July 2, 2012

Somebody ought to make a funny movie that satirizes the horrible state of modern beer commercials. You know, the ones that show the manly men doing manly things and then washing down the day with a few draughts of suds.

Usually, they’re working on the assembly line, hiking through the Rockies, or fly-casting after large-mouth bass. Then, when they’re knocking back the brewskis later, one guy gets dewy-eyed and says, “Fellas, it doesn’t get any better than this.” All of which, in some mysterious but subtly related way, helps make America great again, or so we’re to understand.

Yes, the genre is ripe for lampooning. But don’t let the people who made Beer do it; they had their shot, and they blew it.

Beer is about an advertising agency’s frantic efforts to boost the sales of their top client, Norbecker Beer. Old man Norbecker (Kennth Mars) threatens to drop the agency if they don’t come up with something good, pronto.

So, an agency executive (Loretta Swit) and a director (Rip Torn) are sipping a Norbecker in a bar one night when their solution is delivered to them. A stick-up man goes berserk, and is subdued, more or less, by three yo-yos who happen to be standing there.

Swit and Torn seize these guys, sign them up, and film a series of macho commercials, which turn the trio into wildly popular American heroes. So what if they’re accused of sexism (“Whip Out Your Norbecker” is the ad slogan) and given a liberal going-over by a Phil Donahue-like talk show host (Dick Shawn). They’re making a bundle of money, and the sales of Norbecker have gone through the roof of the brewery.

Now, this is not a completely terrible idea for a movie. There’s just a hint of the flavor of classic Preston Sturges movies in the vaulting of the unknowns to stardom, and in the possibility for an absurdist twist on the American Dream.

But Beer is a mess. It’s a free-for-all, with desperate potshots doled out to offend the usual minority groups. The performers are uninspired, with the exception of Peter Michael Goetz, who does manic work as the ad agency president. And the director, Patrick Kelly, displays no sense of the internal logic this kind of satirical jaunt should have, so the film just falls flat when it should be (pardon the phrase) hopping along.

First published in the Herald, December 25, 1985

IMDb says Sandra Bernhard was cast in the lead role, then replaced by Loretta Swit, which explains at least something. This is the kind of movie I think of when I remember reviewing movies in the 1980s: no press screening, a drive into the suburbs on a Friday afternoon, and an absolutely non-cinematic experience unfolding on screen. Within a very few years (less than five, I would say), this level of film would not open in theaters, but go “straight to video,” a new phrase that came to have many different meanings.



May 25, 2012

Perhaps the gifted writer-director Robert Benton needs a cooling-off period between his big movies. His multi-Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer was followed by the chilly, compact thriller Still of the Night. Then came more big Oscar attention with Places in the Heart.

Now Benton’s playing it small again. Nadine is a stubbornly modest little movie, turning on the merest wisp of a plot and not even stretching out to a full 90 minutes. On its own terms, it’s charming, though frankly I expect more from Benton. This is a little like a major novelist tossing off a novella for his own amusement.

Benton again explores the Texas that has served him so well in the past (in Places and the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde). The time is the 1950s, and the setting is Austin, where Nadine (Kim Basinger, continuing the comic vein of Blind Date) accidentally stumbles over the murder of a greasy photographer (Jerry Stiller).

He’d taken some, uh, “art studies” of her, promising that they would come to the attention of Hugh Hefner. Corpse or not, she wants the pictures back, and she enlists her estranged husband (Jeff Bridges) to help; all of which plops them smack dab in the middle of the land-grabbing scheme of a local crime boss (played by Rip Torn and a 10-gallon hat).

Naturally, it also puts them back in each other’s company, and Benton is sharp when it comes to observing that two people who have been together for a long time have a tendency to keep a flame going for each other. It’s the old situation of ex-lovers who constantly declaim how much they can’t stand each other, while helplessly falling in love again.

Basinger and Bridges are easy to watch, and have considerable fun spewing Benton’s Southern-flavored dialogue. The small scenes are the best: Basinger and Bridges drinking milk on their first night back together; Bridges killing time in his tavern, the Bluebonnet Bar, a deserted and hopeless joint on the edge of town.

It’s a resolutely modest film, and sometimes the framework of the movie barely supports its characters.

I was disappointed. But Basinger and Bridges work up enough charm to justify Torn’s description of them: “Yer livin’ testimony to the fact that it’s better to be lucky than smart.”

First published in the Herald, August 6, 1987

I have a lot of admiration for Benton’s vibe, which is why it is a particular bummer when his movies underwhelm. This film isn’t quite at the “What were you thinking?” level, and maybe it’s aged well. But it is very modest.