My Favorite Year (1982): Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard.

my favorite year

This is my entry in CMBA’s Fall Blogathon Laughter is The Best Medicine!

In the old days, if you wanted to see actors, you’d go to the stage. Hollywood was the place for movie stars. Lucille Fay LeSueur was given a new name (and a new birth date) only to become one of the most luminary stars of all time: Joan Crawford. Publicity columns were milked for all they were worth and scandals hushed up in equal measure. Archibald Leach donned the much more becoming pseudonym Cary Grant. In fact, he famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is a creation born of the same dream factory. He is a larger-than-life figure with a fictitious biography and a stage name befitting a gargantuan figure such as himself. He’s entered the twilight years, fading away, and still living off the laurels of his illustrious career. It allows him to maintain mythical stature in the present.

However, he’s allowed himself to become a carousing idol, who’s let himself go. He used to be big. Or maybe it’s the pictures that got small. Because in 1954 everyone is watching TV.

Is this too much like Peter O’Toole already? Although he’s cast more in the image of Errol Flynn or maybe a John Barrymore. Lest anyone misconstrue something, Peter O’Toole was an actor first and a personality second, though he is admittedly an indelible one on par with some of his most prominent predecessors.

My Favorite Year is the kind of movie that plants its flag with nostalgia and if you don’t like it, it’s not going to win you over. For everyone else, there’s time enough to drift back into yesteryear for an hour and a half. It’s altogether contented with its sentimental sense of antiquity be it Buicks or Milton Berle. Because in 1982 and certainly now, there’s a romantic patina about the times. Far from realism, it is most importantly an affectionate send-up.

It imagines a story at the crossroads of the newfound TV generation and the swashbuckling serials of old. When television, as a medium, was still in its infancy and live — more like the theater and radio than film — and you had personalities that existed in people’s living rooms. Comedy Calvacade could be any of a number of shows that were popular at the time most obviously Sid Caesars’ Your Show of Shows.

This is a writer’s room at 30 Rock decades before Liz Lemon. Two of its resident denizens are Alice and Herb. She acts as his comic mouthpiece. Their target is always that eminent tower of jello, Cy Benson, who more than deserves their continual ribbing. Lowest on the staffing totem pole is Benjy Stone and, fittingly, he becomes our willing surrogate.

He’s living the dream in the middle of all the magic, picking up the lunchtime bear claws, and romancing the pretty production hand K.C. (Jessica Harper), who rebuffs all his grandiose come-ons. But he’s not one to give up easily. It’s at the heart of his character.

He wouldn’t be working here rubbing noses with the likes of resident prima donna King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) or program stalwart Leo Silver (musical legend Adolph Green). You have to believe in the power of entertainment to be there on the ground floor of such an operation.

Thus, when the iconic screen icon Allan Swann agrees to guest on the latest episode of Comedy Calvacade, it seems like the perfect task for Benjy. The bet he has going with Sy makes it personal. He will act as attache — the notorious talent’s constant companion — making sure he makes it to rehearsals and telecasts in one piece.

Swann famously evokes another actor when he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Regardless, this is a part made for O’Toole to fill up and make his own, bringing his Shakespearian bravado and genial wit to a world that otherwise feels twee and conventional. He positively bursts forth with all sorts of magnanimous energy.

The triumphant return of Swann is befitting his reputation. He takes his young guardian under his wing, as it were, returning to the old haunts like the Stork Club. It doesn’t matter that he once got thrown out of the place. He’s shameless enough to grab his old table and pick out the prettiest girl in the place. However, he still finds time for the public, graciously dancing with the lady (Gloria Stuart) enchanted by his romanticism.

It’s this kind of urbanity that sweeps Benjy off his feet as well, informing his own lackluster attempts to woo K.C. And yet over a humble dinner of Chinese takeout in the projection room, there is a chemistry in the air. Watching them watch O’Toole in what very easily could be a scene plucked out of Robin Hood, there’s a light in their eyes. We can sense the suspension of disbelief and the kind of awe movies could engender in a different, simpler time.

There are the travails of Brooklyn where Benjy takes America’s great hero to meet his unequivocally Jewish family (along with his Filipino step-father Rookie Carocca). It has all the trappings of an awkward evening and yet somehow it’s yet another showcase of people forming connections — of a man coming off the screen and being allowed to be among the hard-working people who love him.

