Murphy’s Romance

July 23, 2012

In the opening scenes of Murphy’s Romance we see Sally Field bring her young son (Corey Haim) to a small Arizona town where they’ve rented a ranch house, and set about fixing the place up. They get out the hammer and nails and paintbrushes, and Field puts out leaflets for her new horse-stabling business.

You think to yourself: Is this going to be another movie in which the indomitable Field establishes herself against all odds in a rural setting, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process?

The answer is no, not really. Oh, there’s a bit of that in Murphy’s Romance, and Field will probably get another Oscar nomination, but the film has other fish to fry, and they are very flavorful ones.

For the most past, it’s a low-key portrait of people just trying to get by—not winning big battles, but just trying to make life work out. As such, it’s an immensely appealing character study.

Field plays Emma Moriarty, a divorcee who may be getting involved with an older widower, Murphy Jones (James Garner), who owns the town drugstore, and who is something of an eccentric. He’s a stubborn old coot who prides himself on the shine on his 1927 car, plays the fiddle at the town dances, and is reportedly working on a chili cookbook. Garner is a natural in the role, the best film work he’s done in many years.

This maybe romance is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Field’s ex-husband, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a classic ne’er-do-well who moves back in with her, although their relationship remains platonic. He just needs someone to sponge off of for a while.

It’s a measure of the good feeling of Murphy’s Romance that even Bobby Jack, undeniably a weasel, is seen with some measure of sympathy. Director Martin Ritt, who guided Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae, creates a very placid, likable world in this film, and everyone fits into it in some way.

Ritt’s unhurried rhythms allow time for some lovely moments: three people sitting on a town bench, enjoying the stars on a clear night; a bingo game at the Elks club; a quiet kitchen during a big barbecue, as Emma tries to get Murphy to disclose his age.

These moments are sweet, but not icky, largely because of the charisma of the stars. It’s an old-fashioned movie that way. It unabashedly relies on star power to communicate character traits not contained in the screenplay. Luckily, Field and Garner are well up to these demands.

The score was composed by Carole King, who also sings several songs on the soundtrack. These add to the laid-back atmosphere. So does the small town itself – Florence, Ariz, according to the credits – which, by the authentic feel of its main street, looks like a wonderful place to be.

Ritt allows his story to ramble somewhat more than it needs to, and one may question the use of so many romantic sunsets. But quibbles tend to fade away in the light of the pleasant glow that emanates from this movie’s quiet appeal. Murphy’s Romance provides, in an old-fashioned way, a real nice time.

First published in the Herald, January 30, 1986

Well, I wish I’d done a better job of talking about this movie, which really is pretty nice. Martin Ritt, while not giving off a strong movie-movie vibe, was able to hit the ball solidly now and again, and it’s somewhat surprising to see that he worked steadily through his career. Somewhere in there, if I’m remembering it right, is a scene in which Field suggests going to a movie with Garner, whereupon he gets a faraway look in his eyes and says, “I haven’t been to the movies since the Duke died.” Which is just exactly what that fellow, and many like him, would say. I like the line, I like the movie.


License to Drive

July 19, 2011

Graham, Feldman & Haim

License to Drive is a movie clearly made with the assembly line in mind. The filmmakers have taken the body of Risky Business, the chassis of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the low rumbling engine of After Hours.

Funny thing is, for a film that should (and often does) feel like a mass-produced vehicle, License to Drive provides a pretty painless ride. I know I chuckled at least 12 times, which is about a dozen times more than I’d expected.

There’s nothing new about the main matter of the film, which is a basic recapitulation of basic adolescent hijinks. One kid (Corey Haim) needs to get his driver’s license so he can impress the girl of his dreams and his best friend (Corey Feldman). Unfortunately, he flunks his driver’s test the day he’s scheduled to have a big first date with the dream girl.

