The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).

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.

Julia and Julia

March 21, 2012

If Julia and Julia finds its place as a footnote to film history, it will be more for its technical significance than for anything else. That’s because Julia and Julia is the first major theatrical movie shot on high-definition video, rather than traditional film stock.

In this case, Italy’s RAI network funded the experiment to test the commercial and aesthetic possibilities. A lot of people have been talking for years about a future in which most movies are shot on a high-grade video (and then transferred to 35 mm. film, so they can be shown in theaters), which is much cheaper and easier to handle than film stock.

If Julia and Julia is the current state of the art, we’d better hold off on the video revolution for a while. Although this movie is photographed by one of the world’s leading cinematographers, Guiseppe Rotunno, and directed by an ambitious stylist, Peter Del Monte, it still has some serious visual drawbacks.

Shooting on videotape produces an image that is flatter, duller and less expressive than the same image on film. (If you can’t imagine the difference, compare a daytime soap opera, shot on video, to most prime-time TV shows, shot on film.) The process in Julia and Julia is sophisticated, and even produces some interesting images until, oh, the camera moves. Or a character moves. Then, to these purist eyes, anyway, the image looks streaky and unstable.

In theory, Julia and Julia should be the perfect vehicle for a video experiment, since the movie itself is a hallucinatory mood piece, and thus a strange look could be highly appropriate. Kathleen Turner plays a bride whose husband (Gabriel Byrne, of Gothic) is killed on their wedding day; years later, in Trieste, she experiences a spooky shifting reality, when she abruptly spots her husband again in their old apartment, living as though they’d been married for six years. She happily goes back to him, but this new life has a twist: She begins to realize that this other existence includes a lover, a mysterious photographer (Sting).

The poor woman bats back and forth between her two realities until we begin to get the idea that, as is so often the case, it’s all in her head. Keeping her husband alive is, on her part, merely an extension of her “passion unyielding to the grave” (as her wedding-day quote has it).

This movie is too obscure, humorless, and self-consciously arty to score a success, and much of it is awfully precious. But Del Monte does get some dreamily effective action going (somewhat in the manner of his puzzle film of a few years back, Invitation au Voyage), and there is something to be said for simply watching good-looking people in unusual roles—Kathleen Turner and Sting are both excellent.

The video process actually undercuts the movie’s stylization. Video’s flexibility has been used for exaggerated, surreal effects in everything from commercials to music videos, and some of that work is very intriguing. Spread out over a full narrative, however, video serves to flatten, to endow the proceedings with ordinariness. In Julia and Julia, the exotic begins to look mundane.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Does nobody remember this movie? Even now, with all the inevitability of digital’s triumph over film? This was much talked-about at the time, a landmark in video’s invasion of film’s turf. I still remember what it looked like, how awkward it was (projected in 35 mm., of course) and how obviously video-made. Too soon, too soon. But surely the time is ripe for Luca Guadagnino to reunite with Tilda Swinton and do a remake of this, on digital, and give it the heavy-breathing treatment it deserves.

Prizzi’s Honor

February 17, 2012

Prizzi’s Honor is just about as black as black comedy gets. That’s to be expected, considering the creative team behind the movie. It’s based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also co-wrote the script), the author of such appallingly funny books as Winter Kills and The Manchurian Candidate.

The director is John Huston, whose directorial personality, since The Maltese Falcon, often finds voice in the driest of dry chuckles. Huston has made the occasional out-and-out black comedy (Beat the Devil), but is more known for the understated drollness of even his serious films. At the age of 78, Huston is droller than ever, and with Prizzi’s Honor he’s found a good vehicle for his bitingly sarcastic observations.

Condon and Huston are aided by Jack Nicholson, whose comic talents have always had a black side—especially seen in his wildly funny, very scary performance in The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, who knows a thing or two about nightmare comedy), which was ostensibly a horror movie.

In Prizzi’s Honor, Nicholson plays the favorite son of a Mafia family. He does odd jobs for the clan, jobs that sometimes include zotzing (killing in Nicholson’s parlance) people who have displeased the family.

