Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

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The Sure Thing/Into the Night

May 18, 2011

I happened to see The Sure Thing and Into the Night as an informal double bill one Friday night. But that’s not the only reason they stick together in my mind. Both have their roots in the lovely traditions of screwball comedy; both update the form with wit; and both are, as David Bowie puts it in Into the Night, “very nice, very impressive.”

The opening sequence of The Sure Thing gives us Rod Stewart’s obnoxious “Infatuation,” a perfectly gorgeous (and perfectly uninteresting) California beach nymph, and lots of sun, sand, and skin. It looks like every other teen comedy made in the last five years. But director Rob Reiner is having a joke on us: as we get to his credit, the music fades out, the camera tilts up from the nymph’s bod, and we’re looking at the heavens. We’ve suddenly traveled across the continent, where we will take up the story of Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack), whose early college career—i.e., inability to get dates—we will follow.

This is amusing, but enchantment really sets in when Gib sets out for L.A. (where a high school buddy has arranged a “sure thing”—the nymph on the beach), having procured a ride for Christmas vacation off a bulletin board at school. Problems ensue—not from the squeaky-clean freak couple doing the driving, even if they like to sing show tunes. The problem is the other passenger, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), who has reason to loathe Gib. She’s traveling to L.A. to meet her boyfriend; they’re going to be lawyers, move to Vermont, and reconstruct an old farmhouse. Obviously, Gib and Alison are hopelessly mismatched and destined to fall in love.

That process makes for a nifty movie. Among other things, this cross-country trek feels like a journey, unlike many movies that try to capture an It Happened One Night feeling and somehow leave you with the impression that you haven’t traveled very far. There is something in the way Reiner chronicles the many road signs, billboards, motel rooms, that defines a rhythm of travel and movement. (Telling sign of Reiner’s sense of the importance of life’s simple but peculiar pleasures: Gib and Alison are stranded by the road outside Nowheresville, U.S.A., without food, money, or transportation. He extends a bag of junk food and speaks the gallant line, “Care for a fried pork rind?” Reiner knows.)

And Reiner has a healthy—if not fully developed—appreciation for the sort of zanies that should fill the supporting roles in a screwball adventure like this, so by the time Gib sidles into a cowboy joint to share a Christmas brewski with a wizened cowpoke and an enormous man who can’t understand his failure to pick up the waitress (his charming come-on line is something like, “You know I had fried food for lunch today?”), we accept it happily. But most of all, Reiner has gotten superb work from his two leads; they’re thoroughly winning, and you sense that a director has shaped and encouraged these performances. All of which proves something: that This Is Spinal Tap, which could have been perceived as a non-directed movie, given its eccentric and collaborative nature, was no fluke. Meathead is a budding auteur.

Into the Night attempts a similar kind of screwball enchantment, but with a more Hitchcockian flavor. Jeff Goldblum is an aerospace engineer who suffers from insomnia and cuckoldry. Thanks to John Landis and Michelle Pfeiffer, Goldblum gets his feet knocked out from under him and falls into an L.A.-by-night world of smugglers, movie people, millionaires, bloodthirsty Arabs, and finally, a Ramada Inn.

I had a hell of a good time watching all this sharp and funny stuff go tumbling by, although I felt slightly guilty afterwards. Did Landis earn all his laughs? Were the lapses in plot justified by the film’s rushing, cavalier attitude toward coherence—do we buy it all “on good faith,” as Goldblum says late in the film? Were the lurches in tone—there are some ugly deaths in the film—intended to be jarring, or is that just clumsiness on Landis’s part? Or is it just my problem?

That may well be. By the way, the real ongoing guessing game here has nothing to do with the plot—it’s trying to spot all the Hollywood cameos Landis has crowded into the movie (Landis himself plays a fairly sizable role as a gunman). It’s especially crammed with directors, some of whom—maybe especially David Cronenberg and Amy Heckerling—are delicious. But that takes nothing away from the stars. Pfeiffer has definitely got something that would make a normal guy want to follow her all night long, and Goldblum gives a very controlled, special performance. All through the night, he keeps up an unflappable exterior, as though he knew he were asleep and dreaming all this nonsense, and about to wake up in another minute. So, bemused, he decides to enjoy it while it’s going on.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Not everybody was keen on Cusack at this moment, but in 1985 he was the guy I was casting in the youth movies I was making inside my head. Reiner was off on his unexpected run to the A-list of Hollywood directors, where he resided for a while; it seemed as though he’s cooled his engagement with movies, having found politics a more urgent source of interest. Landis’s career is even more of a puzzle, and he followed this interesting effort with Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, a couple of absolute stinkers.