That’s not to say there are no instances where we see the man’s faults laid bare. As a man always good for a quote he says, “You can depend on Allan Swann. He will always let you down.”

In the final act, it threatens to be true as the actor plays out his worse narrative. He is a man notorious for going AWOL at a moment’s notice. Still, while he’s not impervious to scandal or drunkenness, womanizing, or any number of shortcomings, there’s an inherent decency he carries about himself.

my favorite year

His greatest shortcoming is fear. He’s crippled by stage fright — being thrust into the arena of live television where his image cannot be monitored — even as he’s too fearful to speak to his estranged young daughter. Really, he’s a shell of a man. Could it be that the mills of Hollywood were lying all the time? For all these years, he was merely an imposter, done up to be extraordinary.

The live taping is best seen without comment. Just know Allan makes his triumphal entry onto the stage, and it’s a cathartic moment; he is allowed his audience and he lives up to their expectations in the most sincere ways. Many of us know the fictions of Hollywood. Benjy Stone is hardly oblivious to them, and yet for a sparkling minute, they are realized for anyone who was ever enraptured by the silver screen, not least among them Allan Swann.

The reason this was Benjy’s favorite year is obvious. He met his boyhood hero. Not only that but for a few fleeting moments the myth became real and the man was alive and in his life as not simply an idol but also a friend. He lept off the screen and he was real and charming and human, but moreover, he made us believe in the dreams of our childhood for the briefest of moments.

Watching him swoop down from the balcony — cutlass in hand — to vanquish the enemy, affords us the fairy tale ending and deservedly so. What a lovely performance it is for O’Toole, and he turns out in spades.

4/5 Stars

The Stunt Man (1980): The Show Must Go On!

the stunt man

From its initiation in the opening shots, The Stunt Man is built out of a comic serendipity allowing it to execute its own sense of narrative rhythm. It leans into coincidence, cinematic logic, and what really necessitates reality. Consequently, all these themes lay the bedrock for what the film is as it blithely blends genre into a fluid creature with a penchant toward action, drama, romance, and the darkest most absurd sense of humor.

For a little bit of backdrop, Richard Benjamin was slated to direct the film in the early 1970s. Before him, two very telling directors were considered. The first was Francois Truffaut who made Day for Night (1973), a film that shares many of the same thematic elements as The Stunt Man. They both enter a full-fledged dialogue with the medium of film itself and the creative process behind it. At one time, Arthur Penn was also tapped. This seems uncanny as he would later helm Night Moves (1975) another movie involving a subplot of stuntmen flying planes and the like.

All said and done, this production was labyrinthian even by Hollywood standards. Filmed in 1978, it was finally released in 1980 at the dawn of a new decade. But given the subject matter, it somehow feels like a fitting representation of the industry.

The Stunt Man, after all, is quite simple before it gets crazy. A fugitive (Steve Railsback) flees from the police utilizing his agility and Vietnam training to evade capture. Cameron breaks himself free from his handcuffs and then tries to blend into the beach scene at a nearby tourist trap in La Jolla. The ethereal theme music hums along, “Reality is your to define” and “What good are dreams in a world where nothing is at it seems.” The lyrics prove to be a portent.

Because they also just happen to be filming a movie — a WWI period piece led by the incomparable Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) — and it’s drawn quite the crowd. The use of blood capsules at once leaves the audience gasping with horror and then the next cheering with adulation. It’s the magic of the movies in bodily form.

Where a woman peels off her facade to become someone else — a stunning leading lady (Barbara Hershey) for the scraggly-haired young man to carry off to safety like a knight in shining armor. However, the masses aren’t privy to some of the drama behind the scenes. A stunt man was tragically killed trying to get a crucial shot.

So the fugitive becomes a convenient figure, and Eli quickly pulls him into his production in a calculated move of madness. With the local police breathing down his neck about his filming schedule, he covers up the setback, keeping the ship aloft by turning the wanted man into their perished stunt man. It serves them both, and so they agree to the ludicrous alliance.

