Movers and Shakers

March 20, 2020

moversshakersCharles Grodin is one of the more appealing marginal figures in Hollywood films of the last decade. His bland deadpan can be a valuable comic weapon in almost any situation.

Even when the film is a stinker – as with the remake of King Kong or the Farrah Fawcett vehicle Sunburn – Grodin gives a subtle, droll touch to whatever he’s doing.

But Grodin has been getting fewer leading roles lately; he’s appeared in effective comic relief in The Lonely Guy and The Woman Red, but those were in service to a wilder leading actor. With Movers and Shakers, Grodin has corrected that situation – and he did it himself, by writing and co-producing the film.

It’s a Hollywood satire with emphasis on the insanity of flaky filmmaking procedures. When a studio executive (Walter Matthau) makes a deathbed promise to a fellow producer (Vincent Gardenia) to make a movie based on a sex manual called Love in Sex, he calls in an unhapppy playwright (Grodin) to write the script. That begins a series of endless meetings, wherein studio flunkies sit around offices, drinking juice and tossing around inane ideas for Love in Sex.

The process drags on for months – and Grodin becomes increasingly panicky about the fact that, in all the meetings, no one has ever said a word detailing what the movie is going to be about.

Even the director they hire (Bill Macy) doesn’t care much about plot. He’s more interested in capturing an atmosphere, and so he runs dozens of film clips from old romantic movies, avowedly searching for the key to the project (but more likely delaying the inevitable decision).

Macy also encourages the filmmaking team (which somehow now includes his girlfriend, played by Gilda Radner) to visit the mansion of an aging romantic star (a Fernando Lamas-like cameo by Steve Martin), who babbles on in accented senility about his past exploits.

Grodin clearly knows whereof he speaks with this material – it’s all exact and funny. If this is satire, however, it is far from barbed. Grodin’s humor is so low-key it’s sometimes barely detectable.

Nothing wrong with that, although subtle humor is not very fashionable (or profitable) these days. But Grodin’s authorial mildness also gives a nondescript feeling to the proceedings. There’s nothing really memorable here; unlike, for instance, the slashing satire of Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., which also took on the Hollywood community, but with a sharper edge. So Grodin’s nice-guy qualities – they come through in his acting, and even in his appearances on talk shows – keep Movers and Shakers rather too soft for its own good.

The film does provide one cinematic footnote: It was directed by William Asher, the man who gave us many of the Beach Party movies from the 1960s. And, sure enough, the scenes of the beaches of Los Angeles in Movers and Shakers are among the most effective in the film. Really.

First published in the Herald, September 24, 1985

And I am a fan of the Beach Party movies. So in reading about this film’s genesis, it sounds as though it might be a precursor to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. Grodin was hired in the 1970s to adapt The Joy of Sex into a movie, and came up with this meta-screenplay, which was rejected for that project (or did he write this separate screenplay about that process? It’s a little unclear to me). It has certainly slipped out of the cinematic memory, but sounds like it might have some reasonably good Grodinesque deadpan in it.

Last Resort

December 20, 2019

lastresortLast Resort is based on a familiar comic idea: the nightmare vacation. In this case, a tired businessman (Charles Grodin) takes his family to a resort called Club Sand on a Grenada-like island in the Caribbean, where a civil war seems to be taking place

But that’s the least of the problems. When they arrive on the island after a hair-raising plane ride, the family can’t understand why the beach is surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. And the resort’s cabins are in various states of disintegration which, since the walls are apparently made of plywood, is a serious situation.

The staff is a multinational band of sex-crazed kids (they teach the vacationers the traditional island game called “Show Us Your Breasts”). Both Grodin’s teenage children are seduced by the locals, and his pre-pubescent son is carted off to a mini-camp where the director is into Nazi power games.

All of which would seem to leave a lot of room for comedy. But the low-budget Last Resort is awfully low on laughs, even though it sets up a few good situations and Grodin goes through his usual (often amusing) shtick.

Robin Pearson Rose is funny as Grodin’s wife, who eats psychedelic mushrooms and thinks she’s a horse. And Jon Lovitz, a regular on Saturday Night Live (he’s the guy who lies, hilariously) plays a bartender who can’t get his language straight, prompting a couple of precious moments.

But most of the film, and Zane Buzby’s direction, caters to Grodin’s method of slow-burn reaction, during which a series of outrageous atrocities happen to him while he keeps a steady deadpan. I like Grodin, although his comic style tends to make you smile dryly rather than laugh out loud. The film, by following his lead, is fitfully amusing without ever breaking out.

