Archive for Charles Grodin

L’il Lil

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2019 by dcairns

We should have resisted, but Fiona and I remember when THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN came out in 1981 (the reviews! such bitter fury!) and so when we decided to do a podcast on the theme of miniaturisation (coming soon!), we thought we’d check it out. Curiosity can be a terrible thing, especially if it’s the morbid kind.

This started life as a John Landis project but became a Joel Schumacher one after the budget was slashed (a result of MOMENT BY MOMENT underperforming in 1978 — but by this time, NINE TO FIVE had been a smash, so the FX work in the movie is excellent). You can sense Landis’s fingerprints in some of the gags, but the sensibility is all Schumacher. Although never not capable of turning out a sickening turkey, Schumacher *did* get more technically able, and FALLING DOWN is actually impressive, in an icky, fascistic kind of way. At this point, he’s a terrible choice of director, since he overcuts furiously between one misplaced camera angle and another, which would be bad under any circumstances but is ruinous in a movie where Tomlin (for no reason) plays multiple roles and we have to believe they’re all inhabiting the same space, and where Tomlin on miniature sets has to interact with Charles Grodin et al on full-scale ones. The necessary Kuleshov-cohesion is lacking.

Weirdly, though this is written by Tomlin’s regular TV writer, Jane Wagner (they married in 2013), it doesn’t provide her with funny stuff to do. The role of a conventional suburban housewife and mother seems beyond her, though in fact other movies prove this is not true. If making THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN into a WOMAN makes a comedy of it, presumably this should rely on the character’s attitude to events, since the events themselves (falling down the garbage dispose-all, or into a cupboard full of scary, talking, moving, pissing dolls) are sort of the same. Indeed, it’s when the film’s at its most nightmarish that it seems most effective.

I’ve never seen Tomlin be bad in anything, but she’s generally uncomfortable to watch here: accidentally sliding on a skateboard the relative size of a surfboard causes her to open and close her jaw like an automaton — YA! YA! YA! Nothing human about it. So strange, because Tomlin is usually magnificent and one can’t see her taking any crap from a director (if you haven’t seen the video of her blow-up with David O. Russell, go check it out). But I guess Schumacher’s misguided notes (he seems quite sweet in interviews) would have been kindly delivered and therefore far more insidious.

The film’s central home is designed in nauseating cartoon pastels, making it look unreal and dollhouse-like before anything happens, one of those “false good ideas” that can derail any movie with money to spend. Adding to that a ghastly soft-focus aesthetic (to make Tomlin prettier?) results in a really unpleasant feel, like smother in rose-tinted cellophane.

(Criticisms of Schumacher — the former windowdresser — often have a homophobic sound to them. BATMAN AND ROBIN caused one Ain’t It Cool News correspondent to express the desire to murder the director with a hunting knife to the rectum. If we admit the existence of some kind of “gay sensibility,” Schumacher presumably has it, but it has nothing to do with whether he is a good or bad director. Spoiler: he’s mostly bad.)

“When I go to see a film and it has diffusion, I immediately walk out.” — Nestor Almendros.

The excellent Grodin is miscast in a role that makes you expect villainy, which he’s so good at, but the film is too chicken to knock the nuclear family. There’s a vague attempt at “satire” but rather than firing off in all directions it tends to implode: lousy corporate products can be bad for you, we’re told, as we watch a lousy corporate product. Which doesn’t have the nerve to point out that irony.

Weirdly, the film improves in its second half, which brings villains Henry Gibson (Tomlin’s NASHVILLE co-star) and Bruce Glover into play, along with “Richard A. Baker” (Rick Baker — took me WAY too long to figure that out) as a signing gorilla (the obvious gag of him holding a tiny Tomlin in his hand never materialises). Baker is the funniest ape since Charles Gemora in THE CHIMP, and Mark Blankfield is VERY funny, in spite of rather than because of the material.

Lily’s funniest moment is some good pratfalling, but I have an uncomfortable feeling it could be a stuntwoman concealed within that outsize glove puppet.

A movie starring Blankfield and Rick Baker as a gorilla still seems like an excellent idea, if anyone wants to make it.

Buyer’s Remorse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Finally caught up with THE HEARTBREAK KID after meaning to see it for years. Father Ted creators Graham Linehan & Arthur Matthews rate this one as a favourite, which marks it out as above the general run of Neil Simon movies, and it’s almost unique among NS films in that it has a recognized director, Elaine May. The one other auteur collaboration in Simon’s oeuvre is THE SLUGGER’S WIFE, a collaboration with Hal Ashby which ended with the director booted off the film after turning in a first cut which featured no dialogue for the first half hour. An approach better calculated to alienate the king of the one-liners could hardly be imagined.

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May was a lot better at handling Simon, In his wonderful memoir It Would be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, Grodin talks about how Simon briefly wanted to fire him (after the first read-through) and constantly wanted to fire Jeannie Berlin, complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough. May graciously accepted Simon’s criticisms, soothed his feathers and carried on, never letting him know that Berlin was in fact her daughter.

May is so good at the comedy of conflicted response, and that area seems so alien to Simon’s work, that I find myself wondering to what extent she’s subverting the material — with the author in the room. From what he says in his book, Grodin was clearly aware that his character could easily be seen as “creepy and hateful” –and those qualities played a part in my reading of him, though maybe ultimately “pitiful” is a better word — this guy, who runs out on his wife on their honeymoon because he meets Cybill Shepherd, is never going to be happy, and he’s going to leave a trail of human devastation behind him. Grodin was slightly surprised at the number of men who told him they identified deeply — and uncritically — with the character, which suggests he and May succeeded in balancing the portrayal so that people with the same character flaws as Grodin would see him as entirely reasonable. I wonder if those guys found it funny? Fiona likened it to a comedy version of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

Still, Simon did give it that title. He must’ve known what he was doing. He must.

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Jeannie Berlin gets a lot of the best laughs, though it’s teamwork all the way. Fiona loved her inability to behave like a dream girl. A lot of her behaviour WOULD work with some men — getting her boobs out on the freeway, for instance, which Grodin reacts to with hilarious, infantile panic. An exactly similar moment occurs in May’s previous A NEW LEAF, in which Walter Matthau emits a plaintive “No, don’t let them out!” and runs away. Maybe the reason Isabelle Adjani’s boob flash in ISHTAR seems to upset so many people — really, so many of the bad reviews focus on this moment — is because Dustin Hoffman doesn’t deliver a clear and exaggerated comic reaction to justify it. It becomes sexposition.

Berlin’s last scene is HORRIFIC and DISTRESSING! And then she disappears from the picture and we’re supposed to root for Grodin on his quest to get the girl. While this last fifth — the traditional three act/four part structure doesn’t seem to apply here — has some good laughs but is governed by a gnawing uncertainty and tension (Where is this GOING?) — it’s as if the bigger dramatic problem was not “boy gets girl” but “boy gets rid of previous girl” and with Berlin out of the way a strange calm descends, as Grodin’s character impresses by his rather astonishing determination. Romantic comedy sociopath.

The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns

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The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)

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It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.

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The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).

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I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)

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The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.