to death, being sawed in half, getting your throat slit...these are not inherently hilarious occurrences, but Beetlejuice is endlessly willing to exploit these kinds of images for laughs, as when smoke from Juno's cigarette pours through the deep gash in her throat, or when the receptionist in the waiting room jokes about her "little accident" while holding up her slit wrists. An intercom in the waiting room announces the arrival of "Flight 409", a reference to a famous unsolved airline crash from the fifties, and obituary pages in the Afterlife newspaper are much different than ours, inviting readers to "Please Welcome The Maitlands" (this is how Betelgeuse finds out about them; he regards the obituaries as the paper's "business section"). It's almost hard to remember how unusual it was, in 1988, to see this sort of pitch-black stuff in a big-budget studio comedy, and Beetlejuice is often insufficiently valued for its role in bringing truly transgressive humor into the mainstream.

This is not to say, however, that Beetlejuice is blithely unaware of the serious implications of death, and in the relationship between Barbara and Lydia, there are allusions to the true gravity of the end of life. In an early scene, Jane makes a callous comment to Barbara that such a big house really would be better suited to someone with a family. Barbara's sad expression and Jane's abrupt apology make it clear that the Maitlands' childless status is not by choice. Naturally, their early death will prevent them from ever knowing the joys of parenthood, but the nesting instinct is strong enough in Barbara that even in death, she feels maternally drawn toward Lydia. The girl is likewise receptive to Barbara's attentions. Her relationship with her stepmother Delia is almost entirely antagonistic, and though what happened to Lydia's mother is never discussed, her all-black wardrobe and morose personality lead us to believe that Charles is not a divorcee, but a widower. Lydia thus sees the replacement of her mother with Delia not just as a betrayal, but a desecration of her real mother's memory, leading to her feelings of solitude and desire for death, perhaps out of an unspoken (by the film) desire to rejoin her mother on the other side. (The fact that the film doesn't take this narrative step when Lydia learns of a real afterlife, and that it indeed doesn't definitively identify Lydia's mother as deceased, is probably mostly due to the genre; a comedy, even one as death-drenched as this, would have a hard time pulling laughs from such a predicament.) The film builds some surprising pathos out of the relationship between this sad young girl and her ghost mother, a bond made somehow more fragile and precious by the unbreakable membrane of death separating them. Even Betelgeuse, the netherworld's number one party animal, realizes that death is no ultimately no laughing matter. His plot to use the Maitlands to escape from the afterlife indicates that he wants "out, for good", and in the film's most intriguingly philosophical moment, when a miserable Lydia tells him that she wants to be dead too, his only answer is an utterly baffled "Why?" Beetlejuice is certainly no deep treatise on death and dying, but if one bothers to look, it is not nearly as flippant on the subject as its constant macabre jokes might initially indicate.

Like the previously reviewed Happy Gilmore, and indeed like many comedies, Beetlejuice has its uneven moments. A number of narrative incidents and aspects of the film's netherworld go unexplained (we never find out, for example, how Barbara tames the sandworm that saves them from Betelgeuse in the film's climax), and the picture suffers from a frequent cinematic narrative problem in that the characters react almost too serenely to something overwhelmingly incredible. After all, if confronted by the true existence of the afterlife, my first response would not be to build a theme park on top of it. Of course, I am not a character in a cinematic comedy, and as film comedies go, Beetlejuice is a great one. The picture cemented Tim Burton in the public imagination as a master of macabre subject matter and imagery, an image he has cultivated and grown into a lucrative career with films like Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, and The Nightmare Before Christmas...all pictures that bear the influence of Beetlejuice's visual tropes and narrative implications. Tim Burton is a visionary, no question about that. But he might never have gotten by without a little help from his screenwriting friends.

Personal Note: There has only been one occasion in my life so far when I have gotten to hold an Oscar...and it was an Oscar won for this film, by makeup artist Robert Short, who shared the 1988 Best Makeup award with Ve Neill and Steve LaPorte for their work on Beetlejuice. When you see what they did to the face of the actually quite handsome Michael Keaton, you'll understand why they won.

AWARD NOMINATIONS: Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Award, Best Writing

Monday, July 19, 2010


In a number of ways, Clint Eastwood's 1990 buddy-cop action thriller The Rookie represents the end of an era. From even his earliest days behind the camera, Eastwood always harbored ambitions to be something greater than a purveyor of mindless action spectacle and violence. But despite a filmography that encompassed everything from the elegiac Depression-era drama Honkytonk Man to the moody jazz biopic Bird, the general public and much of the critical establishment still chose to regard Eastwood as a manufacturer of junky action pictures for the Saturday-matinee crowd. The fact that many of these action thrillers were enormous commercial successes simply muddied the waters even further; after all, something so across-the-boards popular couldn't possibly have serious artistic merit, right? Then, in 1992, Eastwood released Unforgiven, a grim, serious-minded western from a script (by David Webb Peoples) that Eastwood had purchased almost a decade before and sat on, waiting to reach the age when he could invest its cold-blooded recovering-killer protagonist with the appropriate gravity. Not only was the film a box-office hit, but it also scored with the critics, who finally saw in Eastwood's work the sober intentions and aesthetic consideration that a stalwart few had detected all along. The film went on to win four Academy Awards, including two for Eastwood as the film's director and producer (he also received his first-ever nomination for Best Actor for Unforgiven), and from that moment forth, even when delivering straight genre films like 1999's crusading-newsman tale True Crime, there was no escaping the fact that this was a film by ACADEMY AWARD WINNER CLINT EASTWOOD, and attention would be paid.

