Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.

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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.