A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon

March 11, 2020

nightinthelifeAs a struggling 19-year-old writer, William Richert wrote a coming-of-age novel called Arent You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? That was in 1963.

In the intervening years, Richert has built something of a career for himself as a maverick film director, with the vigorous Winter Kills (still one of the underrated movies of the 1970s) and the more slapdash Success.

But what goes ’round comes ’round, especially when coming-of­-age films are commercially viable. So Richert has adapted his youthful novel into a movie, retitled A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon.

It’s the account of a few fractured hours in the life of 17-year-old Jimmy (River Phoenix), a Chicago kid who wants to be a writer but whose most notable characteristic thus far is his ability to be irresistible to women.

The only girl he can’t conquer is Lisa (Meredith Salenger, nicely grown up from The Journey of Natty Gann); she’s from the wealthy side of town, and isn’t quite willing to go all the way with our heavy-breathing young hero.

She’s going to college in Hawaii, while he means to please his belligerent father (Paul Koslo) and attend a local school. For about 24 busy hours, he convinces himself he’ll throw everything over to fly to Hawaii and be a beach bum. Now if he can only scrape together the cash.

Along the way, there’s a fling with his steady on the side (lone Skye), plus an erotic session with a neighbor (Ann Magnuson, of Making Mr. Right). Not to mention pressures from his folks, with whom he doesn’t get along (he’s written a poem called, “Heredity, Take Your Hands Off Me”).

Richert’s previous films have shared a beguiling rambunctiousness, marked by an inattention to the niceties of logic and structure. That sloppiness isn’t so beguiling in Jimmy Reardon, which never gets on track, although it has some fine moments.

For the first time, River Phoenix is required to carry a picture (he was the sensitive friend in Stand By Me and the son in The Mosquito Coast). Small-mouthed and pug-nosed, Phoenix has the kind of energy that can’t be taught in acting class, and the camera likes him.

But in this movie he barely looks 14, and it’s odd to see him cavorting as a stud poet. Better things are probably ahead for everyone concerned with this film.

First published in the Herald, March 1, 1988

I guess this version was not Reichert’s cut of the film, which must account for something. The distinctiveness of Winter Kills and Success (also known as The American Success Company, written by Larry Cohen) makes it disappointing Richert didn’t have more completed projects. He is memorable, of course, as the Falstaffian Bob Pigeon in My Own Private Idaho, opposite Phoenix.


The Mosquito Coast

October 25, 2019

mosquito coastEarly on in The Mosquito Coast, someone refers to Allie Fox, a brilliant, intense and slightly off­-center inventor, as a Dr. Frankenstein who creates mechanical monsters. Specifically, Fox makes refrigeration devices, machines for making ice.

But, as The Mosquito Coast makes clear as it goes along, Fox will create a real Frankenstein monster in the course of the film: himself. This is the story of a man’s descent into tyranny and madness; it is a dark character study, and, in some ways, a monster movie.

It’s the latest from the Witness team of Harrison Ford (who plays Fox) and director Peter Weir. Paul Schrader, a filmmaker drawn to monomaniacal figures (Taxi Driver, Mishima) adapted the screenplay from the novel by Paul Theroux.

Theroux’s story is narrated by Fox’s son, an adolescent boy (River Phoenix, of Stand by Me), who tells of the most traumatic adventure in his family’s life. Frustrated with a lack of success among the American philistines, Allie Fox decides to cart his family to the jungle, a Central American nowhere called the Mosquito Coast.

Once there, Fox buys an entire town, which turns out to be a cluster of shacks, miles upriver from civilization, which the jungle threatens to overtake. He, his wife (Helen Mirren), and their two sons and two daughters begin to clean up, and – with the aid of natives – bring a semblance of civilization to the spot.

Fox’s greatest achievement, however, will be building a giant refrigerator – to bring ice to people who have never seen such a thing. This is his obsession.

The second half of the film brings a series of disasters, and the comic tone of Fox’s eccentricity gives way to real madness, including telling his children they cannot go back to the United States because nuclear bombs have been dropped there.

This role is obviously Harrison Ford’s chanciest performance. He looks right for it – his hair longish and pulled back, his eyes squinting behind metal-rimmed glasses. And Ford’s acting is good, but at the same time he seems fundamentally miscast. The epic rage and megalomania of the role don’t come naturally to him, and when his character really wigs out, it seems forced. (Jack Nicholson was reportedly an early choice, which sounds appropriate, and this character does resemble Nicholson’s mad family man from The Shining.)

There’s a clunky quality to the plot, which moves and lingers at unexpected locales, and the intrusion of three banditos at a crucial point smells like a contrivance.

This film has been taking a critical hammering since it opened in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and probably it belongs in the “ambitious failure” category. But those are the best kind of failures to have, and some of Weir’s dreamy images (photographed by John Seale, who also shot Witness) will stay with you. An isolated spit where Fox vows to make a final stand looks like a surreal end of the world, and the river journey that ends the film has some beauty.

Hanging over Weir’s work is the ghost of German director Werner Herzog, who made two films about white men who go to the South American jungles on an insane quest and go mad (Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). The Mosquito Coast is uncannily reminiscent of those films at times, and one wonders whether Herzog might have made a more inspired, visionary, wacko film out of this story. But then, he already did.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

I see there’s going to be a long-form TV adaptation of the book, featuring Justin Theroux, the nephew of Paul. So its time has come, perhaps. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s interesting that it exists at all, given the subject matter; presumably, without Harrison Ford’s clout, this project would’ve ended up in the dustbin that holds all those other interesting but far too risky ideas. Andre Gregory and Martha Plimpton are in the film, and so is Jason Alexander. And Butterfly McQueen? Wow. My memory tells me that River Phoenix carries the movie; at this point it was clear that he was an unusual kid, more than capable of holding the center of a big film.


Stand by Me

May 11, 2012

I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,'” she said. She was right.

I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.

Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.

Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.

One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.

They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.

The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.

Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.

The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).

The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.

The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.

It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it  knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.