January 31, 2012

Hanks and Zoltar: Big

When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.

Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.

As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.

His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.

Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).

Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.

The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.


From the Hip

November 10, 2011

A lot of movies, not to mention TV shows, restaurants, tennis shoes, and assorted cultural artifacts, are casually condemned when the work “yuppie” is hurled their way. “Yuppie” has become such a contemptuous putdown that there is almost no defense against it: if someone says The Big Chill is a yuppie movie, there is little for an admirer of that film to do except swallow hard and try to change the subject.

So if “yuppie” has been embraced as a wholly negative buzzword, it is surprising to hear it used as self-deprecation. In a scene in From the Hip, young marrieds Judd Nelson and Elizabeth Perkins refer to themselves as yuppies, thus perhaps making cinema history, and also providing the film with its lone moment of self-reflection: At least these people know what they are.

If these are yuppies, and typical ones at that, we may all be worse off than we feared. Nelson, a Gold Card holder in the Brat Pack (St. Elmo’s Fire), plays a first-year lawyer who is looking to make it big in his dusty, respectable Boston firm. Perkins (About Last Night…), the faithful wife, works with underprivileged kids—even the movie can’t get that one out with a straight face.

The film is made up of two of Nelson’s grandstanding trials. In the first, he breaks most of the ethical rules of the court in defending a minor assault case.

The second trial is longer and trickier. Nelson’s headline-grabbing tactics have the blue-blooded partners (Nancy Marchand and Darren McGavin) asking that the twerp be disbarred. But the headlines also attract the business of a wealthy new client: an academic (John Hurt) described as “a cross between Charles Manson and William F. Buckley,” accused of murdering a prostitute, who wants Nelson to personally defend him.

Nelson goes heavily into his standard bag of courtroom antics—waving a hammer at the jury box, pulling a rabbit out from beneath the witness stand, placing a vibrator in the prosecutor’s briefcase—before considering the possibility that Hurt is probably guilty as sin.

This, of course, prompts the big soul-searching that we are to understand represents the hero’s Growing Up. Phooey. It’s all by the numbers, as the entire film has been.

The unbelievability of From the Hip—and not five minutes goes by without Nelson doing something that would have him thrown out on his keister in any courtroom—might have been acceptable if there were any trace of charm in the movie. There is none.

Nelson, who was appropriately insufferable in The Breakfast Club, seems to be insufferable even in supposedly sympathetic roles. This, naturally, hampers the movie’s efforts (and they are relentless) to charm. The other actors do stock characterizations. Elizabeth Perkins’ lopsidedness may prove interesting somewhere else, someday; and of course John Hurt does professional work as the sinister defendant.

From the Hip is from the hip of Bob Clark, the man who brought us Porky’s. Clark seems to have discovered the right buttons to push, in terms of formulaic plotting and yuk-getting, and so far it’s kept him working. I hope he enjoys his success; it’s unlikely many others will.

First published in the Herald, February 12, 1987

So, yes, “yuppie” was still relatively new. The Brat Pack was always a dumb idea, and Judd Nelson was getting toward the end of his run, and this movie just sat there, really awkwardly, in the middle of all that. But hey, I never knew this: it was an early effort by David E. Kelley, future TV titan with a specialty in law.