As Unforgiven's immediate predecessor in Eastwood's catalog, The Rookie thus represents the final product of an era when the filmmaker was taken less than seriously, if not outright dismissed...and truth be told, the film is one that Eastwood himself likely regarded as more or less disposable. It is generally believed that Eastwood made The Rookie, a thoroughly unoriginal but blatantly commercial action picture, in exchange for the studio greenlighting and financing the same year's White Hunter, Black Heart, an ambitious tale of artistic and savage hubris inspired by John Huston's adventures during the filming of The African Queen. Though critically praised, White Hunter was the latest in a string of financial underperformers for the filmmaker, and The Rookie hit theaters at a time when the box-office drawing power of Eastwood, who turned 60 the year of the film's release, was falling under question for the first time in his career. For this reason, perhaps, the grizzled action veteran was here paired with a hot young co-star, Charlie Sheen, who has arguably more screen-time than Eastwood and who carries the brunt of the film's most furious action on his shoulders.

That action kicks off when tough-talking, cigar-chomping LAPD auto-theft detective Nick Pulovski (Eastwood) finds himself in need of a partner after his right hand is killed during a high-speed chase of an East L.A. band of car thieves. His supervisor assigns him to work with David Ackerman (Sheen), a stoic son of wealthy social-climbing parents who joined the force to combat the overpowering guilt he feels over his brother's death, the result of a childhood accident Ackerman believes he caused. The old dog has no desire to teach this kid any tricks, new or otherwise, but soon they find themselves in the thick of an all-out crime war when they target the chop-shop ring led by Strom (Raul Julia), the German-born mastermind who's been lifting autos all over the city and who, not incidentally, killed Pulovski's partner.

As you can probably tell from the description above, the film's screenplay, by Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel, is straight off the shelf, Action Storytelling 101. There is virtually nothing you expect to see in a film like this that Yakin and Spiegel neglected to shoehorn into their scenario. A furious commanding officer (Pepe Serna) takes Pulovski off the chop-shop case because, with his dead partner and all, it's now "too personal". Pulovski and Ackerman have a face-off scene where they trade insults and nearly come to blows...but it's balanced out with a scene of male bonding, this time over cigars and motorcycles (Pulovski is a former race driver, Ackerman an engineering student who effortlessly fixes the older cop's ailing bike). A brawl in a bar lit all in piercing red, a scene where the two cops confront the wealthy criminal at a country club, a confrontation in which Ackerman tells his father "you were never there for me"...hell, there's even a moment where Ackerman, facing his police review board, is accused of murdering his brother and grows increasingly furious until he awakens, drenched in sweat. Because you see, it was all a dream! With all this and more, there are moments where The Rookie plays like an ad for a clearance sale at Crazy Clint's Cliche Warehouse.

Eastwood the director here finds himself in the unenviable position of having to play catch-up to a genre he virtually helped to invent. For years, action cinema had followed his lead, with every quick-gun cop a Dirty Harry wannabe and every hard-riding cowboy a pseudo-Man with No Name. But in the 1980s, a new breed of action thriller, exemplified by producer Joel Silver's high-tech, funny-but-furious Die Hard and Lethal Weapon pictures, turned the genre up to 11, and in The Rookie, the story of a young cop trying to impress a more experienced mentor, we find the mentor, Eastwood, ironically trying to outdo his action-film pupils. And it cannot be said that The Rookie does not deliver when it comes to high-flying, literally quite explosive action. The film's opening chase sequence, with Pulovski in high-speed pursuit of an auto-transport truck, becomes an epic smash-up when the criminals start shedding cars in an effort to slow the old cop down. Pulovski and Ackerman escape from a wired-to-blow warehouse by driving through a window about five stories up; the resultant explosion hurls the car onto a neighboring roof and through a skylight, with the two cops battered but alive. ("Engineered," Pulovski quips, "like no other car.") The final chase sequence, in which the cops pursue Strom and his machine-gun-wielding mistress Liesl (Sonia Braga) through a busy airport, features an impressive sequence in which Pulovski and Ackerman outgun an oncoming private plane that collides mid-runway with a jumbo jet. These sequences, in a film released seven months before James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day forever changed the way filmmakers would handle fx-driven action scenes, represent a pleasant reminder of the glory days when good old-fashioned stunt work gave the action thriller its zing. (At the time of its release, The Rookie was seen as an omen of the declining importance of story in action thrillers, as the film famously utilized twice as many stuntpeople as actors.) Eastwood's films had delivered plenty of spectacular action and stunts over the years, but nothing quite as hyperbolic as this; in fact, some critics, when confronted with the film's neverending welter of narrative cliches and over-the-top mayhem, chose to read The Rookie as some sort of poker-faced parody of action thrillers.

