Fletch

May 17, 2012

Rarely has a screenplay been tailored for a particular star as smoothly as the script of Fletch has for Chevy Chase. Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote Blazing Saddles and wrote the script for the funny The In-Laws a few years ago, adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s bestselling novel, and it’s clearly been styled exactly for Chase’s talents.

I’ve never read any of Mcdonald’s Fletch novels—the hero is a newspaper reporter who goes sleuthing—so I don’t know how much of a disservice this reshaping might be to the literary figure. Mcdonald himself is reportedly pleased with Chase, and has said that the spirit of the character is in the film.

If that’s true, then the books must be overrated, because the movie Fletch is pretty thin stuff. Bergman’s screenplay (perfunctorily served by Michael Ritchie’s direction) contains plenty of screwball one-liners, and Chase delivers them with his cool deadpan and impeccable timing.

This means that the movie produces laughs (enough to justify Universal’s decision to postpone release until the lucrative summer season—this film will be popular). But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie, and Fletch, frankly, isn’t. There’s nothing underneath the surface wisecracks—you can’t get involved in the film as anything but a stand-up comedy routine.

Chase plays a master-of-disguise reporter (and dedicated Los Angeles Laker fan—in one scene he dreams he’s playing ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who is dragged into a plot to fake the murder of a wealthy industrialist (Tim Matheson). Chase also falls for the guy’s gorgeous wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Somehow this all ties together with a big drug-traffic story that Chase is rooting out, which involves a Los Angeles police chief (Joe Don Baker).

It’s a typically convoluted detective-movie plot—but it never matters in any significant way. The show is Chevy and his patter, and the movie is fun to watch, even if it seems to evaporate a half-hour later. In particular, there are a couple of running gags—especially one involving a bigoted country-club member, to whose account Chase charges all his meals—that show Bergman’s talent for building comic ideas.

If only the movie had a solid core, these talents might have really put it together. But Fletch is a fluffy exercise, and it falls into that all-too-large category of comedy films that are not so much movies as flimsy vehicles.

First published in the Herald, May 30, 1985

Nothing against Michael Ritchie, by the way, a talented director, but I didn’t get much of him in this one. It was indeed a big hit, and coughed up the sequel, Fletch Lives.

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Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.


Wise Guys

May 15, 2012

Early in his career, Brian De Palma made some low-budget scrungy counterculture comedies—often teaming with an unknown actor named Robert De Niro. The films weren’t commercially successful, and De Palma turned to the suspense genre (Carrie, Body Double) to make his name.

Now that De Palma has made himself into the bad boy of cinema, he’s gone back to a relatively innocuous comedy. Wise Guys is a standard Hollywood farce, a showcase for the talents of a pair of comedians who perform a traditional buddy routine.

Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo make up the team, a pair of ultra-low-echelon Newark gangsters (and best friends). This is their position on the Mafioso totem pole: Piscopo gets to wear a new bullet-proof sportcoat during a live-ammunition test, and DeVito lands the job of starting his boss’s car, which, given the customs of gangsters, is pretty inflammatory work.

Clearly, they need a leg up. One day while they’re placing a bet for their boss at the racetrack, DeVito decides to bet everything on a sure thing. They lose it all, naturally, and suddenly they’re $250,000 in hock to their godfather.

For fun, the boss separately tells each that the only way to save his own neck is to rub out the other. The boys are still scheming to get rich, however, and even though they’re liable to kill each other, they head to Atlantic City for one final fling.

The opening few sequences are flat-footed, and it looks as though De Palma has lost his touch for comedy. But after the racetrack debacle, the plot picks up steam, even if it is nonsense. George Gallo’s script gives the film some solid situations, like the deliberate destruction of the Cadillac the boys steal, and a hilarious scene that involves, believe it or not, a murder in a church. I know that doesn’t sound funny, but….

The church scene is engineered by Ray Sharkey, who invests his short cameo with some insane energy. Dan Hedaya (the husband in Blood Simple) plays the boss, but the scene-stealer is “Captain” Lou Albano. As a professional wrestler, Albano has plenty of acting experience, and it serves him well here, as he plays Hedaya’s mountainous, short-fused goon.

DeVito and Piscopo work reasonably well together. Physically they’re a good match, with Piscopo towering over DeVito.

Still, DeVito is at his most effective when he’s sleaziest, and this role doesn’t mine his most productive vein of comedy. And Piscopo, like his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Dan Aykroyd, seems more at home in the cartoonlike world of TV impersonation than movies, where sustaining a character for 90 minutes requires something more substantial than sketch humor. He’s funny enough, but not quite convincing as a real person.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1986

Not good, not good at all. For De Palma, the movie came between Body Double and The Untouchables, so try explaining that.


Three Amigos

May 14, 2012

Three Amigos is the latest “Saturday Night Live” reunion masquerading as a movie, and like many such projects, it is all package, no inspiration. It’s so bad it produces two reactions: It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you sorry for the people on screen, who sometimes literally have nothing to do.

