Personal Services

January 23, 2020

personalservicesEvidently, Personal Services is based, loosely, on the life of one Cynthia Payne, who became something of a popular heroine in England by running a genteel brothel in the London surburbs. The film, which debuted last week at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a fictional treatment of her rise from everyday waitress to no-nonsense madam.

Aside from the opportunities for social comment and bawdy-house humor, the film provides a broad vehicle for Julie Walters, the actress best known for her Oscar-nominated work in Educating Rita. Walters uses her brassy drive to chart the character’s changes. At first she’s tentative, not quite knowing all the sexual terminology, but cheerfully playing along. (I would quote specific jokes here, but then this review would have to be rated R).

Later, she’s a bureaucratic whirlwind, organizing teas for the clients, moving her girls from dingy apartments to a polished house in the suburbs, barking orders at the clients who agree to clean the place up (many of them enjoy being – how shall we say this – “disciplined”).

David Leland’s screenplay is every­where at once, jumping around among wacky situations, never quite settling down. But he has just the right director for this sort of thing in Terry Jones, a Monty Python member who has had much experience in sketch comedy (on the Python TV series and as the director of The Meaning of Life, among others).

Jones brings a lively and amoral presence to the proceedings. The brothel caters to elderly, civilized men, and Jones gleefully depicts these upper-crust British gentlemen dressed in knickers, dresses, schoolgirl’s uniforms, and bikinis – all outfits for their, um, satisfaction.

Some of the savage satire of the Python troupe is evident, and of course the typically self-lacerating British sense of humor – but Jones manages to find time for quieter moments during which Walters’ loneliness is suggested. There’s a nice, silent scene when she’s on vacation, and accidentally glimpses two young people making love. She gazes wistfully at them, as though remembering that sex can be something other than a commodity.

I’m glad that reminder is in the movie, as opposed to Working Girls, another current film about prostitution, in which sex in general is made to look dingy and ugly.

Probably Jones means us to see the film as a broader metaphorical statement about the state of England today, but the movie’s too scrappy and blunt for this to be effective. Personal Services is, however, a frequently funny, knowingly ironic success story.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

RIP Terry Jones, who just died at age 77. I think this film is mostly forgotten, at least outside Britain, but at the time it found an appreciative audience at SIFF. Interesting that I included a mention of Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls, which is well-thought-of today.


January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.

Just One of the Guys

December 18, 2012

justoneofguysJust One of the Guys is an unsurprisingly limp teen romp that lifts the Tootsie formula and transfers it to high school. This time, the gender-switching involves a girl (Joyce Hyser) who wants desperately to be a journalist. We know she’s serious, because there’s a picture of Hemingway up there on her wall, next to Billy Idol.

A local newspaper annually offers an internship to a prize-winning high-schooler. Our girl’s story about hot-lunch nutrition doesn’t make the final cut, and her disappointment leads her to suspect that the decision-making was a sexist frame-up.

So—and you’ll need considerable willpower to swallow this—she enrolls (how? I ask you) at a rival high school as a boy, and enters the same journalism contest there. The hypothetical laughs ensue when this “boy” becomes attracted to another boy at the school—and becomes the object of desire for a healthy (but eventually confused) girl.

So, the basic laugh-getting situations are stolen outright from Tootsie. The big problem is, a good sex farce is supposed to be funny, and Just One of the Guys is absolutely deadly dull.

Everything is by rote. It’s one of those films in which juicy predicaments are set up—Hyser’s introduction to her new all-boy gym class, for instance—and then left quite undeveloped. Evidently, the situation is supposed to be funny enough in itself. Forget about any attempt at comic invention.

The characters are the usual parade of jocks, geeks, princesses, and trollops. The only intermittently funny stereotypes are two incredibly dorky losers who like to imagine they’re from another planet, and thus communicate with each other in metallic barks and blips. But even this idea is stolen from Sixteen Candles, where it was funnier.

The single well-written character is Hyser’s 15-year-old brother, who craves his first sexual encounter with ferocious single-mindedness. (Presumably, the writers felt some deep kinship with this character.) Unfortunately, the kid is so unimaginatively played by Billy Jacoby that all the comic force dribbles out of him.