Thus, The Stunt Man takes the themes of Truffaut’s Day for Night to preposterous ends by cultivating this illusion of a patched-together reality played out on screen. Spurred on by a maniacal director, it creates a whole plot out of a dead man who is replaced by a stand-in.

the stunt man peter o'toole heliocopter

As he fluctuates between his chopper or his levitating crane, Eli blithely proclaims, “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.” It’s true there’s something powerful and deceptive about him. If he’s not the devil’s incarnate in a helicopter, then he might have at least made a deal with the fallen angel. He is symbolic of the director as madman — someone who likes spontaneity — and he will go to great lengths to preserve his art.

To the degree possible, the picture goes through the paces of an action movie and there are stakes, just not what we normally expect. Because there are payoffs and yet we know in some self-reflexive way they are all an illusion, more so than usual. What’s not false is the threat of death.

If Truffaut was fascinated in the artifice — this sense of relishing the reflection to life itself — then The Stunt Man gives it a sick twist. Where fiction and reality are like death-defying bedfellows. We rarely know when scenes are going horribly awry or strictly according to plan.

There’s this razor-thin line between stunt and sleights of hand and then disaster. Hence the reason this fugitive got his gig in the first place. It’s utter lunacy, and yet it’s a bit like watching a car wreck. Who’s going to turn away? We want to be wowed. And yet Cameron’s life hangs in the balance. He feels trapped inside the madness and Eli’s not about to let him escape.

Initially, he is taken in out of necessity and eventually disillusioned by the monster, even as he is driven toward his fateful conclusion. It’s inevitable. In none too many words, the show must go on, and Cross will go to the greatest lengths to make darn sure that it does. The script calls for it.

The ultimate joke is how it slaloms so fluidly between the heights of chaotic drama to this kind of absurd humor, sinking back into an uneasy equilibrium once the darkest devolutions have boiled over. This is what’s the most unsettling.

How the movie can be feel-good and joyous with a stunt man and leading lady embracing in a triumphant moment of euphoria. Likewise, the irascible, gargantuan personality of the director still comes off as strangely charismatic (thanks to O’Toole), but it drips with the delusional insanity of something like Apocalypse Now. In other words, you cannot marvel at the movie without shuddering and laughing rather uneasily at what movie magic entails.

Because The Stunt Man is not just about the art of being a stand-in and doing the impossible. It functions as an extension of the moviemaking process in its most harrowing iterations. We have to be a little mad. First, to make something like this, and then to sit in the dark and let it affect us so forcibly. Regardless, it’s an evocative and deeply unnerving ride. But isn’t that what we go to the movies for?

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Chill (1983): Banking on The Nostalgia Factor

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When a little baby boy is singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” in the bathtub — Larry Kasdan’s son — it’s the perfect introduction to this film. In fact, you always hear rumblings about The Big Chill. It’s a touchstone for a generation: For my parents’ peers.

Moments later “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” plays over the credits as all our main characters are introduced wordlessly. They all converge at a funeral to mourn the loss of their college friend Alex, who took his own life and seemed to be on a road to nowhere. He had so much promise and then seemingly wasted all his potential.

Without trying to sound too glib, this seems an apt diagnosis for the movie itself. The premise throws together a group of friends with a storied history already set in place. There’s a troubling inciting incident to dictate the parameters of the story, providing reasons and space for characters to dialogue with their individual anxieties. Each car in the funeral procession is like a conveniently contained capsule of drama.

However, despite, the fairly high-profile cast, it merely dabbles in substantial conversations on life and the existential questions that hit us in mid-life crisis moments. Is it wrong to say we never truly get to know these people aside from a few pleasantries? Because even if they know each other so well, we are never able to break the ice in the same way. We are outsiders never allowed in from the cold.

In scenes of mild interest and concern, they never amount to much aside from detached observation. Nick Carlton (William Hurt) has become the hardened cynic in years gone by (Fortune cookies have followed suit). Sarah Cooper (Glen Close) is especially emotional when she thinks of their deceased friend. Sam (Tom Berenger), a celebrated Television actor, drudges up old feelings for the dissatisfied housewife Karen (JoBeth Williams). Jeff Goldblum — who is one the most visible still, of all the ensemble — is probably the best source of comic relief. I wish there was more to be said about their relationships, but I don’t have much.

