The Great Outdoors

March 14, 2013

Great OutdoorsTwo brothers-in-law sit on the deck of a vacation hideaway, gazing out over the serene lake in front of them. One is content to enjoy the trees on the other side, but the other has a different idea: He takes one look at all of that unused space and has a grand vision for a toxic dump for medical refuse.

These two guys aren’t going to get along at all, which is the operating idea behind The Great Outdoors, yet another comedy from the pen of John Hughes. Here Hughes reworks some of the chemistry from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which straight-laced Steve Martin was terrorized by geeky John Candy.

In The Great Outdoors, Candy is back, but this time as the straight man. He plays an ordinary businessman who takes his wife (Stephanie Faracy) and two sons up to the lake cabin for a week of peace. There’s a surprise waiting for him: the crazed, crass brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who’s brought his wife (Annette Bening) and spooky twin daughters up unannounced for the week.

Hughes’ script allows these two to lock horns over most of the familiar outdoorsy situations that are liable to confront the urban adventurer: water-skiing technique, fishing, a battle with a bat (“radar-guided vermin” in Aykroyd’s vernacular), and the ultimate test of camping manhood, the proper way to build a fire.

Howard Deutch directs these almost elderly jokes. He also directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, two other Hughes scripts. Deutch’s main task is to set the two comic actors up and allow them some room, which is does passably. As for the subplot with Candy’s son (Chris Young) romancing a comely local (Lucy Deakins), it is a completely separate sidebar.

Deutch and Hughes have a curious tendency to kill a comic sequence before it’s over. The set-up is there, the joke is delivered, and poof. On to the next gag. You almost get the feeling that these jokes are so well-worn, Deutch and Hughes are content to let the audience complete the missing material.

The Great Outdoors doesn’t approach the inspired high points of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the final 30 minutes or so of resolution are particularly half-hearted. Candy is perfectly okay as the laid-back family man, and Aykroyd does have a few amusingly grotesque moments, though his performance is something of a rehash of his role in Neighbors, in which he played that nightmarish figure, the friendly next-door neighbor.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

Huh–the review seems to be missing an ending. I forgot Bening was in this thing—it was her first big-screen job. The movie’s really dead in the water, a real dud after the first two Hughes-Deutch successes.

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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?


Dragnet

December 5, 2012

dragnetDan Aykroyd, always a trifle uneasy playing normal characters on the big screen, finds his groove in Dragnet. That’s because Aykroyd spends the entire film doing an outrageously good impersonation of Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday.

The original television series, which had a couple of long runs on network TV (and eternal life via reruns), was Webb’s creation, and it all centered on the terse, rock-skulled, supersquare Joe Friday, who was perhaps the most rigorously stylized character in the history of series television.

Aykroyd has a field day mimicking Webb’s grave assessment of the gone-to-pot modern world, particularly those breath-defying speeches that would dart from Webb’s mouth and invariably begin with, “Listen, Mister, let me tell you something….”

At one point Friday arrests a thug at the ocean and barks, “Surf’s up, beach boy, but not for you—you’ll be hanging ten downtown.” That’s a perfect approximation of Webb’s dialogue, including the hopelessly square “mod” slang. As funny as Aykroyd is, this performance is affectionate, not mean.

The movie is like that, too. All the series’ running routines are here, form the music to the “This is the city” narration to the final glimpse of the criminal in prison blues, all rendered good-naturedly.

The movie does depart from the series aesthetic in an important way, however. Webb kept the show tight, clipped, and simple. The film falls prey to the more-is-better philosophy that seems to pervade so many comedies these days. It’s way overextended, with a plot too big for its oen good.

Of course, this is a movie, not a TV show, and the story needs puffing up. But not this much. Joe Friday, a nephew of Webb’s character, finds a new partner in the unorthodox Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks). Streebeck’s swinging ways draw out some healthy outrage from the uptight Friday (Streebeck calls him a “petrified monolith of legal propriety”), and the film gets some laughs from their clash of styles. Their boss is played by Harry Morgan, who reprises his role as Bill Gannon from the TV series.

The big case they have to crack involves a televangelist with a frozen smile (played by Christopher Plummer as a cross between Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson) and a police commissioner (Elizabeth Ashley) who have created a nefarious organization called PAGAN (People Against Goodness and Normalcy), for reasons too complicated to explain.

This leads into pagan rituals, an attempted virgin sacrifice, and a big shoot-’em-up climax. Director Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the script with Aykroyd and Alan Zweibel, doesn’t have enough style to dovetail the action stuff into the funny Aykroyd/Hanks banter, though he comes close at times.

As a summer movie, it’s not a bad two hours. Aykroyd’s performance, which may go over the heads of audiences not familiar with the series, is very easy to enjoy. With his locked jaw and crewcut at constant attention, he pulls the film into some funny places.

First published in the Herald, June 27, 1989

Playing to Aykroyd’s strengths for impersonation here, a wise move for an actor with a narrow but effective gauge. I always wondered why Hanks did this picture, and I always wondered why his character name was Pep Streebeck.


Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.


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.


Driving Miss Daisy

September 15, 2011

As a play, Driving Miss Daisy won a Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews. As a film, Driving Miss Daisy already has won the best picture citation from the National Board of Review, as well as its best-actor prize. It appears to be a shoo-in to rustle up a few Oscar nominations this spring.

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like, I suggest that all of this raises a question: Why?

I don’t know what form the original play took, but the film of Driving Miss Daisy is a likable and extremely modest little concoction that comes off as just the teeniest bit self-congratulatory.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is your typical strong-willed Southern lady, vinegary and plain-speaking. She is too old to drive, and when her wealthy son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, in a deftly handled career sidestep) suggests she take on a chauffeur, she has a predictable response to the idea. She loathes it.

So Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver anyway. He is Hoke (Morgan Freeman) a 60ish black man with old-school manners and a natural inclination to chat. Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his play, takes the relationship between these two from their meeting in 1948 through more than 25 years of front-seat, back-seat conversations.

It is, you will notice, the period of civil rights advances, and the ensuing friendship between the black man and the white Jewish woman is reflective of the times. This is achieved in mostly understated ways.

The most poignant scene in the film comes when, in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. Miss Daisy is interested in going, but she can’t quite bring herself to ask Hoke if he would like to join her. When she does ask him, as Hoke is driving her to the speech, he refuses. She could have asked him earlier. He sits outside alone, listening to the speech on the car radio, while she is inside the auditorium.

Driving Miss Daisy is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australian filmmaker whose career has traveled, somewhat alarmingly, from Breaker Morant to Her Alibi. Beresford brings his customary nondescript touch to the proceedings. The finest parts of the film are the last few scenes, of Miss Daisy and Hoke in very old age. But everything that has come before seems slight.

The film is an actor’s vehicle. Morgan Freeman has quickly become the best thing in many movies (he’s in the current Glory), and he slips into Hoke, which he also played on stage, so completely as to disappear. Jessica Tandy, the aged trouper, brings grace and brittleness to her role. It’s a nice match and, if not earth-shaking, a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1990

It won Best Picture. Even with the duds in his filmography, Beresford is one of those guys who surely deserve more credit than they get when a movie turns out well, a thought perhaps inspired by the fact that he didn’t get Oscar-nominated here (although the movie won four in total, including Tandy’s). I don’t remember the film inspiring a huge backlash at the time, along the lines of what The Help (a similarly middlebrow look back at the civil rights era) has encountered, although Do the Right Thing was in competition that year and didn’t get nominated for very much, a situation that left Spike Lee, as ever, not amused.