After Hours

July 5, 2012

If Franz Kafka had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like After Hours, a nifty nightmare comedy that puts a guy through the kind of trial you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

It begins innocently enough, with Paul (Griffin Dunne), a mild-mannered Manhattan word processor, re-reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer late one night at a coffee shop. A girl (Rosanna Arquette) across the table from him strikes up a conversation. He gets her phone number, goes home, gives her a call. She says come on over. She lives in Soho.

It’s almost midnight, but the girl was a knockout, so what the hey. He hops a cab, and his money blows out the window. This is an omen, but he chooses not to heed it. From that point on, his long night is full of disasters: Paul seems to have entered not Soho but some malevolent corner of the Twilight Zone.

The date with the girl doesn’t work out; neither does a possible fling with her kinky roommate, a sculptor (Linda Fiorentino) who favors Nazi nightclubs. But things get worse than mere sexual disappointment. Before the evening is over, Paul is threatened with a Mohawk haircut, heisted by a couple of thieves (Cheech and Chong), encased in a no-exit work of art, and chased down the streets of Soho by a vigilante mob who think he’s a cat burglar.

It may not sound like a laugh a minute, but that’s at least what it works out to. This black comedy has a sure feeling for the hilarity of this horrible situation. Martin Scorsese, who is much better known for making movies about nightmares without laughs (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), uses a busy camera to suggest Paul’s disorientation, and he has an appropriately bizarre cast to fill out the marginal roles of this bad dream.

Among the denizens of this otherworldly arena are John Heard, as a sympathetic bartender who almost manages to help Paul escape from Soho, only to be thwarted by yet another catastrophic coincidence (the screenplay, by first-timer Joseph Minion, is full of them); Teri Garr, a waitress caught in a ’60s time warp; and Catherine O’Hara (late of “SCTV”) as a maniac ice-cream truck driver who befriends and then betrays Paul.

Those people are so good, you wish you could see more of them; the only drawback to After Hours is that the supporting players are all brief figures in Paul’s adventure and thus don’t get the kind of screen time that most of these actors deserve.

This is balanced by the watchability of Griffin Dunne, heretofore most notable as the decomposing friend in An American Werewolf in London. Dunne has been a producer as well as an actor. His producing credits include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Baby It’s You, both with partner Amy Robinson. They also produced After Hours.

Dunne comes across as genial, likable, wholly undeserving of his fate in the film. He’s got all the right qualities of a comedic leading man—not so much in the ability to act funny as the gift of just being funny. After Hours may or may not find the oddball niche it needs to survive in a market that rewards predictability, but it is certain that, for Dunne, a comedic career has been launched.

First published in the Herald, October 4, 1985

I dunne-o, maybe he was just more interested in producing and directing. That’s a very peculiar, funny collection of actresses, if you think about it, and kudos to Scorsese for making the mix.


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.