Arthur 2: On the Rocks

January 4, 2013

arthur2“It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, as long as you can buy anything on the planet you’ve ever wanted.” The sage speaker here could only be that rich source of tipsy philosophy, Arthur Bach. When last we saw our sozzled friend, in 1981’s Arthur, the millionaire scion was tottering off to marriage with his “commoner” girlfriend and turning his back on his society fiancée and her wrathful father.

As Arthur 2: On the Rocks opens, we find Arthur (played again by Dudley Moore as a fountain of unbridled hedonism) largely unchanged. Married life agrees with him, as wife Linda (Liza Minnelli, also back from the first film) puts up with his childish, or is it childlike, behavior because, well, the guy is a ball to be around.

But there is trouble on the horizon. That spurned ex-fiancee (Cynthia Sikes) still wants her old flame, and her father (Stephen Elliott) hatches a plot to bankrupt Arthur—the better to blackmail the little fellow into getting a divorce and marrying the daughter. Naturally, Arthur will have none of it. So the Rolls disappears, the servants vanish, and the formerly wealthy couple are out on the street.

This is the concept, and in Andy Breckman’s script there are opportunities for fish-out-of-water jokes in Arthur’s search for an apartment, his hunt for a job (applying at a hardware store, he submits his last job held as “Millionaire Playboy”), and finally his drop into the substrata of New York’s flophouses. Meanwhile, the couple’s plan to adopt a child, already in jeopardy because of Arthur’s fondness for the bottle, has been put on permanent hold.

Breckman provides Moore with some zingy one-liners, and much of the early going is in the same spirit, and spirits, of the first Arthur. And speaking of spirits, Arthur 2 has an appearance by the butler (John Gielgud) who died in the original film. Here the sardonic Gielgud returns as a ghost to counsel his wayward ward.

As amusing as some scenes are, the director, Bud Yorkin (Twice in a Lifetime), doesn’t find the sustained comic rhythm that the movie needs. (The writer-director of the original Arthur was Steve Gordon, who passed away in the interim.) The timing is off, and scenes seem to dangle long after they’ve yielded whatever funny stuff they contain.

All the sober-minded critics (and there were quite a few of them) who complained that the first film glorified the ingestion of alcohol will be relieved to find that Arthur clambers on to the wagon in this sequel, thereby neatly defining the difference between the early part of this decade and the end of it. I guess that counts as a victory for the bluenoses over the rednoses.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

It might have some funny moments, but such a disappointment after the wonderful first movie, which was the only film directed by Steve Gordon. Cynthia Sikes was on “St. Elsewhere,” you will recall; here she replaced an actress, Jill Eikenberry, who was a regular on another long-term series, “L.A. Law.” I don’t think that means anything.

Like Father, Like Son

April 17, 2012

We’re asked to make a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief in Like Father, Like Son. The high concept of this movie is that somehow a brain transference can be triggered by a drug, and that two people exchange personalities in the process.

Got that? Too bad if you don’t, ’cause the movie never attempts to explain it any more than that. We take it on faith that such a switcheroo could happen, and the way is cleared for the ensuing shenanigans.

This brain thing happens between a respected surgeon (Dudley Moore) and his teen-age son (Kirk Cameron, of TV’s “Growing Pains”). Suddenly, the son (in Dad’s body) is expected to make the rounds of his busy hospital. The doctor, in his son’s frame, has to attend high school (where he effortlessly takes command of the biology lectures).

That’s the concept, and it’s basically repeated until the film contrives an antidote.

It’s all impossible to relate, because when you’re talking about the son, it’s the father, and vice versa. I think. But the funniest ideas revolve around the romantic possibilities: Dad finds himself kissing a high-school girl, while Junior feels his glands percolating to a visit from the lusty wife (Margaret Colin, a funny actress) of a hospital chief of staff (Patrick O’Neal).

The movie, directed by Rod (Teen Wolf) Daniel, doesn’t really attempt anything other than dutifully laying out this series of comic situations. A couple of bits of business have some inspiration, such as Moore’s antics during a hospital staff meeting, when he chokingly lights his “first” cigarette and hocks some chewed gum into an associate’s hair.

Did I say that was the inspired part? Hmm. Ernst Lubitsch and Noel Coward may be turning in their graves. Well, that gives you some idea of the level of the rest of the movie. Actually, although Like Father, Like Son is fundamentally brainless, it’s also pretty painless.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

Yes, part of the personality-change craze of the late 1980s. The only about giving this movie a shrug because it’s not completely terrible is that it wastes Dudley Moore, and wasting Dudley Moore at this point in his career was not something that should have happened.

Best Defense

July 11, 2011

Strategic Murphy: Best Defense

The characters in Best Defense are concerned with building a tiny part that will control the defense systems of a new tank. So there’s a lot of talk about getting the right design, making sure it will work in the heat of battle, and all that.

I wonder if the people making this movie ever talked about their film in those terms. Best Defense is an embarrassing misfire, a film in which nobody seems to know what’s going on—on or offscreen.

It has to do with an unlucky engineer (Dudley Moore) whose design of a gyro for a new tank is a flop. Just after a disastrous test, he meets a stranger in a Mexican restaurant who turns out to be an engineer who’s actually solved the gyro problem—and he’s about to give it to a Russian spy. Except that he changes heart, drops the crucial info into Dudley’s briefcase, and disappears.

So Moore “discovers” the gyro in the end, but after he’s gotten the credit, and saved his company with it, new problems crop up. The thing may not work in battle after all. And, more immediately, the KGB man would like to get his gyro back.