Likewise, The Big Chill is understandably lauded for its soundtrack. It’s true the music is the perfect ambient backdrop for the storyline. However, there’s one immediately apparent issue. It has no meaning in the moment, at least in a way that we can comprehend. These iconic tunes do not create a greater appreciation for the world or complement the storytelling.

Instead, it is the ubiquitous backbeat to the Baby Boom generation — a kind of audio comfort, even now. If you wanted to be cynical like Nick, you could suggest it’s all about getting a certain subset of the viewing public into the seats by banking on the nostalgia factor. It works even in the opening moments, first Three Dog Night, then Marvin Gaye, and later the casket leaving the church to the vocals of Mick Jagger in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

However, gradually the pervasive montages and the shameless use of music feel less and less discreet, never feigning any kind of purpose or meaning. This is fine. Still, it’s not quite a unified and eclectic wall of sound like American Graffiti, nor does it come to highlight the shared experience of the characters, like The Commitments harnessing of Wilson Picket’s R&B.

For that matter, “A Whiter Side of Pale” feels far more alive in the hands of Alan Parker. And instead of hearing “The Weight” as a sprawling road anthem in Easy Rider, it becomes kitchen table music as characters busy themselves with breakfast. Now totally rid of all its glory.

In full transparency, these are songs I adore. I’m protective of them, and I couldn’t even tell you how many thousands of times I’ve heard “Good Lovin’,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and some of Motown’s best singles. They too are like friends and many of them feel stripped of any substance or meaning in the context of the movie.

The same might be said of the plotline. These are harsh words, but to my mind, they’re warranted. Because The Big Chill has the potential to be something of genuine heart — pregnant with meaning and lessons about life — how we band together with our friends to get through together.

But it always feels a bit like an impostor or at least a pale imitation. I don’t doubt this movie has resonance to Larry Kasdan or else, in a world of Stars Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Body Heat, he wouldn’t have made a movie like this.

The problem is there’s nothing left in the movie where the characters strike a chord or feel altogether meaningful to me. I would argue this doesn’t fall on not being of a certain stage in life. After all, in 5 years, maybe 10, I will be exactly like these people. That’s still a stretch of time, but I have a feeling this is not what’s getting in the way. Their issues, the malaise they feel saddled with, and any number of other issues are not my own. And so I look at them, and I see no reflection of who I am or what I care about.

My mind goes to my parents. In 1983 they were just getting married. A few years later they had their first child. Then more children. It strikes me they probably never had time for this kind of self-reflection. Maybe they would have been grateful for it. But I do know they are not people to regret the road life has led them down together. At the very least, they would not be ones to overanalyze it; this dubious honor would fall on me. They were people who were too busy living life for this to ever be an issue.

It also strikes me when Nick notes friendship is tough in the real world. It’s true. The bubble of college easily insulates you from a lot. We get busy and distracted, spread out by geography, and people change and drift away. But the inevitable — at least for me — makes it all the more imperative that I cling to the friendships that mean the most to me. And I do my darndest to invest in them.

They are imperfect, but I like to think they are genuine. I’ve had the misfortune to attend funerals of friends already, and I’ve been even more fortunate to celebrate weddings and other such auspicious events. The music was good, but the time spent with my people was far better. With or without “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.”

3/5 Stars

Something Wild (1986): Happy is a Yuppie Word

SomethingWildPoster

One of my favorite bands penned a song called “Happy is a Yuppie Word.” I never spent much time dwelling on the meaning of the statement, but as I grow older, it somehow takes on more pertinent meaning. If I remember correctly, Bob Dylan gave an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said essentially the same thing. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the song took its cues from one of America’s foremost bards. I start here because Something Wild comes at us ready to bulldoze the Yuppie conventions we come to attribute with the 80s and 90s. That is Happiness as this quantifiable qualifier for the richness of one’s life.

Look at Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels). He’s the picture of middle-class success and respectability. He’s rising up in a formidable firm. He’s always reasonably dressed in a suit and tie. He has his pager on hand for important reminders. And yet there are inklings of chinks in his armor. After all, he is human.

He still wears his wedding ring, but his home life isn’t quite as idyllic as he would like the world to believe. Likewise, sitting at a perfectly conventional cafe, he has an urge to do something really, incredibly outrageous! He steps out without paying his check!

