After Hours

July 5, 2012

If Franz Kafka had ever made a movie, it might have looked something like After Hours, a nifty nightmare comedy that puts a guy through the kind of trial you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

It begins innocently enough, with Paul (Griffin Dunne), a mild-mannered Manhattan word processor, re-reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer late one night at a coffee shop. A girl (Rosanna Arquette) across the table from him strikes up a conversation. He gets her phone number, goes home, gives her a call. She says come on over. She lives in Soho.

It’s almost midnight, but the girl was a knockout, so what the hey. He hops a cab, and his money blows out the window. This is an omen, but he chooses not to heed it. From that point on, his long night is full of disasters: Paul seems to have entered not Soho but some malevolent corner of the Twilight Zone.

The date with the girl doesn’t work out; neither does a possible fling with her kinky roommate, a sculptor (Linda Fiorentino) who favors Nazi nightclubs. But things get worse than mere sexual disappointment. Before the evening is over, Paul is threatened with a Mohawk haircut, heisted by a couple of thieves (Cheech and Chong), encased in a no-exit work of art, and chased down the streets of Soho by a vigilante mob who think he’s a cat burglar.

It may not sound like a laugh a minute, but that’s at least what it works out to. This black comedy has a sure feeling for the hilarity of this horrible situation. Martin Scorsese, who is much better known for making movies about nightmares without laughs (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), uses a busy camera to suggest Paul’s disorientation, and he has an appropriately bizarre cast to fill out the marginal roles of this bad dream.

Among the denizens of this otherworldly arena are John Heard, as a sympathetic bartender who almost manages to help Paul escape from Soho, only to be thwarted by yet another catastrophic coincidence (the screenplay, by first-timer Joseph Minion, is full of them); Teri Garr, a waitress caught in a ’60s time warp; and Catherine O’Hara (late of “SCTV”) as a maniac ice-cream truck driver who befriends and then betrays Paul.

Those people are so good, you wish you could see more of them; the only drawback to After Hours is that the supporting players are all brief figures in Paul’s adventure and thus don’t get the kind of screen time that most of these actors deserve.

This is balanced by the watchability of Griffin Dunne, heretofore most notable as the decomposing friend in An American Werewolf in London. Dunne has been a producer as well as an actor. His producing credits include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Baby It’s You, both with partner Amy Robinson. They also produced After Hours.

Dunne comes across as genial, likable, wholly undeserving of his fate in the film. He’s got all the right qualities of a comedic leading man—not so much in the ability to act funny as the gift of just being funny. After Hours may or may not find the oddball niche it needs to survive in a market that rewards predictability, but it is certain that, for Dunne, a comedic career has been launched.

First published in the Herald, October 4, 1985

I dunne-o, maybe he was just more interested in producing and directing. That’s a very peculiar, funny collection of actresses, if you think about it, and kudos to Scorsese for making the mix.