The amigos of the title are a trio of dense movie actors who have gained some slight popularity in a series of programs during the 1920s. Known as “The Three Amigos,” they dress in sequined suits and ersatz Mexican hats and ride in to save villages in the last reel.

One of their movies is spotted in a small Mexican village by peasants who just happen to need immediate help, because a marauding bandit is terrorizing the village, as marauding bandits are wont to do. So, the peasants send to the Three Amigos, thinking they are real lawmen.

Shades of The Magnificent Seven, except that this boils down to The Insipid Three. The Amigos takes the challenge—the invitation has been garbled in transmission, and they think they’re on their way to a lucrative gig.

The Amigos are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short (the latter a brilliant sketch actor, from “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” whose first film this is).

Their casting would indicate that the film is meant to be funny, but most scenes vaporize before they’re over. The script, by Martin, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, and musician Randy Newman, is so lean on funny ideas that the actors are going purely on their own invention. And there is precious little of that on view.

John Landis directed; he’s participated in such things before, all the way back to the Belushi days of Animal House through last year’s Spies Like Us. Landis appears to be utterly indifferent to the proceedings—almost contemptuous, actually—and he allows scene after scene to fall flat. The occasional songs (by Newman) go nowhere, and Short and Martin singing a fey tune called “My Little Buttercup” in a cantina full of roughnecks is the kind of routine that makes you start looking for the man with the hook.

There is only one scene that is original: the Amigos camped at eventide in the desert, feasting on some barbecued bats while huddled under an obviously painted sky, next to plastic cacti. They seize the moment to croon a Western song, and the animals of the desert join in. This scene is not so much funny as it is weird, but at least it doesn’t dissolve before your eyes.

The only redeeming aspect of the film is the presence of a lovely actress named Patrice Martinez, who plays the Mexican peasant girl with a sly and knowing air. When the bewitched Martin bids her adieu, he whispers, “I’ll come back some day,” and she looks at him evenly and says, “Why?” As a sendoff, I can’t improve on that.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

Over the years I have noticed that this movie has fans, maybe even lots of them. I don’t get it. Despite the presence of funny people (and Martin Short was coming off some glorious TV stuff at that moment), I found the movie absolutely stupefying. And it’s hard to enjoy even the dumb jokes when you’re irritated with a movie wasting some very good people.


National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 23, 2011

In time, it seems, everyone goes soft. Even Chevy Chase. Who would have thought that the smirking smartass of the original “Saturday Night Live” crew would eventually go all gooey and squishy on us?

But it has happened. In Chase’s new film, the story of which he developed with screenwriter John Hughes, there has been a decided shift toward the sentimental. Whereas the original National Lampoon’s Vacation was cruelly funny (for instance, the family dog was tied temporarily to the rear bumper of the car, then remembered about 50 miles later), the new one, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, is soft at its center.

Oh, another house pet gets killed (the cat chews a bit too lustily at the lights around the tree), but this is minor gratification. While it catalogs the terrors of a Christmas vacation, spent at home with a large family, the film also aims in the direction of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not a good blend.

Some of the early going, in which it is established again that Clark Griswold (Chase) is the most hapless buffoon in America, is mildly amusing. When Clark attempts to string up 20,000 Christmas lights around the house, Chase gets to do some of his patented physical comedy.

Even then, there’s no sense of how to build a silent comic sequence. Doesn’t anybody know how to do this anymore? (The film is preceded by a short that salutes the 50th anniversary of Bugs Bunny—three minutes containing more well-executed gags than in the entire running time of Christmas Vacation.)

After that, the movie draws humor from the onslaught of relatives. Included is the moronic and severely inbred cousin from the original Vacation, again played by Randy Quaid. Quaid stays true to the utter grossness of his character, and thus is a welcome presence. The veteran character actors who play members of Griswold’s family have little to do, except endure jokes about their bodily functions and bad toupees; once again, that lovely actress Beverly D’Angelo is wasted as Clark’s wife.

In the end, Clark discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Everything ends, amazingly, with hugs and kisses and warm yuletide feelings. (Except for the cat, who simply ends up warm.) Some people could pull this off, but Chevy Chase was funnier as a smartass.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1989

And it’s a kind of Christmas classic for some, which I guess proves the effect of countless cable-TV iterations upon the human mind. Despite all this, happy holidays.


Fletch Lives

November 23, 2011

The title is Fletch Lives. So they claim. If Fletch didn’t live, there wouldn’t be much of a role for Chevy Chase, who has taken on the part of novelist Gregory McDonald’s sleuthing reporter for the second time. (1985’s Fletch was the first.)

Actually, Chase’s performance seems to contradict the title; he’s barely alive in the role. He’s lost some weight and he’s disciplined again, but he doesn’t appear terribly engaged by the material. Even the ostensibly wacky disguises that Fletch enjoys with regularity are given half-hearted interpretations.

At the film’s opening, Fletch discovers he has inherited a plantation in Louisiana. He imagines a stately life for himself; perhaps he’ll raise chitlins. “Their fur is quite valuable,” he guesses.

