Little Shop of Horrors

November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, during a weekend in 1960, Roger Corman had a set, some actors, and nothing better to do. So in three days (so the legend goes), he and scriptwriter Charles Griffith filmed a wacky little horror comedy about a man-eating plant.

This no-budget throwaway has survived as one of the zaniest products of Corman’s freewheeling early days. For years it was a staple of the revival circuit and television. Then, a few years ago, someone had the improbable idea to turn the thing into a stage play. And a musical, yet.

The project, shall we say, blossomed. More improbably, it was a big hit. And most improbable of all, it’s been made into a movie again, this time with big-budget backing and songs to boot.

Deep down, I’ll always prefer Corman’s zonked-out quickie. I love its skid road production values and its Catskills-style ethnic humor.

But the new movie has a lot going for it, and deserves to end up as one of this season’s hits. It’s a bright, ditzy thing, full of artificial sets, arch acting, and goofy songs.

A trio of doo-wop girls serve as a chorus, as we are introduced to a rundown New York neighborhood, circa 1960. Mushnik’s florist shop is mired in an apparently terminal slump—until the shop boy, Seymour (Rick Moranis, from “SCTV”), finds “a strange and interesting plant” one day. Placed in the store window, the plant quickly attracts business, much to the delight of Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) and clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene, adorably vapid). That this homely little bulb would attract all this attention is just the first of the film’s intentional absurdities.

Seymour names the planet Audrey II. He harbors a love, or as much goony affection as he can muster, for the real Audrey, but she is stuck with a sadist boyfriend (a plum role for Steve Martin). Naturally, the sadist practices dentistry.

Audrey II brings Seymour money and glamour, but there is a photosynthetical downside. The plant can live only on blood. Human blood. Seymour must supply supper, or lose his plant—and, he supposes, lose Audrey.

Understand that not one whit of this nonsense is played straight. The approach that lyricist Howard Ashman (who also scripted) and composer Alan Mencken have taken is a thorough put-on: campy and tacky.

I don’t know how they came up with Frank Oz for director—he’s a longtime collaborator of the Muppets’ Jim Henson—except that one of the main characters is a large Muppet-like creature; the plant, given voice by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, steals a number of scenes, and behaves with much impertinence.

Oz directs with uninhibited glee, frequently stuffing visual gags into the big numbers. Martin’s dentist song, a tour de force that ought to be released as a video for MTV, is a string of hilarious jokes on the fear of oral surgery, building to the moment when Oz cuts to a shot looking at the insanely cackling Martin from the inside of a large fake mouth. Oz is exactly in tune with this show’s nuttiness.

There are cameos, mostly unnecessary, from John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray; the latter plays a dental patient who loves pain.

In the original film and the musical play, the plant eats everyone at the end. That ending was filmed, but was reshot after some test previews favored a happier ending. Actually, this new ending may be even better and funnier than the original. In a quiet way, Audrey II still has the last laugh.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1986

Hey, didja notice I never mentioned the title of the movie? I didn’t notice, when I wrote this review. I have a feeling I did this a few times over the years.

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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.


The Razor’s Edge

May 31, 2011

It didn’t work. For months now we’ve been hearing about how Bill Murray would essay his first dramatic role—not only that, he would do it in an adaptation of Somerset Maugahm’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s biting off a lot, and chances were the film would either be a disaster or a weird, original triumph.

The movie is here. It didn’t work.

The novel tells the story of a young American veteran of World War I who, disturbed by what he had seen in the trenches, turns his back on sophisticated society (including his fiancée) and searches for meaning. Eventually he finds spiritual guidance in India, and dedicates his life to selflessness.

Films about the search for internal truth don’t get made too often, but The Razor’s Edge was filmed once before. Tyrone Power had enough clout to mount a version in 1946, with himself as the searcher Larry Darrell, Gene Tierney as his fiancée, Anne Baxter as their self-destructive friend (she copped a supporting actress Oscar), and Clifton Webb as a social butterfly.

Bill Murray, who loved the book, also had to use his clout to get the movie made: He agreed to do Ghostbusters for Columbia Pictures if they would finance The Razor’s Edge. If you’ve been following the box-office reports on Ghostbusters, you know that Columbia isn’t going to lose any money on this deal, even if Razor’s Edge does a nosedive.

The Tyrone Power version was a faithful, if somewhat ponderous, adaptation. Murray and director John Byrum have leavened their script with Murrayesque humor, even when that humor is anachronistic or just plain misplaced.

Murray’s comic force, very much a part of our time, seems jarring when set at the beginning of the century. We can appreciate that his Larry Darrell might be a bit of a clown, but when Murray flops over the side of a swimming pool and does a seal imitation while his fiancée wants to talk about the collapse of their relationship, something isn’t ringing true. Don’t misunderstand me—Murray playing a seal is very funny. It’s just in the wrong movie.

