The January Man

October 1, 2012

Usually when we say someone is “hot” in the movie business, we’re talking about an actor who has put a couple of hits back to back, or perhaps a high-profile director who’s struck gold in some showy way. But this temperature talk rarely describes screenwriters.

Screenwriters have a difficult lot. They don’t really have control over their scripts, they don’t often get the credit they deserve, and their scripts are subject to comment by everyone from the studio executives to the star’s hairdresser husband. Screenwriters, in fact, rarely get hot until they can manage to direct their own work.

But at least one Hollywood screenwriter is hot right now. That’s John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar last spring for his finely tuned script to Moonstruck. Shanley, also a successful playwright, has a gift for putting his characters in familiar situations and then turning them askew. No one, apparently, has told him that movie scripts are usually produced out of a cookie-cutter.

His latest, The January Man, is a good example. It isn’t a great movie or anything close, but it’s absolutely stuffed with offbeat takes on regular situations. The plot has to do with an ex-policeman (Kevin Kline) who gets called back onto the force when a serial murderer proves too clever to catch. Kline uses his peculiar deductive powers to ascertain the killer’s next victim, and thereby thwart him; Kline also redeems his own checkered past.

Nothing spectacular there. Yet the film, directed by Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country), regularly veers off into some eccentric conversation or ulterior motive. Kline plays a character who is, by his own admission, a genius; he goes off into a lengthy diatribe about the killer’s probable mother complex, and he sniffs out a strange connection between the murders and Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” But he’s bugged by the betrayal of his ex-girlfriend (Susan Sarandon), who married his brother (Harvey Keitel), the police commissioner.

Meanwhile, the latest murderous attack came dangerously close to the daughter of New York City’s wiggy mayor (Rod Steiger, chewing scenery). The daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from The Color of Money) is smitten with Kline, however, a fact that doesn’t exactly endear him to Hizzoner.

There are scenes in this movie that aren’t quite like anything else being written in films today. When Kline first meets the mayor’s daughter, they share tea at a café next to the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. Both people happen to be unusually forthcoming at that moment, and within five minutes they agree to walk to the nearest hotel and go to bed. It’s a dizzying conversation, conceived by Shanley for grown-ups and intelligent people, and beautifully played by Kline and Mastrantonio. Maybe after The January Man they’ll all be hot.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

Well this qualifies as a forgotten film, that’s for sure. Apparently I enjoyed it, but it has pretty much vanished from my memory, and it didn’t seem to make an impression on anybody else.

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Bull Durham

January 23, 2012

Sex and sports. Are these the crucial issues for human existence?

Possibly, and they certainly are important to Ron Shelton, a screenwriter who makes his directorial bow with Bull Durham.

Shelton wrote the script for The Best of Times (1986), a delightful little movie about marriage and football. In Bull Durham, he combines some man-woman stuff with a loving look at minor league baseball. The result is one of the most likable debuts in recent memory.

The movie is introduced by Annie (Susan Sarandon), a team follower who annually chooses one young member of the minor league Durham Bulls to—ah—guide and comfort during the season. For her, baseball is spiritual business (she notes that a baseball has 108 stitches and a rosary has 108 beads). This season, she’s chosen a rangy rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, recently seen as Jodie Foster’s protector in Five Corners), a kid with a cannon arm who’d rather fool around then concentrate on baseball. She gives him her “life wisdom” and a much-needed nickname, “Nuke.”

But then someone else arrives to help bring the kid along. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) joins the club to help the pitcher prepare for the majors (or “The Show”) in baseball talk). Crash is one of those guys who’ve bounced around the minors forever, or, as he says when he arrives in the clubhouse, “I’m the player to be named later.”

It doesn’t take long before Annie and Crash are sensing some mutual interest. But Annie has certain standards: “I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous,” she says, so Crash must put up with her reluctance and with Nuke’s rowdiness.

The film bops around in a slightly shapeless but always agreeable way. Shelton’s work is recognizably that of a first-time director; there’s an extraneous line of dialogue here, an uncomfortable camera angle there. But for the most part his keen eye for human behavior carries the day.

Individual scenes click: Crash advises Nuke that “Clichés are your friends,” when it comes to answering bland post-game interviews, and provides a litany of examples; the players, who want a day off, induce a rainout by sneaking into the ballpark at night and turning on the sprinklers; and Annie creates her version of foreplay by tying Nuke to the bed and reading poetry to him (Annie: “Do you know Walt Whitman?” Nuke: “Who’s he play for?”)

Shelton’s got a good head for the feel and talk of baseball (there are some nifty, funny interior monologues that focus on what goes through a player’s mind when he is standing in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound). It’s absolutely germane that this story is set in the minor leagues; as in The Best of Times, Shelton seems most interested in those characters who haven’t quite made it, and never will. That element lends Bull Durham a poignancy that never leaves the film, even when it’s at its flakiest.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The movie sure was welcome at the time, I’ll say that for it. Shelton seems to have become disenchanted with movies, or they with him, or something; I’m not sure what explains Hollywood Homicide, his last completed feature, which was a real bust on all counts.