June 22, 2012

A series of recent French films have aped the style of the popular, flashy Diva, in hopes of hitting the international jackpot once again. I didn’t care that much for Diva when it was first released, but its imitators have made it look much better in retrospect; where Diva was colorful and witty, the pretenders are soulless and stupefying.

The latest clone is Subway, which features similarly New Wavey visuals and off-the-wall humor. The gimmick here is that almost the entire film is set underneath Paris, in the extensive subway system, which, with its restaurants, stores, and hiding places, is a world unto itself.

It’s the inadvertent end point for a safecracker (Christophe Lambert of Greystoke—known as Christopher when he makes movies in English) who’s just escaped the gendarmes in a high-speed chase. He’s a bit conspicuous in his tuxedo and bleached spiky hair, but he soon discovers the hidden corridors of the subterranean world, and finds a few friends to help him fit in.

He’s followed by the bored upper-class woman (Isabelle Adjani) whose safe he just blew. He lifted some important papers from the safe, but just what they are, we never find out, or maybe I missed it in all the hubbub. Anyway, she wants them back, but she also seems to feel a bit of the old animal magnetism for the fugitive. And he feels the same thing for her.

But their eventual romantic clinch is delayed by all sorts of problems, including her brutish husband’s henchmen and the daffy police force, who split their time between searching for Lambert and trying to find a particularly frustrating roller-skating purse-snatcher.

The most interesting thing about all this is the creation of the underground, where a community of oddballs lives off petty crime and nighttime thievery: an untrustworthy flower-seller, a collection of musicians who throw parties for each other, and a weight-lifting giant who breaks Lambert out of his troublesome handcuffs with a good hard yank.

Director Luc Besson’s efforts at telling a coherent story aren’t too successful, not that he seems to be trying that hard. The plot strands splatter in all directions, and he doesn’t bother cleaning up after.

His primary concern is effect, so he throws some fancy camerawork into the mix. An occasional shot, such as the subterraneans watching welders working on the rails at night, pays off. The frequent hyperactivity doesn’t do anything for the movie’s clarity, but it does make for fun, sometimes. Look, put it this way: Boiled down to 15 minutes, Subway would make a good long-play music video.

First published in the Herald, November 1985

Now that I have grown into a somewhat guilty Luc Besson fan, I wonder if I might like this more. Somehow I doubt it. By the way, when I say “New Wavey,” I assume I refer to the Eighties pop-culture movement, and not the Nouvelle Vague of Besson’s predecessors.


September 26, 2011

Chuck and Lyle: Road to Ishtar

Rumors are funny things; nobody knows how they begin, but the bigger the subject, the looser the talk.

The rumors about Ishtar probably started with the collision of egos involved: Stars Warren Beatty (he also produced) and Dustin Hoffman have been known to infuriate their collaborators and inflate budgets, and writer-director Elaine May is a notorious perfectionist. Then the movie had its Christmas ’86 opening date scrubbed, which is usually a bad sign. The grapevine word was: Columbia Pictures had a $40 million turkey on its hands.

Well, Ishtar is here, and it’s just fine. Nothing great, no instant classic, but a smooth-running comedy with some keen satiric digs. It’ll make, well, some of its money back.

The movie pays homage to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies of the 1940s. It doesn’t have the improvisational loopiness of those films, but it borrows the same basic situation: Two ill-matched schmucks (Beatty and Hoffman) have a song-and-dance act, are trundled off to an exotic location, get into a terrible mess, and fight over a girl (Isabelle Adjani).

This being the ’80s (and with Elaine May’s penchant for topical humor), the mess has strong satiric overtones: Our heroes land in the North African country of Ishtar, where they are dragged into the middle of a dispute between a CIA-supported right-wing government and a left-wing rebel organization. Hoffman is recruited for work by a slick CIA man (Charles Grodin), while Beatty bumps up against Adjani, who supports the rebels and keeps saying things such as, “This means my life.”

May’s humor is effectively played, from the high-minded satire to some low comedy about a blind camel (a superbly acted role, by the way), although the climax doesn’t quite soar and there’s an abruptness about the ending.

One gag she milks is the duo’s pitiful songwriting efforts. The film’s original songs, written by May and Paul Williams (with some assists from Hoffman and Beatty), are monumentally bad, and the stars perform them with unbridled glee. (It may be relevant to note that neither Hoffman nor Beatty can sing his way out of a paper bag, and Elaine May knows it).

Primarily the film relies on the two stars to carry the comedy. They work well together, both visually (Beatty tall, Hoffman short) and vocally (Beatty soft, Hoffman hard). There’s also some play about their offscreen personalities; it’s an understood joke that Beatty’s doltish character is unsuccessful and inexperienced with women, when we know that the real Warren Beatty has probably had more women than any other man alive.

Their characters, dimwitted and hapless, are given a nice winsome quality by the actors. Early on, before they leave for Ishtar, Hoffman climbs out on the ledge of his Manhattan apartment; Beatty joins him to talk him out of this sudden depression. Hoffman laments that he has no job, no wife, no money. Beatty helpfully points out, “Hey, it’s taken a lot of nerve to have nothin’ at your age.” The film endorses that kind of nerve, which is one of the reasons I like it.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1987

The movie’s made back a little of its reputation in the intervening years, but until it comes out on DVD the full-scale critical restoration will have to wait. It’s a really funny movie, partaking of some pleasant Sixties-style comedy with a dose of SCTV‘s “Sammy Maudlin Show” played out over 107 minutes. But Americans don’t do “satiric,” and the dumb conventional wisdom about this movie help kill it.