Just One of the Guys is the debut feature film of director Lisa Gottlieb, whose short film Murder in the Mist attracted some attention a few years ago. Sad to say, Gottlieb proves here a rather depressing equality-of-the-sexes argument: It’s clear now that a woman can make a teen comedy that’s just as mindless and stupid as anything a man could make.

First published in the Herald, April 1985

The movie played endlessly on pay-cable for years thereafter, for reasons that will not be mysterious to anyone who’s seen it. I watched it again during that period, actually, and I think it’s better made than I gave it credit for—at least the skeleton of a screwball comedy is visible here, and Joyce Hyser has something. Billy Jacoby was the brother of Scott Jacoby, adolescent star of TV-movies in the early 1970s (Billy has been known as Billy Jayne since this time). Early outing for Sherilyn Fenn, too.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

August 8, 2012

This Vacation is a pretty tame vehicle for Chevy Chase, with only a few utterly gross and tasteless gags to liven up the general dreariness. One of the best—and most extended—of them has Chevy’s family (en route from Chicago to wonderful WalleyWorld in Los Angeles) dropping in on some severely inbred cousins somewhere in the Midwest. Randy Quaid invests his best grungy slobbiness into the father (Brother? Uncle? Yucch!) of the clan, amid many one-liners about kissin’ cousins (the young actors who play his mutant offspring are truly frightening-looking).

Chase retains his sense of comedic timing, and Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, has a charming presence. She is, I’m afraid, the victim of two of the most absurdly gratuitous excuses to get the leading lady buck-naked in recent screen memory: the first is a pathetic Psycho shower-scene thing that goes nowhere; the second is her skinny-dipping response to hubby’s late-night rumba with a gorgeous young vixen in the swimming pool of the local No-Tell Motel (a response that makes absolutely no sense based on what has come before). Poor Beverly. Things really must be bad for actresses in Hollywood.

The gorgeous young vixen is played by Christie Brinkley, a model and, for years, Bunsen Burner to American Malehood as the swimsuit girl in Sports Illustrated‘s annual libido issue. Hate to say it, fellas, but the truth must be told. She’s terrible.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

The movie hit people of a certain age just right, and there was that scene of Chase falling asleep at the wheel and just driving along blissfully, which had a certain surrealist commitment. At least I think that was in this one.


July 2, 2012

Somebody ought to make a funny movie that satirizes the horrible state of modern beer commercials. You know, the ones that show the manly men doing manly things and then washing down the day with a few draughts of suds.

Usually, they’re working on the assembly line, hiking through the Rockies, or fly-casting after large-mouth bass. Then, when they’re knocking back the brewskis later, one guy gets dewy-eyed and says, “Fellas, it doesn’t get any better than this.” All of which, in some mysterious but subtly related way, helps make America great again, or so we’re to understand.

Yes, the genre is ripe for lampooning. But don’t let the people who made Beer do it; they had their shot, and they blew it.

Beer is about an advertising agency’s frantic efforts to boost the sales of their top client, Norbecker Beer. Old man Norbecker (Kennth Mars) threatens to drop the agency if they don’t come up with something good, pronto.

So, an agency executive (Loretta Swit) and a director (Rip Torn) are sipping a Norbecker in a bar one night when their solution is delivered to them. A stick-up man goes berserk, and is subdued, more or less, by three yo-yos who happen to be standing there.

Swit and Torn seize these guys, sign them up, and film a series of macho commercials, which turn the trio into wildly popular American heroes. So what if they’re accused of sexism (“Whip Out Your Norbecker” is the ad slogan) and given a liberal going-over by a Phil Donahue-like talk show host (Dick Shawn). They’re making a bundle of money, and the sales of Norbecker have gone through the roof of the brewery.

Now, this is not a completely terrible idea for a movie. There’s just a hint of the flavor of classic Preston Sturges movies in the vaulting of the unknowns to stardom, and in the possibility for an absurdist twist on the American Dream.

But Beer is a mess. It’s a free-for-all, with desperate potshots doled out to offend the usual minority groups. The performers are uninspired, with the exception of Peter Michael Goetz, who does manic work as the ad agency president. And the director, Patrick Kelly, displays no sense of the internal logic this kind of satirical jaunt should have, so the film just falls flat when it should be (pardon the phrase) hopping along.