That, in itself, is OK. But Buzby’s direction, and the script by Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai (Revenge of the Nerds) doesn’t take time to give the characters much background. And a number of plot points, such as the fling Grodin’s oldest son has with a local entertainer, are never resolved.

The whole idea of the island’s revolution might have been made more central, which could have made the film an even blacker comedy. It’s a subject for some fiendishly clever filmmaker to exploit, given the Central American situation. As it is, the idea is set up early but not used until the end, when the revolution provides a convenient climax but not much else.

The perverse use of the civil war might have made Last Resort and original comedy. Instead, it satisfies itself with a familiar situation, where the gags are as isolated as the island itself.

First published in the Herald, April 17, 1986

A review written in haste, it would seem. Zane Buzby acts in the film as well, and is notable for her performance as the droning waitress taking Jerry Lewis’s order in Lewis’s Cracking Up. The cast includes a bunch of people soon to become better known, including Phil Hartman, Megan Mullally, and Mario Van Peebles.

The Lonely Guy

November 13, 2019

lonelyguyI always root for Steve Martin. I find his particular brand of dumbhead humor rather sanity-soothing, and I would like to see him make a good movie someday.

At least he makes unusual movies: Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid incorporated clips from old private-eye films within its storyline, and the notorious Pennies From Heaven, a musical about despair, was certainly one of the oddest films of the last decade.

The failure of last year’s The Man With Two Brains – is that a great title or what? – suggested that his audience preferred a Steve Martin comedy with as few brains as possible. The Lonely Guy is an attempt to hit a middle ground: the plot is relatively normal – almost anyone could have taken the lead role. It’s about a greeting-card writer (really a would-be novelist, naturally) whose girlfriend kicks him out of their apartment. His attempts to lick loneliness in New York City become the center of the film.

If the story is normal, the treatment is offbeat. Martin and company have embroidered the tale with bizarre, almost surrealistic touches, in a slapstick style reminiscent of one of Martin’s idols, Jerry Lewis. When Steve goes to visit the Manhattan Bridge to contemplate ending it all, he doesn’t just bump into another suicide – there are Lonely Guys falling from the rafters at the rate of one every minute.

Absurdist touches such as that threaten to lift the movie above its tired storyline. We’ve seen enough movies about getting in touch with oneself in New York City to last a few lifetimes, but it hasn’t been played as surrealist farce before.

Sad to say, The Lonely Guy doesn’t go far enough. Director Arthur Hiller is too straight-laced to delve in to the wilder possibilities of a project like this, and the screenplay cheats between trying to tell its realistic plot and trying to be wild and crazy.

But some of the park-bench dialogues between Martin and fellow Lonely Guy Charles Grodin have a loose, improvised quality. Their comic material together springs out of their desperation, which gives it a nice edge; in a scene that works pretty neatly, Grodin insists they buy plants to keep them company, and then starts shaking the leaves on his fern to wave “Bye-Bye” to Martin’s fern.

At one point, Martin prepares for his first date with a girl (Judith Ivey) he’s just met after jogging (well, actually he ran for one minute and then sprayed himself with some substance with a name like Insta-Sweat). He can’t get to sleep the night before the date, and he hugs his pillow and starts pitching woo at it. By the time he kisses the thing, the scene has a Chaplinesque wistfulness. It succeeds mainly because of Martin himself, who is getting better as a screen presence just when his audience seems to be leaving him.

But The Lonely Guy is still not a step up for him, and he has yet to make a solid movie. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong about that 20 years from now, when the French hail his films as cinematic masterpieces, and award him the Legion of Honor, as they did last month to – that’s right – Jerry Lewis.

First published in the Herald, January 1984

I remember the film being bland, but it probably deserved better than this equally bland review. I do remember one scene I’ve often thought of since, when Martin goes into a restraurant by himself and pulls out a notepad so the staff will think he’s a food critic. Martin’s first really good movie would come a few months later, All of Me. I don’t know what I’m trying to get at with the Legion of Honor stuff, either; Jerry Lewis certainly deserved one, and them some. And my opening is woefully insufficient to how I really felt about Steve Martin, who was a god to me from the first time I saw him on The Tonight Show sometime in the 70s – it was liberating to discover a comedian who was funny in a new kind of way, a way that owed nothing to the comedians of your parents’ generation. It was as though Shecky Green and all those guys got wiped away overnight.

The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?