Finders Keepers

May 4, 2020

finderskeepersRichard 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.

In the Mood

January 10, 2013

inthemoodIt must have been a marvelous moment in media history. The uneasy year was 1944 and the story came (of course) from California. One Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver eloped with an older woman, which is not unusual in itself until you realize that the woman was a married mother and Sonny was only 15. Then, a few months later, the little dickens did it again—with a different married woman.

Sonny had his moment of glory, and his legendary wooing technique even earned him the nickname “The Woo Woo Kid.” This technique, unfortunately, also landed him in juvenile halls, for breaking certain archaic laws. Then he slipped into a (probably welcome) anonymity.

But In the Mood, which recounts these tumultuous months in the life of Sonny Wisecarver, returns this unique American character to his rightful place of prominence. It’s an ingratiating movie, not quite as good as it might have been, perhaps, but with plenty to like.

Sonny (Patrick Dempsey, late of Can’t Buy Me Love) is portrayed here as a normal guy who simply wears his heart on his sleeve. Who can blame him for thinking that running off to Yuma, Ariz., is more fun that the ninth grade? Or for gravely noting to himself, after spending a few hours with his first amour, that “Women are good”?

His first conquest, the young mother (Talia Balsam, a wonderful performance), is a sweet and quiet girl, and quite swept away by Sonny’s romantic way of expressing himself. His second elopement is with a brassier, more experienced woman (Beverly D’Angelo), but she’s no less impressed by Sonny’s heartfelt honesty.

The writer-director is Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote the fine script to All of Me. This is his first directed feature, and he doesn’t really have all the moves yet—there are missed opportunities, I think, and some uncertainties in tone. The movie never sings in the way that you imagine it would if, say, Jonathan Demme had directed it.

But Robinson finds many charming things in the course of Sonny’s wacky journey, such as the nurses who tend the newly famous Sonny when he lands in the hospital, and who give him curiously frequent sponge baths; or the shot of Sonny and a lady conversing through an apartment wall, while the camera pulls back to reveal the romantic night that surrounds them.

Then there’s a rundown diner where Sonny and his paramour have dinner; he gets carried away enough to ask the slatternly waitress, “What kind of champagne do you have?” (to which she responds, without missing a beat, “Schlitz”).

The film’s probably too low-key whimsical to be very popular, but at least it restores the glory of the Woo Woo Kid (the real Sonny Wisecarver pops up in a cameo role in a mock newsreel sequence). And you can’t argue with a film that openly endorses Sonny’s unfettered philosophy: “Sensible is boring.”

First published in the Herald, October 1, 1987

Another from the early career of Patrick Dempsey, new owner of Tully’s. Curiously, or not, just before the movie came out Dempsey, age 21, married a 48-year-old. Which is not really like the movie’s plot, but there you go. I am glad to have lauded the work of Talia Balsam, that excellent actress who should be more lauded in general (what a family life she has—married to her Mad Men co-star John Slattery, ex-married to George Clooney, daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten). I hadn’t remembered liking this movie this much. Robinson’s next was, of course, Field of Dreams.

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.

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.