The Manhattan Project

February 14, 2020

manhattanprojectMarshall Brickman collaborated on the witty screenplays of Woody Allen’s best  1970s  films: Sleeper, Manhattan, and Annie Hall. The latter won Brickman an Oscar.

Since parting company with Allen, Brickman has been trying to get his own directorial career off the ground. He made two small, neurotic movies, Simon and Lovesick, both fitfully interesting, both commercially unsuccessful.

Brickman seems to have wised up a bit, at least in terms of that ever­ present bottom line. With The Manhattan Project, he’s harnessed his customarily amusing dialogue to a plot that fits neatly in the teen-science genre that gained currency – lots of cold, hard currency – with WarGames.

You know how, every few years, some teenager somewhere proudly announces that he’s unlocked the secrets of the atom, and by the way has a Tinker Toy A-bomb sitting in the basement of his parents’ house? That’s Brickman’s jumping-off point here.

Brickman’s protagonist (appealingly played by Christopher Collet) also has an edge of Oedipal fervor in making his homemade bomb. See, his single mother (Jill Eikenberry) is being courted by a new scientist (John Lithgow) in town. The scientist is working on a hot new substance that could make the H-bomb look like a Molotov cocktail – but nobody knows that, yet.

Anyway, Lithgow takes Collet on a tour of the bomb factory, without revealing the true nature of the experiments. Collet, a science whiz, sniffs out the truth, and decides he’ll bring a little attention to the hush-hush proceedings by pilfering some of Lithgow’s mysterious new liquid, which looks like Dippity-Do with iron shavings, and building his own bomb.

With the help of his girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon), Collet gets the stuff, builds the bomb, and carts it to a New York science fair, but just then Lithgow gets wind of it, and the FBI and most of the armed forces are called in to collar Collet at any cost.

This plot feels vaguely recycled, and Brickman has some trouble justifying the motivations of his characters. Most of the time, they’re acting in a manner that suits the plot, rather than anything resembling human behavior. This sometimes makes the characters seem dumb. When Collet is being chased by everybody, you wonder why he doesn’t just blow the whistle on the whole shebang by calling up the New York Times.

But Brickman makes up for a lot of this with his frequently hilarious dialogue (and the skill of his actors in delivering it). There’s a good laugh in almost every scene.

And he ends the film with a fine suspense sequence, as Collet brings his live bomb into the lab, and he and Lithgow must disarm it. Once again, a bunch of things about this sequence don’t make logical sense, but it’s easy to be caught up in the breathlessness of fighting the clock. It also gives Lithgow a chance to show off a little.­ Brickman loads the scene with nervous-funny lines, which Lithgow does just splendidly.

While The Manhattan Project doesn’t seem like an entirely personal project for Brickman, it’s certainly an entertaining summer movie (and it gives him the opportunity to slip in some pointed observations on the subject of nuclear research and production). It should do well, which ought to free Brickman to do the sorts of films that are perhaps closer to his bone.

First published in the Herald, June 1986

Yes, well, except for a 2001 TV movie, this was the end of Brickman’s feature-film directing career, so my clairvoyant skills are nil here. Whole lotta plot synopsis in this review, too. I have no idea whether teens still make atom bombs in their basements, but apparently I thought so at the time.


Firstborn

January 27, 2020

firstbornFirstborn is a skillfully manipulative example of American suburban Gothic, with enough jolts and hollers to get the blood pumping at a satisfyingly high rate.

It has a novel subject for a thriller: a pair of brothers (one in high school, the other grade school) watch with increasing anxiety as their divorced mother falls under the spell of a suspicious-seeming new boyfriend.

You’ve seen this kind of creep before: the buzz-word patter, the smarmy heartiness, the incessant talk of just getting that one big score. All the while living off other people; in this case, the mother, who invites him to move in with the family.

To the older boy, it become clear that the freeloader is not just obnoxious – he’s actually dangerous. He appears to be a dope dealer who has the mother so hopped-up on cocaine she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. The showdown, clearly, is going to be the kid vs. the dark invading monster.

Since so many elements of the film work on such a primal level – the invasion of the home, even the hinted-at Oedipal threat – it really gets to you in a basic way. The preview audience with whom I saw the film was whooping loudly when the first-born son started standing up to the boyfriend. This emotional response is carefully prepared for – almost too much so, as the film takes a while to get untracked.

It’s manipulation, but with an interesting idea. After all, just what are children to make of their single parents’ new friends and lovers? This film exaggerates what must be a common anxiety for children in this situation.

Britisher Michael Apted directs from the point of view of Jake, the older boy (Christopher Collet), and he does a shrewd job of revealing sinister bits of information about the menacing boyfriend – who is played with scary intensity by Peter Weller, lately the hero of Buckaroo Banzai. Weller’s dark, ghoulish face and iridescent blue eyes make for a spooky enemy.

You can see how the mother could fall for him; but you can also see why Jake instinctively distrusts him. When the little boy (Corey Haim) asks Jake how he knows mom’s new friend is no good, Jake can only say, “I just know.” No reasonable explanation – but sometimes you just know.

Teri Garr, who plays the mother, has some trouble getting a handle on her character. Garr, usually cast in comic roles (as in Tootsie and Mr. Mom and many others), is by no means out of her league, but the role itself is poorly written. She has to be very passive, or else she would have booted the bum out of her house much earlier. The explanation – that cocaine has clouded her reason – doesn’t quite work in dramatic terms.

But enough of Firstborn does work in dramatic terms to make it tick. There are weaknesses in Garr’s characterization and some serious deck-stacking, but when it comes to the business of making your blood race, Firstborn is quite satisfactory.

First published in the Herald, October 25, 1984

Mostly forgotten, yes? Robert Downey, Jr., and Sara Jessica Parker are in this movie, and it was Corey Haim’s first film. It seems like some sort of cult status should attend to this thing, given that all the elements are in place.