Cut into this main plot is an episode that takes place two years later. The finished tank is being tested in the Kuwait desert by a lieutenant (Eddie Murphy) who manages, as the tank self-destructs, to steer the machine into the middle of a real war. The suspense here is: Will Moore change the part so that it will work in battle—and save Murphy and his crew?

If you think Paramount Pictures is gonna kill off Eddie Murphy, then your view of the economic realities of filmmaking is off-target. But if the attempted surprise doesn’t come off, what is Eddie Murphy doing here?

It’s a nothing part, and Murphy, an extremely funny fellow, contributes zilch to it. He’s billed as “Strategic Guest Star,” and rightly so, since his role takes up relatively little screen time. But Paramount is featuring him prominently in its ads, as though he had a full-fledged starring part.

Now, a lot of people are going to be disappointed when they come to the movie and don’t get Eddie. But Paramount probably figures this unfunny movie will generate bad word-of-mouth anyway—so if they emphasize Murphy’s presence, they can clean up in the first couple of weeks of release, and then have the film die a quick death.

Murphy’s poorness doesn’t stand out, because everybody’s pretty bad—except David Rasche, who plays the hep-talk spy with a comic ferociousness. As you watch the film, you realize that the tank turns into an unwitting metaphor for the movie itself. It’s flying apart at the seams, going in every direction but the right one and desperately in need of someone in charge. Filmmakers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck may latch on to another good project, but they should probably put someone else in the driver’s seat—or director’s chair.

First published in the Herald, July 20, 1984

To answer the question implicitly posed in the final paragraph, Huyck and Katz next made the legendary  bomb Howard the Duck, and that movie’s nowhere near as bad as Best Defense. Eddie Murphy has expressed his embarrassment about this one; I remember seeing him on a talk show just before Beverly Hills Cop came out and he assured the audience that this would make up for Best Defense. Of course one feels bad for Dudley Moore, too. For being prescient about the whole war-in-Kuwait thing, the film must merit some retrospective points, as long as I don’t have to watch it again.

Santa Claus

December 24, 2010

For one thing, the title is Santa Claus, not Santa Claus—The Movie, as the advertisements would have it. That’s a good sign, and this film bio of the jolly fat man in the red suit is a bit better than some of the sour advance publicity had suggested.

Unfortunately, it’s still nothing great. The film, on which a reported $50 million was lavished, comes to us from the Salkinds, the millionaire film producers who created the Superman series.

The structure here is similar to that of Superman: We’re shown how the hero’s legend was born, and then how the hero acquits himself in a battle against an evil foe.

Santa Claus, as we first see him, is a kindly woodcutter who delivers toys to the children of his village. One night, during a howling storm on Christmas Eve, Santa (veteran character actor David Huddleston) and his wife (and their twin reindeer) are lost in the snow—and, in fact, seem to perish in the blizzard.

However, a bunch of little elves come to the rescue the next day. Santa and the Missus are trundled off to a huge magical workshop, where he is instated as the deliverer of the presents. A half-dozen reindeer are added to the team, and they’re fed a meal of juiced-up hay, which allows them to fly at Santa’s command. And, for the final coup de grace, a wizened old geezer (played by Burgess Meredith, so you know he’s the soul of elfin wisdom) pulls his beard and decrees that Santa is now the toy-maker to the world.

Fine. That’s the story of the legend, and the first half-hour of the movie. The rest of the film pits Santa against a mad villain (John Lithgow) whose toy company makes shoddy merchandise.

This plot is more fun than the expository section—not least because Lithgow is chewing up all available scenery. He latches onto one of Santa’s wayward elves (Dudley Moore, looking sheepish throughout) who creates a puce lollipop with pixie dust that allows children to fly. Lithgow gets to cackle and say things such as, “We’ll take the cash and let the elf face the music,” so he’s happy.

There’s also some business about Lithgow’s good-hearted little niece and the tough street waif she befriends, but the less said about that the better.

Santa Claus is handsome and well-mounted, but there’s a void of inspiration that prevents it from attaining the kind of charm that Superman had. Director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws II, Supergirl) seems to have the soul of a businessman, and there isn’t a moment in the film that touches something magical.

On the other hand, it is, at least, coherent—even when it’s borrowing. David Newman (one of the Superman scriptwriters) has kept more than just the structure of Superman; he even has a scene in which the protagonists giddily fly over nighttime Manhattan, just as Superman and Lois Lane did (Margot Kidder isn’t around to sing a song here, however).

Newman fills the movie with familiar Christmas material (and, by the way, this is a secular Santa—no religious questions about the real meaning of Christmas). Elves dance and sing, happy in their work; Santa ho-ho-hos to his heart’s content; the reindeer eat their magic hay and mug for the camera.

There’s enough of that sort of thing to satisfy younger children, no doubt about it. But if you’re old enough to be taller than Dudley Moore, you’re probably going to be underwhelmed.

First published in the Herald, November 28, 1985

Jeez, I closed with a short joke? Against the great Dudley Moore? Moore took a famously large paycheck to do this movie, and his career was never quite the same after. Jeannot Szwarc was a familiar name in sixties and seventies TV before he dabbled in movies for a while (“Night Gallery” was a fruitful pasture for him), and the guy is still plowing ahead in episodic television, so good for him. (“Soul of a businessman” still seems about right.) Trivia: As I was reading the phrase “a bunch of little elves,” a dim memory clicked, and I realized I’d typed that phrase because it was from a novelty song I would hear every year on a Seattle radio station. I just listened to it again on YouTube (the title is, in fact, “We’re a Bunch of Little Elves,” by the Flying Rashid Brothers), and it’s not a classic but it is the kind of thing that will strike you right if you’re driving around a rainy Christmas Eve and it comes on the radio and you get to say “Oh good, there’s that stupid elf song again.”

The song can be found here.