She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?

Advertisements

Beetlejuice

January 27, 2012

Keaton and friend, Beetlejuice

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.

It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.

Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.

As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.

Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).

So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.

But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.

What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.