The final two-thirds of the movie is the date, which Haim embarks upon despite the absence of the license. Actually, he’s all but given up on the whole idea, until he receives a phone call from the girl on the night in question: “So, you can pick me up in 20 minutes?” That’s a siren call no hormone-pumping young American could possibly resist.

So Haim sneaks his grandfather’s pristine Cadillac out of the garage and glides away. After that, the roof falls in – quite literally, by the end of the movie. Director Greg Beeman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin have devised every possible catastrophe for our young driver and the soon-to-be-unrecognizable car.

Along with the girl (soon soused on champagne), he picks up two buddies and carries them along for the ride, as they encounter a rumble at a burger drive-in, a violent Communist Party demonstration, a humorless tow-truck driver, and finally a drunken car thief.

Nothing too surprising about any of this, and the humor is entirely tied up in pubescent obsessions, albeit the nightmarish side of them (the movie even opens with a nightmare about escape from a hellish school bus).

But Beeman displays some sense of how to set up an honest joke, and the performers are generally likable, if somewhat nondescript; Richard Masur and Carol Kane do their usual good work as Haim’s hip-but-not-that-hip parents. At the very least, Beeman taps into many of the central terrors peculiar to the state of being 15 ½ years old.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

“Nothing too surprising about any of this”? How did I say that after typing the line about the violent Communist Party demonstration? I guess I was dazzled, to some minor degree, by the movie. It got bad reviews and was one of those movies reviewers could point to in order to trace the collapse of American cinema, but I liked it. This is a shameful thing to admit about a Two Coreys picture, but I remember it having a decent sense of comic timing and momentum. Not that I’ve seen it since it came out. Director Beeman went on to a very successful TV career, including stuff like Heroes and Smallville. I didn’t identify the female lead here, but it was Heather Graham, a year before Drugstore Cowboy.


Lucas

March 10, 2011

Lucas is a precocious 14-year-old who has a few peculiar habits. He collects locusts. He carries a tape recorder that plays a sort of soundtrack to his life at key moments. And he goes to high school—because, “I’m accelerated,” as he says—with a bunch of older kids.

Which means that Lucas is lonely, if bright. And Lucas is the story of a crucial turning point in the boy’s growth, when he finds out the meaning of life and love.

That already sounds pretty wet, and Lucas steps into most of the gooey traps of such a story. Lucas (Corey Haim) meets a new girl (Kerri Green) in school; but she’s 18, and although she befriends the shrimp, she falls more seriously for the school football star (Charlie Sheen, Martin’s son).

This is Lucas’s first heartbreak, and drives him back to his locusts (Lucas—locust—get it?). But Lucas contrives a way to prove his manhood on the football field, and conveniently finds another girl to replace his true love.

This leads to a distastefully manipulative ending. In fact, the ending is so bogus, it makes you forget the fact that writer-director David Seltzer has pulled off a few sensitive scenes along the way.

Seltzer gets a nice offbeat tone to a variety of encounters. When Sheen first notices Green, for instance, it’s at a school laundry, where they duet in an unusually long scene, both of them nervous, testing each other. And there’s a fresh angle to the scene in which Lucas brings his heart’s desire to an outdoor symphony concert—via the sewer. They travel underground until they’re near the performing shell, then they simply crack open a manhole cover not far from the music and enjoy the sounds wafting across the night.

These little touches suggest that Seltzer has some desire to avoid the usual formula for these stories, and he’s got gobs of sincerity.

That makes it all the more irritating when Seltzer slips into the nonsense of the final sequences, as Lucas insists he wants to play on the football team, in some desperate attempt to recapture the attention of his red-headed heartthrob. This, although he’d earlier announced that football players and cheerleaders were hopelessly superficial. He wasn’t quite right; it’s the film that gets increasingly superficial.