That’s all part of the job, and Nicholson has few moral qualms about it. The family comes first, after all, and since they provide for him, he always comes through for them.

His lifestyle is altered when he meets a beautiful Los Angeles tax consultant (Kathleen Turner) and carries on an affair with her. This affair, which culminates in their marriage, is at the emotional expense of Nicholson’s former paramour (Anjelica Huston, the director’s daughter and Nicholson’s longtime real-life companion). She’s the daughter of the patriarch of the Prizzi family, and her rejection leads her to hatch a nasty double-cross against Nicholson and his bride.

But, this being Richard Condon country, that’s just the first of the double-crosses. Most disturbing of all to the befuddled Nicholson is the revelation that Turner is not what she seems. It would ruin a few surprises to reveal her true vocation, but it’s about as far from tax consultation as you can imagine.

Prizzi’s Honor is deliberate and sly, never tipping its hand toward out-and-out comedy. In fact, so dry is it that some viewers may be put off by the ending—but it’s meant to be just as sneakily humorous as the rest of the film. It’s all a smoky, deadpan poker game in which the players maintain their bluffs with their very lives at stake.

Turner, having proved herself game (and gifted enough) for just about anything with Romancing the Stone and Crimes of Passion, seems unperturbed that her role here is relatively secondary (at least in terms of onscreen time). She conveys a lot in that short time. Nicholson is splendid, sporting a Brooklyn drawl and a perpetually puzzled look—he’s usually just a half-step behind everyone else.

The real prize performance comes from Anjelica Huston, who has heretofore led a peripheral existence as an actress—most notably in her father’s A Walk with Love and Death, and a brief but memorable bit as a lion tamer in Nicholson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. She’s just superb here, as she elegantly leads the Mafia bosses (led by William Hickey and John Randolph) around by their noses, and quietly plays a game of tightrope with Nicholson. Like the rest of the movie, she’s coolly delicious.

First published in the Herald, June 15, 1985

Nice experience, this movie; people may not recall now how thoroughly this movie rebooted Anjelica Huston’s career, and what a forceful tear she went on for years thereafter. (She won an Oscar, which you do recall.) It also re-started things, to some extent, for William Hickey, the strangle-voiced, Hawkingesque acting teacher who was rediscovered here.

The Jewel of the Nile

November 25, 2011

“How much romance can one woman take?” asks the romance novelist Joan Wilder, at the opening of The Jewel of the Nile. Joan (Kathleen Turner), you will remember, was the frumpy writer swept into the swashbuckling adventure of Romancing the Stone, a tale that might have sprung from the purply pages she regularly churns out.

As Jewel begins, she’s in the South of France, having spent six months cruising the world and finding romance with he-man adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). But with all this romancing going on, she can’t find the time to finish her latest book, and her fling with Jack has gone a trifle stale.

So, when she is approached by a bigshot Arab prince and asked to write his biography, she jumps at the chance, and abandons Jack for the prince’s palace. You win no prizes for guessing that the prince is not as he seems, and that something is rotten in the sheikdom—nor that Jack will soon be on his way to rescue Joan from this fine mess.

That’s the basic skeleton of the story; it’s fleshed out with some amusing incidents along the way, including an escape in an F-16 fighter jet (neither Jack nor Joan know how to fly it) and a tribal wrestling match between Jack and a refrigerator-sized tribesman who wants to marry Joan.

While some of these incidents are cute, the film as a whole lacks the fizz of Romancing the Stone. There’s a basic problem in structure: In Romancing, the transformation of Joan from dowdy novelist to stylish heroine was the real story, despite all the swashbuckling. In Jewel, there’s no such development, and the narrative seems oddly flat.

The dry North African setting gets dull after a while, as does the sheik and his plan to take over the area. Also, the character of Joan is not as much fun as before—she seems dimmer, and has lost pluck.

Some of this flatness, I suspect, is due to the absence of Diane Thomas among the screenwriters. She wrote Romancing as an original screenplay (her first), but others get the credit for this film. (The film is dedicated to Thomas, who was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago.)