This problem happens repeatedly; obviously, Byrum and Murray thought the mix of comedy and drama would work. No go.

They’ve also got a problem with the sheer size of the story. It’s long already, and they add a new (and rather good) sequence set at the front lines during the war. They rush through things too much—our hero gets to the Himalayas, and boom! He’s got his transcendental experience. We barely get to know the other characters.

There are problems in that department, too: most glaringly, Catherine Hicks as the fiancée who gets fed up and marries a solid, steady businessman (James Keach). Hicks gives an insufferable performance, and doesn’t come close to suggesting the ambiguities of her character. Denholm Elliott, as her society uncle, plays it with arched eyebrows, and not much more.

Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s brother) registers strongly as a wartime friend of Murray’s, and Saeed Jaffrey does nice work as an Indian boatsman who guides Murray to a temple high in the mountains. The acting jewel here is the performance of Theresa Russell, as the widowed friend who turns to drink and prostitution in the streets of Paris. Russell, made up to look like silent film star Louise Brooks, explores depths of character that are sometimes painful to watch.

Individual scenes are effective, and Murray has a few good moments, when he’s able to calm down. But the center doesn’t hold, and Byrum, who has made stylish films (such as Heart Beat) in the past, can’t keep it together. If, as the saying has it, the path to salvation is akin to walking a razor’s edge, this movie falls down and cuts itself wide open. There’s no one else to blame—the wound is self-inflicted.

First published in the Herald, October 29, 1984

The 1980s had some weird projects, but this is in a zone of its own. I really admire Murray for making the out-and-out trade with Columbia, and for wanting to shoot a movie of a very special book; I remember really wanting this crazy enterprise to work (did anybody think to set the story in the post-Vietnam era, which would have mitigated the problem of his anachronistic playing?). There was something fascinating about the fact that Murray took some kind of hiatus (four years or so) from movies and went off to live in Paris or something, as though the movie hadn’t entirely stopped for him.


Scrooged

December 23, 2010

Scrooged looks suspiciously like the big movie disaster of the latter part of this year.

It’s a big-budget package with a major star, Bill Murray, and an attractive concept: As the title suggests, this is a modern version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But this impressive package might have appeared to have too much going for it, because nobody seems to have gotten around to making a movie to go with the package. The package does have Bill Murray, who is one of the great comic actors of our time, in his first starring role since his 1984 tandem of Ghostbusters and The Razor’s Edge. But Murray is on his own here, heroically trying to make stiff lines sound funny, a manic cheerleader trying to get the crowd worked up when his team is losing by 50 points.

The screenplay is by Mitch Glazer and former “Saturday Night Live” sicko Michael O’Donoghue. It begins well, with some ferocious TV satire, as network president Murray unveils his offerings for Yuletide programming: a terrorist movie called The Night the Reindeer Died, “Robert Goulet’s Old-Fashioned Cajun Christmas,” featuring the singer in a swamp, and a live production of Scrooge, starring Buddy Hackett, with Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim.

Murray’s a Scrooge himself, a greedy climber who fires one of his executives (Bobcat Goldthwait) just before the holiday and forces his secretary (Alfre Woodard) to work late on Christmas Eve. But in the midst of his meanness, he’s visited by a former associate (John Forsythe), who is now dead and residing below. The ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Present (Carol Kane), and Future cannot be far away.

There are some funny bits in the movie, as when Murray sees supernatural visions while lunching with his unamused boss (Robert Mitchum). But there are too many long stretches between the good parts, and the ghostly visits are uninspired (Carol Kane’s role relies on the single, and irrelevant, joke of beating Murray to a pulp).

Meanwhile, Murray attempts to rekindle an old romance with a social worker (Karen Allen), who has given her life to helping others. But when he visits her in the soup kitchen she runs, he’s dismayed by the inefficiency; he suggest she fire the tireless volunteers: “They’re incompetent!”

Director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) doesn’t seem to have much feel for comedy. He shoots a disproportionate amount of the movie in close-up, an approach that emphasizes the pockmarks on Murray’s face and limits the comedian’s loosey-goosey, improvisational physicality. When in doubt, which appears to be frequently, Donner relies on Murray to scream a line reading as loudly as possible.

For some reason, at the happy ending, someone decided that the entire cast should sing to the audience. It makes for one of the screwiest finales in recent memory, a smiley-face button tacked on to an otherwise appropriately nasty movie. Murray’s old film critic from “Saturday Night Live” would’ve trashed it.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Scrooged has a following, I guess especially among people who grew up with it. When it comes to sideways showbiz-inflected adaptations of Dickens, I’ll take Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol every time. I sort of resent Murray for being so little in movies in the 1980s; after Stripes, he could have done anything, but his actual output is extremely slim. He came across as so gloriously free and untethered back then – a shambling monument to the subversive impulse – and it would’ve been great to have seen him more. Unless the movies were like Scrooged, in which case maybe he was right.