First published in the Herald, December 25, 1985

IMDb says Sandra Bernhard was cast in the lead role, then replaced by Loretta Swit, which explains at least something. This is the kind of movie I think of when I remember reviewing movies in the 1980s: no press screening, a drive into the suburbs on a Friday afternoon, and an absolutely non-cinematic experience unfolding on screen. Within a very few years (less than five, I would say), this level of film would not open in theaters, but go “straight to video,” a new phrase that came to have many different meanings.

Student Bodies

April 11, 2012

A lonely house on a dark ‘n stormy night…a title appears, to orient us in time: “Halloween.” Wait, another title replaces it: “Friday the 13th.” But now, the final title, the true date of our story: “Jamie Lee Curtis’s Birthday.” This is Student Bodies, a movie that seeks to spoof the recent horror film cycle, and particularly the central notion of that series: teenagers who play fast-and-loose with their budding sexuality run a high risk of being hacked to death with a kitchen knife.

Now, the narrative conventions of the likes of Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls are certainly ripe for dissection, and the first scene here is funny: babysitter is dogged by a series of phone calls, boyfriend drops by for a little passionate necking, and we watch, horrified, as the killer’s hand gropes for a murder weapon and comes up with—gasp!—a paper clip. But after this sequence, which at least has a tautness inherent in the situation, Student Bodies loses pep, and slack, scattershot gags become the order of the day.

Writer-director Mickey Rose (who has written with Woody Allen) doesn’t display too much good filmic sense—he lets a few nice comedic set-ups just dribble away—and the cast is uniformly lackluster (a shop teacher with an obsession about horsehead bookends should be funnier than he is). But budget limitations—and it sure looks like Student Bodies was shot on a shoestring—may have come into play there, and hamstrung any comic ambitions. It’s not a good movie, but I find it difficult to actually dislike a film that considers Jamie Lee Curtis’s birthday a well-known holiday.

First published in the Weekly, August 12-August 18, 1981

Yes, that’s right—a Scary Movie before its time, predicting the Wayans brothers by all those years. Mickey Rose wrote Bananas and Take the Money and Run with Woody Allen, but this was his only directing shot; some reports suggest he co-directed with Michael Ritchie, who declined credit.

Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise

January 12, 2012

The original Revenge of the Nerds took a very funny title and a tried-and-true comic formula (vengeance) and became the surprise hit of the summer of 1984. It had its genuinely mirthful moments, in large part because the two head nerds were played with some inspiration by Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards.

A sequel was inevitable, and so was the return to formula. In Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, once again the geeks are abused and tormented, until they must slip their pocket protectors in place and turn the tables on the evil jocks at the Alpha Beta fraternity. In this session, Carradine is back as the grandmaster nerd, leading his nearsighted brethren. Edwards, however, has enjoyed a healthy career upswing and is less nerdy now. Thus he appears in just a couple of scenes (a broken leg explains his absence from the action).

As the subtitle suggests, our heroes are on vacation in Fort Lauderdale for a convention of fraternities. Things are bleak from the outset, however. The mean hotel manager (Ed Lauter) announces: “I don’t want nerds in my hotel!” So the pencil-necked geeks end up in a fleabag, where there are no computers to repair or cute girls to repulse.

The movie ping-pongs between the humiliations of the nerds and their vengeful plotting. There are a few funny scenes, especially the nerds’ rap party, where they mutate into something like the Beastie Nerds; and a sequence that has Edwards, dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi, appearing to a dispirited Carradine in a dream. His sage advice? “Stop acting like a wienie!”

But for the most part, Nerds II remains only slightly superior to your average teen gross-out movie (director Joe Roth also produced the similar Bachelor Party). Many of the good gags are repeats from the first film, such as the overuse of Carradine’s donkey laugh. There’s a heavy emphasis on bodily-function jokes, nose-picking, and bikini jiggle.

The most disgusting nerd, Booger (Curtis Armstrong, now a regular on TV’s “Moonlighting”), is back with his usual habits. Characteristic of his behavior, and the movie’s high point of blecch, is a belching duel he has with an inexplicable Asian man (James Hong). Nerdhood, reassuringly, know no ethnic boundaries.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Beyond the fond recollection that Orson Welles recorded the voiceover for the first Nerds movie, I got nothing. It seems Anthony Edwards deserves credit for being a good sport.