He quits his job in Los Angeles, and move to his new home. When the comely estate lawyer (Patricia Kalember) turns up murdered in his bed, there’s clearly a mystery to be solved. Eventually, it is solved, though the solution is surely indecipherable to any average audience member. I don’t have a clue as to what it was all about, except that it had something to do with a vulgar evangelist (R. Lee Ermey), his daughter (Julianne Phillips, Bruce Springsteen’s ex), a crackerbarrel lawyer (Hal Holbrook) who dresses up in Confederate Army uniforms, and a sharecropper (Cleavon Little).

But then the mystery is just an excuse for Fletch’s different routines. Chase pretends to be an evangelist, whereby he heals a man’s migraines by slapping him violently in the forehead; he also impersonates a prissy Northerner named Harley, purported heir to the Harley-Davidson empire.

If Chase is uninspired, there are still some amusing bits; director Michael Ritchie’s taste for satire comes out in spurts. An early dream sequence has Chase imagining his palatial mansion and strolling the grounds, singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while flanked by hundreds of dancing extras, including a cartoon hound and bluebird. And at one point he dons a white sheet and joins the Ku Klux Klan members who are outside on his own lawn, trying to scare him out. The head Klansman mutters, “Cross won’t burn, nobody home…things aren’t what they used to be.”

The whole exercise seems so routine as to merely fulfill some contractual obligation. The ad campaign is much more inspired: a takeoff on the original Gone with the Wind poster, with Chase hunkered over a bodice-bursting Southern belle as Atlanta, or something, burns. Nothing’s on fire in Fletch Lives.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

It sounds like this should have been funnier than, apparently, I thought it was. This was a year after Funny Farm, which was a rare instance of Chevy Chase being involved in an actual movie that had some kind of life and for which he was uniquely suited (and, alas, it flopped); so in ’89, his career was about to lose its thread.


Ghostbusters

November 11, 2011

Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd are a study in contrasting comedic styles. Murray is loose, anarchic, and insouciant; Aykroyd is precise, focused, and clean-cut. These traits define their big-screen presences: Aykroyd, while clearly a gifted comedian, looks prissy and out-of-place in movies. His mimicry and parody are well suited to TV, but in movies, to a certain extent, you’ve got to be yourself. And there just doesn’t seem to be that much there.

Murray, however, moves across the screen as though he owns it. He appears absolutely at ease and in control. Improvising wildly, he can make you laugh during movies that barely deserve to be released (to wit—although that seems an inappropriate word—Meatballs and Stripes, two low-budget box-office champs).

Murray and Aykroyd have teamed up for Ghostbusters, which Aykroyd started writing as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi a few years ago. Murray has stepped into the Belushi role, and he dominates the film; Aykroyd remains pretty much in the background throughout. Given their respective film personalities, this is just as it should be. Murray infuses the movie with as much of his anarchic spirit as possible.

They play a couple of parapsychologists (you know, people who study weird things) who, with fellow scientist Harold Ramis, set up shop for themselves after getting kicked out of their university research positions. They agree to track down any supernatural phenomena that may be bothering people.

It happens to be a good season for ghosts, so the boys are busy capturing the troubled spirits. When a musician (Sigourney Weaver) sees a demon of some kind in her refrigerator, she goes to the ghostbusters—but this is one ghost they can’t find. Murray, however, finds himself liking Weaver a lot (you can’t blame him, either).

It turns out Weaver’s apartment is the key to some crazy scheme that could bring about the end of the world. Well. Best not to go into that. Basically, the movie would like to provide a few good scares, a lot of laughs, and some special effects.

Scary it isn’t. And some of the special effects are good, but most are just okay. Funny is what the film needs to be, especially a heavily promoted (and very expensive: somewhere around $30 million) summer release.

On that score, Ghostbusters is a draw. The performers have some nice moments. But the producer-director, Ivan Reitman (he directed—yes—Meatballs and Stripes), has one of the feeblest senses of comedy I’ve ever seen. He has no instinct for basic moviemaking, for that matter; there’s no rhythm, no structure to the scenes. Bit after bit will build to a funny conclusion that doesn’t conclude. Ghostbusters is better than his previous efforts, but it’s still seriously hampered.

In the past, Reitman’s directorial successes (he produced Animal House, but that was directed by John Landis, who does understand comedy) have been carried on Bill Murray’s shoulders. Murray and company may carry Ghostbusters along too, at least for a while.

Murray himself may need either a strong director to harness his improvisatory talent, or maybe no director at all. His next film will sidestep comedic considerations: in his first serious role, he plays the spiritually minded central character of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s the kind of bizarre casting that could lead to disaster or triumph, but probably nothing in between. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Murray’s fondness for extremes.

First published in the Herald, June 9, 1984

Apparently I didn’t quite anticipate what a blockbuster this would become. But it is pretty blah overall, except for Murray, who summons up some classic moments. For the results of the Razor’s Edge experiment, see here.