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.

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The Sure Thing

May 9, 2012

Don’t believe the ads. If you do, you’ll think The Sure Thing is just like every other teen comedy that ever raunched its way onto movie screens—but it’s in a league by itself. If anything, it’s a collegiate update of the classic screwball comedies of Hollywood yesteryear.

Like those comedies, the situation is absolutely basic: It’s grounded in the attraction of opposites. We’ve got a likable, sports-minded, non-intellectual guy (John Cusack), and a bright, organized, somewhat repressed girl (Daphne Zuniga), who are freshmen at a New England university.

Right off the bat, she has reason to dislike him after he makes a disastrous pass at her (his rehearsed opening line is, “Did you know that Nietzsche died of syphilis?”). Besides, she has a boyfriend in Los Angeles (they’re going to be lawyers) whom she plans to visit during Christmas break.

As it happens, Cusack has a friend in Los Angeles, too, one who has promised to set up a “sure thing”—a gorgeous and willing one-night stand—for Cusack when he visits during Christmas. Fate, of course, has other plans for our two protagonists. They wind up answering the same bulletin-board ad for a ride west, and are stuck with each other for the duration.

This journey is delightful. We know perfectly well these two are going to fall for each other, and the fun is in watching the process, with its many setbacks. Those begin with their chauffeurs, a horribly cheerful couple who like to sing show tunes while driving. Cusack and Zuniga last through Ohio or so with these two; then they start hitching.

The thing that lifts all this above the average road-trip movie is the beautiful feeling for being on the road—the many oddball trading posts and motels, the weird characters who turn up, the junk food consumed as a staple along the way. It’s all just as sweet-natured as can be.

Clearly, the credit for this goes to the director, Rob Reiner. Yes, that’s the same Rob Reiner who played Meathead on “All in the Family” for so many years. His only previous directorial outing was This Is Spinal Tap, that mad pseudodocumentary. As funny as that was, nothing in it prepares you for the unerringly light comic touch present here. This guy is going to be a good director.

There’s another TV name with a connection: actor Henry Winkler, who is listed as executive producer (but does not appear in the film). It was probably Winkler who had the good sense to hire Reiner—although it must have been something of a gamble.

It was presumably Reiner who chose the leads, and they’re winners. Cusack is a fresh-faced kid capable of wild comic invention, able to slip into different voices at will (he turns into a frothing maniac when trying to scare a famer who’s gotten too friendly with Zuniga). Zuniga has a great sidelong glance that communicates both her mistrust of Cusack’s aggressively wacko ways and a growing attraction to him.

In comparison, when Cusack’s sure thing (Nicolette Sheridan) shows up, she is gorgeous, tan, blond, and absolutely boring. By that time, we know where the heart of the film lies, and it’s not with the perfect fantasy figure—even if that’s what the ads lead you to think.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Although what happened was, Reiner seemed to decline in originality and interest from about this point onward. This film, which I haven’t seen since the Eighties, may be the equivalent of comforting snack food on the road, but that’s still something. Cusack did all right for himself after this.


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.