The Rachel Papers

August 13, 2012

We have a new English film about a young man plotting to get a girl while, Alfie-style, he’s receiving a moral education. No, this isn’t Getting It Right. That film came out at least three months ago. This is another English film about a young man plotting, etc. This one’s called The Rachel Papers.

Based on a 1973 novel by Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers has a 19-year-old hero, a cocky Londoner named Charles, who taps all of his romantic knowledge into a computer, where his reservoir of facts and, ah, figures will help him in his love life. Except that his life doesn’t have much love in it; plenty of action, but not much love.

Then he meets Rachel, a knockout who seems to him the ultimate conquest. So Charles the Conqueror sets out to win her, using all of his data base methods. In this, writer-director Damian Harris (the son of actor Richard Harris), works a conventional line. Charles, like Alfie, regularly turns from a scene to address the audience in conspiratorial tones.

Much of this works. The most amusing sequence comes after Charles gets the girl, and she spends a couple of weeks at his place. Protracted proximity brings sexual bliss, but also a strong dose of reality. There’s a funny moment when Rachel sits in Charles’ bedroom, singing tunelessly to a song on the radio, and Charles slowly looks up from his book to register his irritation. She’s human after all.

The film’s problem, at least in terms of finding a sympathetic audience, is that we’re enlisted in Charles’ cause all the way through the film, particularly through his direct entreaties to the audience. But he’s a swine. He receives his comeuppance near the end and learns his lesson, but some may have a hard time sympathizing with him until then. Especially women. The Rachel Papers takes a decidedly male point of view.

Ione Skye, who also played the object of desire in the wonderful Say Anything…, is Rachel, and James Spader, currently in sensational form in sex, lies, and videotape, takes a supporting role as her unctuous boyfriend. The film is carried by Dexter Fletcher, who brings a certain reptilian energy to Charles. He’s also a dead ringer for the young Mick Jagger. If anyone’s preparing the Rolling Stones story, your lead actor is right here.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

I haven’t read the Amis novel, but the movie feels like the same thing as usual. Dexter Fletcher’s been busy since this movie, mostly as a character actor. Getting It Right, by the way, was a film by Randal Kleiser.


Say Anything…

January 7, 2011

Cusack, Skye, awesomeness

Film observers are fond of despairing about the state of movies today by pointing out that most films are aimed at a teenage audience, because teens make up the heftiest percentage of the movie-going public. It follows that a lot of movies are also about teenagers.

Despite conventional wisdom, not all of these teen movies are bad. Witness, for example, Say Anything…, a mostly wonderful new movie that happens to be about teenagers and their problems. Say Anything… treats its milieu with freshness and spunk and an absolute refusal to condescend to its characters.

The central situation is familiar enough. It’s the last summer after high school, before kids go off to college. Normal guy Lloyd (John Cusack) finally summons up the courage to ask out Diane (Ione Skye), the school’s best scholar, a gorgeous gal but heretofore unapproachable. The differences in their backgrounds (she’s headed for England to study on a prestigious scholarship; he’s destined to schlump around and maybe pursue his dream of being a professional kick-boxer) suggest a traditional mixed romance.

But writer-director Cameron Crowe isn’t interested in merely connecting the dots. The relationship between these two is handled in unorthodox terms; virtually every scene has some delightful surprise in it. And equally important is the character of Diane’s father (John Mahoney), who has been the driving force behind his daughter’s academic success. (The suggestion that a parent might be something other than a nuisance is also an unorthodox touch in this genre.)

Eventually the movie reveals that the father has some serious problems of his own, and for a while it seems that Say Anything… is made up of two separate movies, co-existing somewhat uneasily. In retrospect this doesn’t seem too troublesome, especially given the fine performance by the superb character actor Mahoney (from Tin Men and Eight Men Out and Moonstruck).

This is Crowe’s first film as a director. He isn’t quite fluid as a filmmaker yet, but that hardly matters. He has caught some beautiful scenes, such as the talk between Diane and her father in which she explains frankly why she and Lloyd spent the night together (they agreed not to sleep together, she says, but “then I attacked him anyway”), and a terrific ending that reminded me of how few moviemakers know how to end things well and wittily.

Some moments I’ll remember a long time. After their first date, Diane impulsively hugs Lloyd (a lovely awkward moment) and goes into her house. She wonders whether he feels bad because she called him “basic,” then looks out the window. Lloyd is standing in the middle of the empty residential street, ceremonially taking bows. No, he’s not feeling bad.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It was great then, it’s still great now. The casual-yet-expressive use of Seattle locations is more effective than the more picturesque and site-specific Singles. One thing I have never known, but could probably answer by making with the Google, is why the title has an ellipsis. Imagine how many problems this has caused over the years.

I wrote something else about the movie here.


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