Lewis Teague’s direction is evocative; he comes from B-movies (Alligator and The Lady in Red both showed promise), and this is his shot at the big time. He choreographs the action well, especially the obligatory fight-on-top-of-a-train, which ends with a nice comic payoff.

He’s also gotten a better performance from Michael Douglas, and a funnier performance from Danny DeVito, who repeats his role as a sawed-off scoundrel. DeVito has more one-liners than in Romancing, and he spits them out with unclean glee (surveying a wild Bedouin celebration dance, he nudges Jack and growls, “Looka this, Colton—no sheep is safe tonight”).

But, as occasionally pleasant as the film is, I was left cold after it was over. By the time of the big climax, I was already a bit bored. Not only are the characters cardboard and the locale dull, the jewel of the Nile turns out not to be a jewel at all. Whatever happened to truth in advertising?

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1985

Well, not a great review, although I suppose the point about the absence of actual character development goes to something about the movie’s failure to click. Not much to work with, anyway; the movie has the feel of a rushed, not-thought-out cash-in. My review of Romancing the Stone is here.

Romancing the Stone

September 7, 2011

One of the funnier moments in Romancing the Stone occurs at the climax, when small-time adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) turns to romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), with whom he has shared an incredible adventure in South America over the last few days, and says to her, “Go to the American Embassy—tell them everything, tell them the truth.”

Now, this is funny, because if she told them the truth, they’d throw her into the loony bin. The adventure that makes up Romancing the Stone is so wildly implausible that you might not believe it, either; but the film is made with such zest and humor you might find yourself wanting to believe in it in spite of itself.

The basic set-up is irresistible: the author of a series of those happily-ever-after romances (Turner is charmingly wide-eyed here, a world away from her femme fatale in Body Heat) finds herself involved in exactly the kind of plot she routinely puts her heroines through. When her sister is kidnapped in Colombia, the kidnappers demand that mild-mannered Joan Wilder bring a treasure map (yes, a treasure map—it’s that kind of movie) to their hacienda or they’ll do nasty things to sis.

I’m not too sure how the sister got involved with the map (it will lead to a fist-sized, heart-shaped emerald stashed deep in a Colombian cave), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that our heroine travels to Colombia and immediately becomes the target for those who want the map: the kidnappers (Danny DeVito and Zack Norman) and the crooked federales (led by Manuel Ojeda).

She teams up with scrappy, down-on-his-luck wanderer Colton, and a comic/romantic alliance is born in a rainstorm deep in the Colombian jungle. These two go forth into a maze of gaping precipices, rickety bridges, raging rivers, and hungry alligators, all blocking the road to the emerald—and most of the time, they’re being chased by the bad guys.

This wild ride is presented lickety-split fashion, much in the manner of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rip-offs of Raiders are still being cranked out (Spielberg’s sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, will appear in a couple of months), but Romancing the Stone is probably the best of the lot. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the director of Stone, Robert Zemeckis, is a Spielberg protégé. He co-wrote Spielberg’s only bomb, 1941, and he directed two films under Spielberg’s aegis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.

Zemeckis may have learned rapid-fire pacing from Spielberg, but he didn’t quite catch Spielberg’s talent for characterization. Romancing the Stone gets a little mechanized in its contrivances. For instance, in the best adventures of this kind, the sense of danger is very real, and genuinely frightening. Zemeckis and first-time screenwriter Diane Thomas try to give the evil federale a foreboding presence, but the film leans so far toward fun and games that the danger isn’t well established. The absence of a convincing threat makes the film less memorable, and is one of the elements that give Romancing the Stone its almost-but-not-quite quality.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1984

Give Douglas credit for recognizing that Zemeckis would be a good fit for this, and give them both credit for putting Kathleen Turner in there. Zemeckis immediately went stratosphere-ward with his next movie, Back to the Future, but he needed this box-office hit to get there. Diane Thomas died in a car accident not very long after this movie was released, and before Douglas and Turner made the sequel. I have found no need to re-visit Romancing the Stone, but I bear it some resentment for perpetuating the supposedly jolly trend of high-adventure Raiders imitations, which had already gotten old at this point.