The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?

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The Golden Child

May 18, 2012

Two years have passed since Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop vaulted into the company of the 10 most popular films ever made. In those two years, Murphy has kept busy, touring with his stand-up routine, making a pop album, and setting up his own movie production company.

The Golden Child is the first product of his new company, and it arrives with some pretty hefty expectations. Murphy’s track record has been impressive, and he seems to have canny instincts for what an audience wants.

Thus The Golden Child must prompt some head-scratching. It retains Murphy’s wise-cracking character, of course. That’s to be expected. But it plants him in the middle of an outlandish story that begins in Tibet and ends with a battle for the future of the world as we know it.

If that sounds peculiar, be assured it is only the tip of the narrative iceberg. The film opens with a scene of a child (J.L. Reate), a round little thing with luminous eyes and magical powers, being kidnapped from a Himalayan temple by a severe-looking fellow (Charles Dance, from Jewel in the Crown) who has the backing of the devil himself.

The deal is, this kid is the savior of the world or some jazz like that, and the evil ones want to kill him. The good ones, led by the exotic Charlotte Lewis, need to find The Chosen One, a man who will find the child and save the world.

Who else, you say, but Eddie Murphy, as the scene shifts to Los Angeles and Murphy is tapped for the job. The film veers from Murphy’s street humor to the supernatural events of the search for the kid. It’s a very odd mix, heavy with special effects (not particularly distinguished) and kung fu fighting.

Why did Murphy choose this project? His humor works best in the gritty, realistic world of 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop, and while a side trip to Nepal offers a few opportunities for culture-shock gags, it is not his natural element.

Even the kookiness of the story would be acceptable if the film had any kind of crackle. But it’s lamely directed by Michael Ritchie, whose career continues to slide into hackdom (his previous films were Chevy Chase’s Fletch and Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats). He seems entirely absent from this movie, except as someone to point the camera at Eddie and let the star improvise.

Actually, given the subject matter, that directorial scheme may have been a good idea. The fact is that many of Murphy’s riffs are funny. The film barely exists, but Murphy himself has lost none of his timing, nor his gift for audience rapport. Every once in a while, he glances at the camera, as though to say, “Stay with me on this. I know where I’m going.”

Paramount Pictures was reportedly nervous about this odd film. It had good reason, but the movie is going to make some money, even if it doesn’t top Cop. Besides, Paramount can breathe easy knowing that Murphy has two releases scheduled for 1987: a concert film and Beverly Hills Cop II. With that promised, he’s allowed the occasional oddball project.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

In fact, it opened huge and made a lot of money—the audience desperately wanted Eddie. This was one of those moments when somebody’s career is so hot it absolutely does not matter what the actual movie is (see also Michael J. Fox, Secret of My Success). Maybe it served as an early indication of the fantasy element that comes into a curious number of Murphy’s movies.


Fletch

May 17, 2012

Rarely has a screenplay been tailored for a particular star as smoothly as the script of Fletch has for Chevy Chase. Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote Blazing Saddles and wrote the script for the funny The In-Laws a few years ago, adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s bestselling novel, and it’s clearly been styled exactly for Chase’s talents.

I’ve never read any of Mcdonald’s Fletch novels—the hero is a newspaper reporter who goes sleuthing—so I don’t know how much of a disservice this reshaping might be to the literary figure. Mcdonald himself is reportedly pleased with Chase, and has said that the spirit of the character is in the film.

If that’s true, then the books must be overrated, because the movie Fletch is pretty thin stuff. Bergman’s screenplay (perfunctorily served by Michael Ritchie’s direction) contains plenty of screwball one-liners, and Chase delivers them with his cool deadpan and impeccable timing.

This means that the movie produces laughs (enough to justify Universal’s decision to postpone release until the lucrative summer season—this film will be popular). But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie, and Fletch, frankly, isn’t. There’s nothing underneath the surface wisecracks—you can’t get involved in the film as anything but a stand-up comedy routine.

Chase plays a master-of-disguise reporter (and dedicated Los Angeles Laker fan—in one scene he dreams he’s playing ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who is dragged into a plot to fake the murder of a wealthy industrialist (Tim Matheson). Chase also falls for the guy’s gorgeous wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Somehow this all ties together with a big drug-traffic story that Chase is rooting out, which involves a Los Angeles police chief (Joe Don Baker).

It’s a typically convoluted detective-movie plot—but it never matters in any significant way. The show is Chevy and his patter, and the movie is fun to watch, even if it seems to evaporate a half-hour later. In particular, there are a couple of running gags—especially one involving a bigoted country-club member, to whose account Chase charges all his meals—that show Bergman’s talent for building comic ideas.

