The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.

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The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?


Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.


The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).


Three Fugitives

August 15, 2012

Touchstone had the lucrative notion of remaking a popular French comedy into Three Men and a Baby, thereby producing one of the boffo hits of recent years. Now they’ve selected another French comedy, Les Fugitifs, and decided to Americanize it.

This time they brought in the original writer-director, Francis Veber, to do the makeover. Veber’s films, hugely popular in France, have been getting remade by American moviemakers for years; for instance, his hilarious The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe was rather mysteriously (and, as it turned out, regrettably) transformed into The Man with One Red Shoe. This time, Veber himself is accountable.

I haven’t seen Les Fugitifs, but I have seen Veber’s two other comedies starring the amusingly mismatched pair of hulking Gerard Depardieu and mousy Pierre Richard, Les Comperes and La Chevre. Those movies are predictable but delightful comedies, typically French in their regard for classic slapstick.

In Three Fugitives, the remake of Les Fugitifs, Veber has kept his method constant. This time out, Nick Nolte plays the hulk, and Martin Short plays the mouse. They are certainly enjoyable actors to watch, and the discrepancy in their sizes is automatically funny. But Veber hasn’t made the translation all that smoothly; working secondhand, Veber almost appears to lose interest in all but the physical humor.

Two sequences summon up some laughs. The opening has Nolte paroled from a Washington state prison; a veteran bank robber, he is chauffeured to a Tacoma bank by two cops (James Earl Jones, Alan Ruck) who can’t believe he’ll go legit. (Tacoma provides a sunny backdrop, mixed in with a few jarring Seattle cityscapes.) Inside the bank, Nolte is unfortunately taken hostage by an inept hold-up man, played by Short. The police, of course, think Nolte is up to his old tricks, so both men must go on the lam for the remainder of the movie.

In the other good routine, Short dresses up in women’s clothes to pass as Nolte’s wife. It’s an old shtick, but Short is awfully good at it (he checks his wig in the mirror and expertly judges, “It’s a little too bouffant, isn’t it?”). Other than that, this film is merely amiable, although the late Kenneth McMillan has a funny, dreamy quality as a dotty veterinarian. When Veber drags in Short’s mute daughter (Sarah Rowland Doroff), he tips the scales away from comedy and toward the kind of sentimentality that probably plays better with subtitles.

First published in the Herald, February 2, 1989

Veber’s abilities are somewhat mysterious; I’ve seen some of his movies before they opened and thought, “Wow, he’s really lost it,” only to see those films turn into wild successes. I need not add that in the annals of films shot in Tacoma, this one stands plenty tall.


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.


The Golden Child

May 18, 2012

Two years have passed since Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop vaulted into the company of the 10 most popular films ever made. In those two years, Murphy has kept busy, touring with his stand-up routine, making a pop album, and setting up his own movie production company.

The Golden Child is the first product of his new company, and it arrives with some pretty hefty expectations. Murphy’s track record has been impressive, and he seems to have canny instincts for what an audience wants.

Thus The Golden Child must prompt some head-scratching. It retains Murphy’s wise-cracking character, of course. That’s to be expected. But it plants him in the middle of an outlandish story that begins in Tibet and ends with a battle for the future of the world as we know it.

If that sounds peculiar, be assured it is only the tip of the narrative iceberg. The film opens with a scene of a child (J.L. Reate), a round little thing with luminous eyes and magical powers, being kidnapped from a Himalayan temple by a severe-looking fellow (Charles Dance, from Jewel in the Crown) who has the backing of the devil himself.

The deal is, this kid is the savior of the world or some jazz like that, and the evil ones want to kill him. The good ones, led by the exotic Charlotte Lewis, need to find The Chosen One, a man who will find the child and save the world.

Who else, you say, but Eddie Murphy, as the scene shifts to Los Angeles and Murphy is tapped for the job. The film veers from Murphy’s street humor to the supernatural events of the search for the kid. It’s a very odd mix, heavy with special effects (not particularly distinguished) and kung fu fighting.

Why did Murphy choose this project? His humor works best in the gritty, realistic world of 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop, and while a side trip to Nepal offers a few opportunities for culture-shock gags, it is not his natural element.

Even the kookiness of the story would be acceptable if the film had any kind of crackle. But it’s lamely directed by Michael Ritchie, whose career continues to slide into hackdom (his previous films were Chevy Chase’s Fletch and Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats). He seems entirely absent from this movie, except as someone to point the camera at Eddie and let the star improvise.

Actually, given the subject matter, that directorial scheme may have been a good idea. The fact is that many of Murphy’s riffs are funny. The film barely exists, but Murphy himself has lost none of his timing, nor his gift for audience rapport. Every once in a while, he glances at the camera, as though to say, “Stay with me on this. I know where I’m going.”

Paramount Pictures was reportedly nervous about this odd film. It had good reason, but the movie is going to make some money, even if it doesn’t top Cop. Besides, Paramount can breathe easy knowing that Murphy has two releases scheduled for 1987: a concert film and Beverly Hills Cop II. With that promised, he’s allowed the occasional oddball project.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

In fact, it opened huge and made a lot of money—the audience desperately wanted Eddie. This was one of those moments when somebody’s career is so hot it absolutely does not matter what the actual movie is (see also Michael J. Fox, Secret of My Success). Maybe it served as an early indication of the fantasy element that comes into a curious number of Murphy’s movies.