Whatever its tone, The Rookie reminds us why films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are looked upon as benchmarks of their genre while this one is largely seen as a failure. For no matter how big the explosion, how vast the army of stuntmen, how wild the array of action moments, if you don't care about the characters, the movie won't work. When John McClane jumps off the roof of the Nakitomi Tower in Die Hard, it's thrilling not because it's a guy cheating death. It's because it's John McClane cheating death, because we've come to know him and care about him and fear for his life. None of the characters in The Rookie inspire this kind of passion in the viewer, and the actors do what they can to little avail. Julia and Braga are colorless villains with an ill-defined scheme and none of the delight in their own evil that the greatest movie heavies often possess. Much was made at the time of the film's release about the relatively ridiculous fact that Julia and Braga, both actors of Latino descent, are here playing Germans, but the nationality of the characters makes no difference, and something tells me that if Jurgen Prochnow and Hannah Schygulla had been playing these roles, the results wouldn't have been much better. Braga comes off better than Julia, if only because it was still something of a novelty, in 1990, to see a woman mowing down cops with a machine gun and dishing it out as hard as the men in an action picture. She also figures prominently in the film's most notorious scene, in which she has her way with Pulovski while he's bound to a chair; some cited the moment as a provocative role reversal within the frequently misogynistic action genre, while most simply decried it as arguably the most tasteless scene of Eastwood's career.

Lara Flynn Boyle brings nothing to the party as Ackerman's worried girlfriend; she exists primarily to offer him moral support and to be menaced by Julia's henchman while Ackerman races home on a motorcycle to rescue her. Tom Skerritt makes little impression as Ackerman's father, and Sheen is surprisingly colorless as the fresh rookie cop. He is not exceptionally impressive in the action scenes, and he handles the dramatic moments, well, with the same stoic generic intensity he always has utilized in his non-comedic roles. The summer following The Rookie's release, Sheen starred in Hot Shots!, a Top Gun spoof in which his steely-eyed style proved to be a brilliant send-up of itself, and after which it was virtually impossible to take him seriously in films like The Rookie again. Not surprisingly, it's Eastwood who sparks the most interest on the screen, the actor bringing nearly 30 years of experience to an underwritten character and making him compelling through sheer charisma and goodwill alone. He makes everything he can out of Pulovski's seemingly relentless string of one-liners (he has one genuinely funny scene where he regales a TV reporter, and her live audience, with a brusque string of expletives), he makes the character's stereotype of a cop's hard life seem somehow lived-in, and even in his sixth decade, he handles himself in the action scenes with aplomb (though I caught myself trying to spot the stunt double in a scene where Pulovski pulls a slick contortionist's move to free himself from a handcuffed prone position). This film most likely represents the last time Clint Eastwood will ever play the wisecracking, shoot-first avenger, and it's pleasant to watch even if he's just going through the motions.

Fortunately, Eastwood's technical crew are not just phoning it in here, and The Rookie looks as good as virtually any action picture of the era. Cinematographer Jack N. Green gives the film a dark-hued, noir-style atmosphere that's honestly classier than the material deserves, and editor Joel Cox cuts the action scenes for maximum intensity and velocity (two years later, he would take home one of Unforgiven's Oscars). The star of the film is arguably stunt coordinator Buddy van Horn, who had directed several of Eastwood's earlier pictures and who here, working with a larger cast than Eastwood himself, spearheads easily the film's most memorable moments. I have often had mixed feelings about the usage of music in Eastwood's films, and the jazzy score provided here by Eastwood's longtime collaborator Lennie Niehaus is no exception. While Niehaus's compositions are enjoyable on their own, they are often integrated haphazardly into the action, and the film's principal theme, a brassy sax-and-trumpet-driven number that blares over the opening credits, sounds like something you'd hear on a '70s cop show, not in a feature film from the last decade of the century. It gives the film an ersatz, dated feel that the cliches surrounding that music do nothing to dispel.

While it didn't exactly set the box office on fire, The Rookie was a moderate success, mostly with audiences who suspected that this was perhaps as close as they were ever going to get to seeing a sixth Dirty Harry picture. Eastwood would have to wait one more picture before he received his unqualified and perhaps overdue critical laurels. In the meantime, The Rookie was greeted with some of the harshest reviews Eastwood has ever received. Many still regard it as a low point in the filmmaker's career, and longtime Eastwood compadre (and official biographer) Richard Schickel has gone on record and called it "the nadir" of his friend's creative output. Presenting as it does one of the last gasps of a particularly entertaining brand of action picture, The Rookie is a hard film to hate. But it's a nearly impossible film to get excited about, and unless you're a die-hard Eastwood fan, you're better off, well, just watching Die Hard.

NOTE: Follow these links for the Zombie's take on Clint Eastwood's
Changeling and Invictus.