Richard Lester, one of the most inventive directors of the last couple of decades, spent the last five years or so working on the various Superman movies. He made a clean job of it and was probably responsible for much of the buoyant humor and satire of the latter two Superman films.
When a director guides big-budget projects to successful release, he’s usually rewarded by getting to do a more personal film. At this point, it’s hard to speculate whether or not Lester actually had that option, but if Finders Keepers is the direction he wants to take, one of our best filmmakers is in trouble.
Lester brought his razor-sharp comedic sense to A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and The Knack, in the mid-’60s; his darker films of that period – Petulia and How I Won the War – now are considered to be among his best work.
Finders Keepers is an out-and-out comedy, but it has little of the zip of Lester’s earlier movies, and it’s also a deeply cynical film. It’s something of a throwback to screwball comedies, in which a series of wildly improbable circumstances throw a group of people together in a busy adventure.
In this case, it’s a hustler (Michael O’Keefe) who steps into a kidnapping plot involving an heiress (Pamela Stephenson) and five million dollars, which is sitting in a coffin on a train. O’Keefe gets wind of the plot, but his efforts to secure the money for himself are hampered by a spacey actress (Beverly D’Angelo), the menacing kidnapper who’s actually in cahoots with the heiress (Ed Lauter), an inept FBI man (Jack Riley), and the world’s oldest train conductor (David Wayne).
Sticking a bunch of weirdos on a train is revered comic tradition in American movies: It always seems to work. You can see that the story might have had possibilities, but the screenplay itself is a shambles. There’s none of the graceful escalation of mayhem that Lester has orchestrated so well in the past – just chaos.
The choice of Michael O’Keefe to play the hero is indicative or the film’s troubles. O’Keefe got an Oscar nomination for playing the son in The Great Santini, but he’s a sarcastic actor, and can’t really provide the anchor needed for the center or the farce.
Louis Gossett, Jr., strolls into the picture midway, as a cool con man, but there’s absolutely nothing for him to do. It’s disturbing to think this is the best thing to come along for him since An Officer and a Gentleman. Maybe some of his footage got cut out of the finished film; the movie has that kind of feel to it.
It’s also being dumped with a minimal advertising outlay, just before the summer blockbusters are let loose. Finders Keepers has truly been lost in the shuffle – although it’s unlikely anyone would have missed it anyway.
First published in the Herald, May 1984
Jim Carrey’s in there too, and Brian Dennehy. Is there a re-appreciation of this film yet? I am unaware of one. The only thing I really remember is a Supertramp song at the end, along with a sense of resignation. Lester made just one more feature, the ill-fated Return of the Musketeers, before more-or-less retiring, which is a damn shame.