The January Man

Usually when we say someone is “hot” in the movie business, we’re talking about an actor who has put a couple of hits back to back, or perhaps a high-profile director who’s struck gold in some showy way. But this temperature talk rarely describes screenwriters.

Screenwriters have a difficult lot. They don’t really have control over their scripts, they don’t often get the credit they deserve, and their scripts are subject to comment by everyone from the studio executives to the star’s hairdresser husband. Screenwriters, in fact, rarely get hot until they can manage to direct their own work.

But at least one Hollywood screenwriter is hot right now. That’s John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar last spring for his finely tuned script to Moonstruck. Shanley, also a successful playwright, has a gift for putting his characters in familiar situations and then turning them askew. No one, apparently, has told him that movie scripts are usually produced out of a cookie-cutter.

His latest, The January Man, is a good example. It isn’t a great movie or anything close, but it’s absolutely stuffed with offbeat takes on regular situations. The plot has to do with an ex-policeman (Kevin Kline) who gets called back onto the force when a serial murderer proves too clever to catch. Kline uses his peculiar deductive powers to ascertain the killer’s next victim, and thereby thwart him; Kline also redeems his own checkered past.

Nothing spectacular there. Yet the film, directed by Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country), regularly veers off into some eccentric conversation or ulterior motive. Kline plays a character who is, by his own admission, a genius; he goes off into a lengthy diatribe about the killer’s probable mother complex, and he sniffs out a strange connection between the murders and Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” But he’s bugged by the betrayal of his ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), who married his brother (Harvey Keitel), the police commissioner.

Meanwhile, the latest murderous attack came dangerously close to the daughter of New York City’s wiggy mayor (Rod Steiger, chewing scenery). The daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from The Color of Money) is smitten with Kline, however, a fact that doesn’t exactly endear him to Hizzoner.

There are scenes in this movie that aren’t quite like anything else being written in films today. When Kline first meets the mayor’s daughter, they share tea at a café next to the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. Both people happen to be unusually forthcoming at that moment, and within five minutes they agree to walk to the nearest hotel and go to bed. It’s a dizzying conversation, conceived by Shanley for grown-ups and intelligent people, and beautifully played by Kline and Mastrantonio. Maybe after The January Man they’ll all be hot.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

Well this qualifies as a forgotten film, that’s for sure. Apparently I enjoyed it, but it has pretty much vanished from my memory, and it didn’t seem to make an impression on anybody else.

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