Seltzer’s cast is agreeable enough; Haim is an engaging Lucas, Green is underwhelming but steady as the focus of Lucas’s attention, and Sheen, who looks more like his father than his brother, Emilio Estevez, has an interesting quality. Although he’s good, he never seems quite at ease; it’s as though something is eating at him. Rather than detract from his performance, this actually makes it more intriguing.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

I was going to drop the Charlie Sheen Week business but then coming across this review (entirely at random, I swear), I was struck by the final sentences. Because things still are very much eating at Charlie Sheen. This movie brought on a memorable bout of high-rhapsody writing from Roger Ebert at the time, who compared it to The 400 Blows; but hey, the movie’s about a smart, bespectacled Chicago kid wrestling with first love, so let’s give the guy a pass. My review failed to mention another fresh young face in the cast, which belonged to Winona Ryder (let the whispers of the “curse of Lucas” proceed apace). Seltzer went on to make Punchline a couple of years later—and perhaps a man named Seltzer had to make a film about comedians—which wasn’t bad, but his follow-up was Shining Through, a train wreck. He created the Omen series, so he’s probably fine.


Dream a Little Dream

December 30, 2010

If you are older than 16, you may not be familiar with the phenomenon of The Two Coreys. The Two Coreys are a pair of young actors of a dewy age, midteen heartthrobs whose exploits are currently celebrated in such as magazines Tiger Beat. (Tiger Beat still exists, doesn’t it?)

Every now and then, The Two Coreys make a movie. Sometimes apart—Corey Haim starred in Lucas, Corey Feldman was one of the boys in Stand by Me—and often together, as in The Lost Boys and last year’s License to Drive. In the ads for their new film, Dream a Little Dream, telephone numbers are listed so that fans may call either Corey. Just two bucks a pop, and 45 cents for each additional minute. As the ads say, “Get Your Parents’ Permission.”

With all of this, does it really matter about the movie? Probably not, which is just as well: Dream a Little Dream is another personality-switch movie. An old guy (Jason Robards) figures out a way to move his spirit, which he thinks will bring happiness to him and his wife (Piper Laurie). Instead, his mind is transferred to a high-schooler (Corey Feldman), through whom he sees things anew.

Not all that much happens; the kid romances a gorgeous girl (Meredith Salenger), freaks out his puzzled parents, and startles Robards’ best friend (Harry Dean Stanton). There is some suggestion that the director, Marc Rocco, had in mind that the lessons of the film be a bit more complex than the usual teen-genre simplicity, but not much.

The movie has one remarkable sequence, the mind-transference routine. At night, Robards and Laurie stand in their backyard and perform some voodoo, while Feldman sprints through the cluster of alleys and yards and Salenger rides her bike through the streets, about to collide. On the soundtrack is Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and a dreamlike quality pervades. The scene is much too good for the rest of the movie, quite bizarre and out of place, but it suggests that this director might make an interesting film someday.

Oh yes, the other Corey. Haim plays Feldman’s best friend, and does yeoman’s service. For now, the twin dynasty continues, but I hope these boys remember the fates of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy.

First published in the Herald, March 8, 1989

The mind-transference scene is an example of something I love about movies. I saw this movie when it came out (obviously), and haven’t seen it since. It’s not very good. But that scene continues to pop into my head from time to time—it plays around with moonlight, and dreaminess, and I think the wind is blowing through these small-town backyards (at least that’s the way it plays in my mind); plus Van Morrison’s great song does its magic thing. I also really love the spectacle of running when depicted in movies, and here that movement bespeaks youth, especially next to the age embodied by Jason Robards. And all this in a dumb movie with the Coreys.

Marc Rocco was indeed interested in things beyond this sort of film; he made Where the Day Takes You, which aspired to grittiness and seriousness, and Murder in the First. The adopted son of character actor Alex Rocco, he died in 2009, before he was 50. Corey Haim died in 2010, at age 38, having been broken many years earlier.

As for the title song, the best cinematic use I can think of right now for this great standard comes at the end of Dominik Moll’s Lemming, a movie I have a weakness for. There it fits just right; here, not so much.


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