The Pick-Up Artist

January 24, 2020

pickupartistFor its first 20 minutes or so, The Pick-Up Artist shapes up as a lively little comedy of manners, as it chronicles a day in the life of a hopeless womanizer named Jack Jericho (Robert Downey) and his fast­-talking cruise-through existence. Jericho can’t drive down the block without spotting a pretty girl, trotting up next to her and laying down a line of pick-up patter.

Usually, this line is, “Has anyone ever told you, you have the face of a Boticelli and the body of a Degas?” Although once, he gets confused and substitutes Chagall and Rubens, with predictably mixed results.

Jericho’s routine abruptly comes up short when he meets a woman (Molly Ringwald) who gives as good as she gets. After an afternoon quickie, she treats him the way he usually treats his women – by walking away, with no strings attached. Naturally, he’s hooked.

But just then, the movie bumps right up against a problem: plot. For whatever reason, writer-director James Toback has decided to take this romantic comedy, charming up until now, and graft it onto another story entirely.

It seems the woman’s dissipated father (Dennis Hopper, doing an amusing rehash of earlier roles) owes $25,000 to some local gangsters (led by Harvey Keitel). Jericho wants to help her, but she insists on finding the money herself. Everything ends up in Atlantic City, with gambling the only solution to making the money fast.

Basically, this is a mess. Scenes aren’t developed, characters are thrown away, motivations are murky. Toback seems to be making two movies in one.

However, Toback, who wrote The Gambler and directed the disastrous Exposed, is nothing if not idiosyncratic. The movie may be all over the place, but at least you get the feeling that it was made by one person, not a committee (although it’s been rumored the film underwent some post-production tinkering; at the very least, a few four-letter words have clearly been blipped out to avoid an R rating).

And the energy level is high, keyed as it is into the performance of Robert Downey, who may be most recognizable as a regular on Saturday Night Live a couple of seasons ago. He gives a full-speed portrait of a guy who does indeed bring an artistry to his vocation.

The film boasts good credits, with nice supporting work by Danny Aiello and Victoria Jackson, and typically tasty cinematography by Gordon Willis. One collaborator is not credited: Warren Beatty, a friend of Toback’s who reportedly served as an unlisted executive producer. Beatty’s own reputation as the all-time pick-up artist suggests the reason for his involvement, but one suspects that he could make a much more interesting movie on the subject.

First published in the Herald, September 19, 1987

Toback, of course, is strongly implicated in monstrous behavior that came out with the #MeToo movement. I suppose that changes this movie these days. Downey had bounced around and gotten noticed, but this one was a real lead. Beatty was apparently the producer and took his name off the movie; this was the period when he was somehow heavily concerned with guiding Molly Ringwald’s career, always a curious movie-history blip.


Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?


Johnny Be Good

April 16, 2012

I haven’t looked through my records, but I feel comfortable in declaring Johnny Be Good the worst American film of this still-young year. In fact, this movie is so inept on every level that it may land the title for all of ’88.

The subject matter of the movie is a familiar one to sports fans; it’s all about the rampant unscrupulousness involved in college athletics today, particularly the sometimes shady “inducements” offered to talented players recruited out of high school.

In Johnny Be Good, the star quarterback of a small-town high school team, played by the slight Anthony Michael Hall, is wooed by the major college programs. In Texas, he’s thrown an elaborate beef feast, and an alumni wife takes him out to the 50-yard-line for some unsportsmanlike conduct. In California, he’s introduced to the women of Hollywood and comes back wearing an atrocity that makes him resemble, as someone puts it, a cross between Liberace and Prince’s mother.

None of this sits too well with his girlfriend (Uma Thurman) or his best friend (Robert Downey, Jr.), who realize he’s reneging on his previous decision to attend the state college in his hometown. And his coach (Paul Gleason), an appalling creature, has a job offer from a wealthy college contingent on Hall coming along, too.

This linear outline may leave a misleading impression of coherency. There is none in Johnny Be Good, not in the screenplay by Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai, and David Obst (the original Revenge of the Nerds boys), not in the director of Bud Smith. This movie is so bland and feeble, it looks like it might have been directed by a guy named Bud Smith.

Smith, a former editor whose first (and very likely last) directing job this is, has attempted to apply an improvisational quality to the movie, and he’s successful insofar as you never can be quite sure the actors knew what they were supposed to say when the cameras were turned on. Downey, recently capable in The Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero, is given to nonsense raps that fall into some pretty frightening dead air. Poor Hall, who was so funny in Sixteen Candles, has been encouraged to adopt a Bill Murray-like airiness, but he simply looks lost. Given the opening-day audience reaction, he is not alone.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Even in the company of other bad movies? This is a bad movie.


Less Than Zero

December 6, 2011

If you’ve gone to the movies in recent months, you may have noticed a series of anti-drug public service announcements that have been tacked onto a few major-studio releases.

These announcements come on just before the film starts, and feature a Hollywood star—Clint Eastwood, James Woods, etc.—briefly warning moviegoers about the dangers of crack cocaine.

Less Than Zero also carries one of these spots, featuring Rae Dawn Chong. Rarely has the anti-drug message seemed more redundant: Less Than Zero gives us better than 90 minutes of college-aged kids relentlessly self-destructing, primarily with cocaine. If anyone misses the point, they’re missing the movie.

Less Than Zero is based on the recent novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Ellis took a bit of flak because some critics thought he was endorsing the decadent lifestyle of his dead-end kids. The movie, adapted by Harley Peyton and directed by Marek Kanievska, is at some pains to disapprove of its characters’ emptiness. There’s nothing attractive about these people; they’re a real drag.

The main action whirls around three friends from high school, now older and in more trouble, during a Christmas vacation. Andrew McCarthy plays a college boy, home in Los Angeles for the holidays; Jami Gertz is his former girlfriend; she’s now taken up with Robert Downey, Jr., the other side of the triangle. All come from wealthy Beverly Hills families, and all seem utterly lost.

The most immediate problem is Downey’s reckless drug habit, which has gotten him $50,000 into debt with a classmate/dealer (James Spader). McCarthy and Gertz aim to save him before the downward spiral is complete.

The movie is correct, I suppose, in steadfastly portraying these lives as unpleasant. But this method gives little hint of why people would behave this way; there must be something, even superficially, attractive about their rounds of parties, sex, and altered states of consciousness, just as there is inevitably the hangover.

Every now and then Kanievska gives us an image that suggests the tenor of this existence; when McCarthy returns home to his parents’ ludicrously lavish home, there’s a close-up of his hand dipping into a dish of red and green jellybeans, and somehow we sense the awful hollowness of this degree of wealth. However, there’s not enough to explain the basic unhappiness of these kids.

Kanievska, who made Another Country with some style, can’t really make style count for much in this film. There are a number of grabby, pretty compositions that suggest loneliness: Downey shivering on a rock at the seaside, or flopped on a lounge chair with all of Los Angeles spread out below. But after a while it’s just poster art.

The movie would click more often if it were more compellingly played. Gertz is pretty but doesn’t exude the kind of intelligence that’s called for, and McCarthy’s sensitivity thing is getting rather well-worn. Only Downey, lately seen as The Pick-Up Artist, connects; his hyperactive junkie, at least, has a measure of depth to his despair. The film, for all the appalling behavior it contains, needs to sink to his level more often.

First published in the Herald, November 8, 1987

Well it had Downey and Spader, anyway. The movie was a single-note stiff, and as for the anti-drug previews, I can’t remember them at all. I’m not sure the use of Rae Dawn Chong in a Just Say No ad balances the scales for all those Cheech & Chong movies, but you can see where they were going with that.