In the Mood

January 10, 2013

inthemoodIt must have been a marvelous moment in media history. The uneasy year was 1944 and the story came (of course) from California. One Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver eloped with an older woman, which is not unusual in itself until you realize that the woman was a married mother and Sonny was only 15. Then, a few months later, the little dickens did it again—with a different married woman.

Sonny had his moment of glory, and his legendary wooing technique even earned him the nickname “The Woo Woo Kid.” This technique, unfortunately, also landed him in juvenile halls, for breaking certain archaic laws. Then he slipped into a (probably welcome) anonymity.

But In the Mood, which recounts these tumultuous months in the life of Sonny Wisecarver, returns this unique American character to his rightful place of prominence. It’s an ingratiating movie, not quite as good as it might have been, perhaps, but with plenty to like.

Sonny (Patrick Dempsey, late of Can’t Buy Me Love) is portrayed here as a normal guy who simply wears his heart on his sleeve. Who can blame him for thinking that running off to Yuma, Ariz., is more fun that the ninth grade? Or for gravely noting to himself, after spending a few hours with his first amour, that “Women are good”?

His first conquest, the young mother (Talia Balsam, a wonderful performance), is a sweet and quiet girl, and quite swept away by Sonny’s romantic way of expressing himself. His second elopement is with a brassier, more experienced woman (Beverly D’Angelo), but she’s no less impressed by Sonny’s heartfelt honesty.

The writer-director is Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote the fine script to All of Me. This is his first directed feature, and he doesn’t really have all the moves yet—there are missed opportunities, I think, and some uncertainties in tone. The movie never sings in the way that you imagine it would if, say, Jonathan Demme had directed it.

But Robinson finds many charming things in the course of Sonny’s wacky journey, such as the nurses who tend the newly famous Sonny when he lands in the hospital, and who give him curiously frequent sponge baths; or the shot of Sonny and a lady conversing through an apartment wall, while the camera pulls back to reveal the romantic night that surrounds them.

Then there’s a rundown diner where Sonny and his paramour have dinner; he gets carried away enough to ask the slatternly waitress, “What kind of champagne do you have?” (to which she responds, without missing a beat, “Schlitz”).

The film’s probably too low-key whimsical to be very popular, but at least it restores the glory of the Woo Woo Kid (the real Sonny Wisecarver pops up in a cameo role in a mock newsreel sequence). And you can’t argue with a film that openly endorses Sonny’s unfettered philosophy: “Sensible is boring.”

First published in the Herald, October 1, 1987

Another from the early career of Patrick Dempsey, new owner of Tully’s. Curiously, or not, just before the movie came out Dempsey, age 21, married a 48-year-old. Which is not really like the movie’s plot, but there you go. I am glad to have lauded the work of Talia Balsam, that excellent actress who should be more lauded in general (what a family life she has—married to her Mad Men co-star John Slattery, ex-married to George Clooney, daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten). I hadn’t remembered liking this movie this much. Robinson’s next was, of course, Field of Dreams.


January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.

Can’t Buy Me Love

June 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Love is a tired high-school comedy, taking off from yet another big concept: This time, a nerd wants popularity so desperately that he buys the friendship of the queenly cheerleader. In with the in crowd, by association.

Our young hero (Patrick Dempsey) is weary of his endless hours of lawn-mowing, of spending every Saturday night playing poker with his geeky friends. He yearns to be accepted. So, by a rather farfetched invention, he takes the money he’d saved for an expensive telescope and applies it toward his transfiguration.

The cheerleader (Amanda Peterson) needs the money to replace her mother’s ruined dress. So she strikes a deal. She’ll give the nerd a fashion makeover, walk down the halls with him, even have lunch with him. But only partial hand-holding. And no smooches.

The experiment is a success, if gaining the grunting appreciation of the school Neanderthals is a measure of success. Of course, there is a lesson about popularity and friendship and humility in all of this, which the ex-nerd will dutifully learn. And, there’s the entirely expected attachment that springs up between the members of this financial transaction.

This premise is so clearly contrived to engineer predictable plot complication that probably nobody could have made it come alive. To give some credit, director Steve Rash does try. Rash scored nicely with The Buddy Holly Story in 1977, though he hasn’t worked much in feature films since.

Rash strains to find some tender romantic moments in first-time screenwriter Michael Swerdlick’s story, but they come off as pretty cornball. And the principal actors don’t have the star quality to carry the idea into memorable—or even reasonably diverting—territory, though Amanda Peterson grows on you.

Finally, there’s a feeble attempt to add buoyancy by splicing the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” on to the credits and the very title. (The movie was originally called Boy Rents Girl.) If the Beatles are going to sue Nike over the use of “Revolution” for those sneaker ads, they ought to do the same here. As a matter of fact, there’s more cinematic invention in those 30-second Nike spots that in this entire movie.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

This was part of an inexplicable Patrick Dempsey moment (the first Patrick Dempsey moment, that is), when filmmakers became convinced he was the second coming of Jack Lemmon, or Matthew Broderick, or something. I think the film is worse than I make it sound here.