Pirates

March 27, 2013

piratesIn 1974, the world was a rosy place for Polish émigré director Roman Polanski. He’d just made Chinatown, merely one of the best movies of the decade (and a box-office hit to boot), and every studio in Hollywood was eager to finance his next project. He decided to mount a comedy-adventure called Pirates.

Jump to 1986. Polanski is continuing his exile from America, begun with his flight from a rape charge in 1977. He’s made only two films since ChinatownThe Tenant and Tess.

But some things stay the same; after 12 years of intermittent work, Pirates has finally arrived. You might think that such a long-cherished project would take the form of an ambitious work. But Pirates is more like an extended lark.

It’s a lavish period piece, set in the heyday of Caribbean piracy, all about the efforts of Captain Red (Walter Matthau) to acquire a priceless golden throne, which currently rests in the cargo hold of a Spanish galleon. Captain Red and his dutiful French sidekick, Frog (Cris Campion), first seen floating mid-ocean on a raft, are picked up by the galleon and given sundry work. But not for long.

They soon incite their fellow sailors to mutiny, taking the ship’s nasty leader (Damien Thomas) and his beautiful fiancée (Charlotte Lewis) hostage, and leading them to an outrageous pirates’ island, where the area’s buccaneers hold their conventions and cut out a hostage tongue or two.

There are some difficulties in securing the throne, which make up the last half of the film. The yarn itself is basic stuff; the colorful characters, the hinted love between Frog and the fiancée, the triumph of bad over evil.

It is certainly a frequently funny movie, although it’s not a parody of the genre (as some early reports suggested).

Walter Matthau, a peculiar choice for a swashbuckler (the role was originally written for Jack Nicholson), is actually very good. Matthau’s Cockney accent, pegleg, and matted mass of hair and beard create a full-blown impersonation of the crafty pirate. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is largely dull.

The best supporting performance is given by a dead rat, which Red and Frog are sentenced to eat as punishment. This bizarre, quite uproarious episode is exactly what the film needs more of.

Physically, it’s a superb production; the elaborate reproduction of the galleon (designed by Pierre Guffroy) is one of the most gorgeous boats in any movie. But despite some great sequences, a weird sense of irrelevance sets in about halfway through the movie. The level of inspiration decreases, and it’s tough to figure out why Polanski would nurture this idea for 12 years.

In its structure, and in many of its episodes, Pirates is perfectly in sync with Polanski’s absurdist view of the world as a place where greed and ambition are equally meaningless. But in itself, that is not quite enough to validate this entry in the career of a great director.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

This review is more positive than I remember the movie. Even imagining Nicholson in the role, it’s hard to see the film actually succeeding at whatever the hell Polanski meant it to be (some kind of cousin to Fearless Vampire Killers?).

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The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?