The Bedroom Window

February 11, 2013

bedroomwindowI’m sitting there watching The Bedroom Window, and distracted enough to play a movie mind game: Who are the two actors, in all of world cinema, least likely to show up in the same film frame?

My nominations: Steve Guttenberg, lightweight star of the Police Academy movies and Cocoon, and Isabelle Huppert, the sultry actress who has graced scores of French films, including Violette and Sincerely Charlotte. Two such divergent styles are inconceivable together; Guttenberg’s shallow knockabout play couldn’t possibly strike sparks against Huppert’s flinty Gallic edge.

These two share centerstage in The Bedroom Window, and, in fact, their chemistry is non-existent. Their inability to interact turns out to be characteristic of the film as a whole. While it’s based on a good thriller idea, the movie flounces around desperately in search of a style.

The writer-director, Curtis Hanson, knows he has a pretty good setup, and he wrings a certain amount of juice from it. But he can’t find his own consistent voice, so he reaches for a variety of quotes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitch might have liked this basic situation: A guy (Guttenberg) is messing around with his boss’s wife (Huppert) at Guttenberg’s apartment one night after a party. She hears a noise in the middle of the night, goes to the window, and sees a woman (Elizabeth McGovern) being attacked on the street. She also gets a clear view of the attacker, a pale, red-headed fellow who looks a little like Howdy Doody—who immediately sprints away when he know he’s been spotted. Guttenberg, arriving at the window too late, doesn’t see the man.

The thug is a suspected murderer, so Guttenberg feels they should go to the police and try to identify the culprit; but Huppert doesn’t want to expose the infidelity, so Guttenberg decides to pretend he was the one who saw the attacker, borrowing Huppert’s description.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that the deceit will come unraveled. Here, it happens when Guttenberg is confronted by a police lineup. Naturally, he can’t make a positive identification; but afterward, he follows the most suspicious of the suspects on his own, and gathers his own evidence. His weird behavior leads the cops to wonder whether Guttenberg might be involved as more than just a witness.

Not bad, but Hanson has trouble even with the early expositional scenes. The actors are out of sync, the camera often feels misplaced, and the red herrings are feebly scattered. (Hanson’s sole innovative directorial stroke is making Baltimore an atmospheric, scenic setting.)

There’s one scene that really comes alive: the trial in which Guttenberg gives the testimony. He’s grilled by a defense attorney, played by playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre), who brings so much sauce and wit to his brief role that it only reinforces how lame the film has been thus far. Perhaps this was the sort of offbeat casting Hanson had in mind when he chose his leads, although Guttenberg is out of his depth and Huppert acts as though she has learned her English phonetically. Together, they have all the compatibility of creatures from different species, which is about what the film deserves.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

Hanson, a great cineaste, would get to Bad Influence in 1990, an upgrade in almost every way, and of course go on to do excellent work in L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. I stand by my assertion here: the Guttenberg-Huppert liaison remains my weirdest screen couple.

She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?

Once Upon a Time in America

January 18, 2012

Because Once Upon a Time in America has been in various stages of planning for the last dozen years or so, a little history seems in order.

The Italian director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made a mint during the 1960s. When Leone got American backing in 1968 to do another Western, he seized the opportunity, and made a film that is, in many ways, the ultimate Western: Once Upon a Time in the West. The film shared the breathtaking cinematic invention of the other three Westerns, but it was a resounding flop—a situation that was not helped (as it never is) when Paramount Pictures lopped a half-hour or so out of the movie’s three-hour running time.

The screenplay for a crime movie called Once Upon a Time in America was written soon after that, but it bounced around for years—Leone couldn’t find the financing. In that time—and while Leone remained oddly inactive as a director—the project assumed legendary proportions. Would Leone ever get the film made?

It finally happened a couple of years ago, and so titanic was the scope of the film that it was announced it would be released in two parts. Then the news took an all-too-familiar turn: studio philistines had the scissors out, and the film was gradually being pared down.

When it opened last week, the final American version was 150 minutes long, and Leone’s flashback structure no longer intact. A couple of weeks ago, the European cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival at 227 minutes.

We may see that version someday, but right now, the short cut must stand on its own. And as it is, it’s a disappointment. In the first hour or so, as we watch a group of teenage friends flirting with crime and girls on the streets of New York, a beautiful spell is cast. Every detail in their lives seems oddly meaningful, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

One of them goes to jail and emerges a few years later as Robert De Niro. As adults, the gang (also including James Woods, William Forsythe, and James Hayden) has set up a smooth speakeasy operation during the 1920s. We see them become involved in bigger criminal activities, which coincide with the disintegration of the friendship.

De Niro can’t come to terms with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth McGovern) and is unable to consummate their relationship except through violence. He seems to be equally out of touch with the world around him—and wrongly regards the growing ambitions of his best friend Woods as a peculiarity rather than a warning.

The film ends in 1968, as an aged De Niro—in an evocative reversal of the revenge motif that spurred the plot of Once Upon a Time in the West—refuses to take vengeance on someone who betrayed him. By this time, we’re aware that some pretty substantial chunks have been taken from the film. There is clearly a story that more involved the Treat Williams character, but that plot seems to have been discarded.

The promise of the early scenes is not fulfilled—their detail and richness does not have counterpoint in the later adult scenes. The two-and-a-half hours of the movie sped by, but were ultimately not satisfying. I wanted more.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1984

The longer cut eventually came around, and what a vast improvement it was. But at the risk of sounding heretical, I have to say I’ve never truly felt strongly for Once Upon a Time in America, and it feels as though something at its very conceptual center is wrong, or at least severely flawed, despite all the impressive movie-making around it (and in the way that some film classics are blissfully well-cast, this one has a group of actors who remain stubbornly hard to get close to, De Niro included). I have to will myself to really get behind the movie, which I don’t want to do.