The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.

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Beetlejuice

January 27, 2012

Keaton and friend, Beetlejuice

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.

It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.

Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.

As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.

Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).

So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.

But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.

What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.


The Fly

October 21, 2011

Walk into a bar anywhere in the world, jiggle your hand under your chin, and squeal the following soprano-voiced plea: “Help meeee! Help meeee!” Barflies everywhere will recognize the cinematic reference and clamor to buy you a drink.

Well, maybe not that last part. But everybody knows that famous phrase from the 1958 science fiction movie, The Fly, in which David Hedison’s head, through a terrible mistake in a teleportation experiment, is transposed onto the body of a fly, and vice versa. At the climax, the tiny Hedison-fly finds himself trapped in a spider web, and calls out to Herbert Marshall and Vincent Price to perpetrate an insect mercy killing before the spider dines on him: “Help meeee!”

The mishap occurred when the scientist transported himself across space, and unwittingly mingled his atoms with those of a fly that found its way into the teleportation chamber. This is also the cause of the mishap in David (The Dead Zone) Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, but it’s one of the few details retained from the first film.

This version is also a love story, and a much more interesting one than the original. The scientist (Jeff Goldblum) meets a science reporter (Geena Davis), who’s trying to uncover the top-secret project this guy’s been working on for so long.

It’s teleportation, of course, wherein an object’s molecules are broken up in one chamber and beamed to another one. Except that, so far, the process works only on inanimate objects. When Goldblum tries to send a baboon through, the teleporter turns the monkey—ugh—inside out.

Meanwhile, Goldblum and Davis fall in love, despite the obnoxious presence of her ex-lover publisher (John Getz).

Then, drunk after a successful baboon transmission, Goldblum sends himself through—and makes it. We see, but he does not, that a fly has gotten into the chamber with him.

The next day, he’s suddenly full of energy, chinning himself in acrobatic fury, wolfing down sugar and fancying himself a sexual superman. There are also these ugly coarse hairs coming out of his back.

The twist that Cronenberg and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue have given to the human-fly transformation is that the two beings have been fused into one—so Goldblum looks like a man, but gradually becomes a fly (or some awful hybrid).

It’s pretty spooky, and Chris Walas’s special effects makeup of Goldblum’s disintegration is state-of-the-art stuff. Also repulsive; the process involves shedding of ears, teeth, flesh.

Somehow Cronenberg and his actors maintain a tenderness in the love story. In fact, it turns out to be the film’s most important element. David and her overbite are sweet and attractive; Goldblum, probably the Hollywood actor who most resembles an insect (in an appealing way), gives a very funny, crafty, nervy performance—good enough that you can’t imagine another actor playing the part.

He does, at one point, say, “Help me,” but not with the soprano jiggle. There are some cinematic traditions you don’t mess with.

First published in the Herald, August 19, 1986

A good movie, and Cronenberg hitting a certain pitch between his bread-and-butter and popular cinema. In Seattle, for the record, it opened at the UA 70, Lake City, Lynnwood, and Grand Cinemas; I never knew what the Lynnwood was, but I think they’re all gone now.


Earth Girls Are Easy

August 16, 2011

Carrey, Damons, Goldblum, in furry phase

As kooky as a lava lamp, as tasty as a strawberry-chocolate Pop-Tart, Earth Girls Are Easy is as much fun as its title. This Day-Glo romp about aliens on the loose in Los Angeles is a wonderfully pixilated mix of classic movie musicals, beach party aesthetics, and old-fashioned romance.

The heroine of the piece is a manicurist (Geena Davis, the recent Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist) who works at the Curl Up & Dye beauty parlor. Her fiancé is a doctor (Charles Rocket), but he’s a philandering fink. She’s wondering whether she’ll ever meet a decent guy when—oh happy chance—a spaceship crash-lands in her swimming pool.

The ship carries three decent guys; decent, that is, except that they don’t speak English and are covered with fur. The first problem is solved by absorbing the language of television, the latter with an extensive makeover at the Curl Up & Dye. There three are played, with tremendous agility, by Jeff Goldblum (Davis’s real-life husband and frequent co-star), Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans.

The adventures that follow are a swirl of fish-out-of-water jokes and campy cultural references, which range from a cameo by Los Angeles celebrity Angelyne (a massively proportioned starlet who is famous solely for her Sunset Strip billboards) to homages to Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor.

The film is also punctuated by zany musical numbers, featuring Julie Brown, who plays Davis’s hairdresser friend. Brown, best known heretofore for her underground hit “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” contributes some uproarious one-liners and songs, including, “‘Cause I’m a Blonde,” an ode to air-headedness, and “I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid.”

This madness is orchestrated by director Julian Temple, an English filmmaker who has done exciting work in the music-video field.

Temple has a taste for atomic-era décor and raucous color schemes. Don’t look for understatement here; Earth Girls goes for oversize, including Geena Davis’s 6-foot frame (she spends a good portion of the film in a bikini), and the Griffith Park Observatory, which doubles as a disco. Like the giant doughnut the looms over Hollywood at a crucial moment, the movie is high silliness.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

Funny movie. Expected more from Julie Brown and Julian Temple based on this, and that Jim Carrey fellow really fell off the map.