Charles 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.