If only the movie had a solid core, these talents might have really put it together. But Fletch is a fluffy exercise, and it falls into that all-too-large category of comedy films that are not so much movies as flimsy vehicles.

First published in the Herald, May 30, 1985

Nothing against Michael Ritchie, by the way, a talented director, but I didn’t get much of him in this one. It was indeed a big hit, and coughed up the sequel, Fletch Lives.


Student Bodies

April 11, 2012

A lonely house on a dark ‘n stormy night…a title appears, to orient us in time: “Halloween.” Wait, another title replaces it: “Friday the 13th.” But now, the final title, the true date of our story: “Jamie Lee Curtis’s Birthday.” This is Student Bodies, a movie that seeks to spoof the recent horror film cycle, and particularly the central notion of that series: teenagers who play fast-and-loose with their budding sexuality run a high risk of being hacked to death with a kitchen knife.

Now, the narrative conventions of the likes of Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls are certainly ripe for dissection, and the first scene here is funny: babysitter is dogged by a series of phone calls, boyfriend drops by for a little passionate necking, and we watch, horrified, as the killer’s hand gropes for a murder weapon and comes up with—gasp!—a paper clip. But after this sequence, which at least has a tautness inherent in the situation, Student Bodies loses pep, and slack, scattershot gags become the order of the day.

Writer-director Mickey Rose (who has written with Woody Allen) doesn’t display too much good filmic sense—he lets a few nice comedic set-ups just dribble away—and the cast is uniformly lackluster (a shop teacher with an obsession about horsehead bookends should be funnier than he is). But budget limitations—and it sure looks like Student Bodies was shot on a shoestring—may have come into play there, and hamstrung any comic ambitions. It’s not a good movie, but I find it difficult to actually dislike a film that considers Jamie Lee Curtis’s birthday a well-known holiday.

First published in the Weekly, August 12-August 18, 1981

Yes, that’s right—a Scary Movie before its time, predicting the Wayans brothers by all those years. Mickey Rose wrote Bananas and Take the Money and Run with Woody Allen, but this was his only directing shot; some reports suggest he co-directed with Michael Ritchie, who declined credit.


Fletch Lives

November 23, 2011

The title is Fletch Lives. So they claim. If Fletch didn’t live, there wouldn’t be much of a role for Chevy Chase, who has taken on the part of novelist Gregory McDonald’s sleuthing reporter for the second time. (1985’s Fletch was the first.)

Actually, Chase’s performance seems to contradict the title; he’s barely alive in the role. He’s lost some weight and he’s disciplined again, but he doesn’t appear terribly engaged by the material. Even the ostensibly wacky disguises that Fletch enjoys with regularity are given half-hearted interpretations.

At the film’s opening, Fletch discovers he has inherited a plantation in Louisiana. He imagines a stately life for himself; perhaps he’ll raise chitlins. “Their fur is quite valuable,” he guesses.

He quits his job in Los Angeles, and move to his new home. When the comely estate lawyer (Patricia Kalember) turns up murdered in his bed, there’s clearly a mystery to be solved. Eventually, it is solved, though the solution is surely indecipherable to any average audience member. I don’t have a clue as to what it was all about, except that it had something to do with a vulgar evangelist (R. Lee Ermey), his daughter (Julianne Phillips, Bruce Springsteen’s ex), a crackerbarrel lawyer (Hal Holbrook) who dresses up in Confederate Army uniforms, and a sharecropper (Cleavon Little).

But then the mystery is just an excuse for Fletch’s different routines. Chase pretends to be an evangelist, whereby he heals a man’s migraines by slapping him violently in the forehead; he also impersonates a prissy Northerner named Harley, purported heir to the Harley-Davidson empire.

If Chase is uninspired, there are still some amusing bits; director Michael Ritchie’s taste for satire comes out in spurts. An early dream sequence has Chase imagining his palatial mansion and strolling the grounds, singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while flanked by hundreds of dancing extras, including a cartoon hound and bluebird. And at one point he dons a white sheet and joins the Ku Klux Klan members who are outside on his own lawn, trying to scare him out. The head Klansman mutters, “Cross won’t burn, nobody home…things aren’t what they used to be.”

The whole exercise seems so routine as to merely fulfill some contractual obligation. The ad campaign is much more inspired: a takeoff on the original Gone with the Wind poster, with Chase hunkered over a bodice-bursting Southern belle as Atlanta, or something, burns. Nothing’s on fire in Fletch Lives.

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

It sounds like this should have been funnier than, apparently, I thought it was. This was a year after Funny Farm, which was a rare instance of Chevy Chase being involved in an actual movie that had some kind of life and for which he was uniquely suited (and, alas, it flopped); so in ’89, his career was about to lose its thread.