Except no one seems to notice…aside from one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong to the one person who will change his life forever. Meet Lulu (Melanie Brooks). Her look is unmistakable with a Luise Brooks-inspired bob and sunglasses — an air of self-assured confidence. She could rat him out. Instead, she offers to take him for a little ride.

From here on out Something Wild becomes a road comedy-screwball hurricane propelled by a giddy soundtrack and Lulu’s total rejection of Charlie’s middle-class monotony. They go careening down streets and racing down the highways and byways blasting The Troggs “Wild Thing.” What follows are scenarios replete with shenanigans, handcuffs, amorousness, and more unpaid checks.

And yet if Lulu comes off as a glitzy, laissez-faire call girl, she slowly begins to show more of herself, including her real name: Audrey. She proves herself to be far more three-dimensional and far more of an innocent human being. She takes Charlie to visit her mother where they masquerade as a married couple in front of mom. But there is no malintent. The charade is purely out of a desire to please the good-natured woman. Then, Audrey brings him to her high school reunion — celebrating the spirit of ’76 — complete with performances by The Feelies.

If anything, these series of scenes hint at where the film might be going as it slowly sheds its craziest inclinations. In fact, the film takes its major tonal shift with the introduction of Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair — Audrey’s former love. But there’s more. Previously the movie was frisky with a dollop of lunacy. Now Something Wild stands poised to takes a bitter turn.

We suspect it from the moment Liotta enters. He’s handsome and charismatic, but there’s an instant menace to him — behind his eyes and his cajoling tone — the way he handles the part in a kind of underhanded way. Reference to his prison sentence gives a bit more heft to his reputation. But it really comes to a head when he robs a gas station.

Of course, Lulu and Charlie did much the same before. This isn’t to totally absolve them, but Ray’s brutal brand of reality plays in stark contrast to the carefree mad-dash infractions Daniels and Griffin were accustomed to before.

This is a stone-cold crime with consequences, and there’s no longer anything left to laugh at. Crime, all of the sudden, isn’t a lark; it’s something callous. And with its ugliness, all the leisure and fun is siphoned out of the picture. It’s given up its roots in pure, zany screwball to be something else — less warm and fluffy in conception.

Charlie gets shoved around, beaten up and bloodied, and Ray ultimately goes off with Audrey — to take her back as his own — threatening that he’d better stay away if he knows what’s good for him.

Even though my education in Demme is brief, my inclination is a desire for him to go toward the film’s initial tone. Because it’s the idiosyncratic touches that function best for me. They do not alienate my sensibilities. For instance, Charlie proves himself to be the most conspicuous trailer when it comes to the art of the tail.

He sets up on a street corner with a new wardrobe across from Ray and Audrey’s hotel room. For me, it’s scenes like these where Demme really shines; he has a sense of geography and how to use it to build a full-bodied world around our characters. He captures his hero in his car snoozing or peering out from behind a pair of binoculars.

But the church behind him, the store across the way, even the folks lounging at the pool make this feel like vibrant pieces of humanity albeit in a fairly relaxed town. He uses this same motif later when they finally have their fated confrontation at a genial family restaurant. The only reason Charlie gets enough gumption to actually face Ray and Audrey has to do with the reassurance that some local policemen are sitting at the table just across the way. These are the quotidian joys of the film at its very best.

However, this is a story that never quite rests on what is easy or comfortable. Because in itself this would be the antithesis of what it is looking to shoot down in the form of yuppie culture and all its signifiers. There must be another fanatical reverse in fortune. It’s genuinely terrifying. Far from spoiling it, I will leave you to it so that you might experience it for yourself.

Instead, my mind goes to this. For how merciless and scummy Liotta feels throughout the picture, Demme extends him the ultimate courtesy. The climactic moments are unnerving in a way. I hope I haven’t said too much already.

But in a single moment, Liotta is allowed to look into the camera his eyes full of surprise — a sign of weakness for the first time — and that one shot nearly single-handedly makes us feel sorry for him. It’s a hard sell, but we’re almost there: Having compassion on a seemingly irredeemable man.

The movie settles into a new normal. The moral, if we can call it that, seems obvious. To grab life by the horns — with warmth and spontaneity — within some framework of reason. Something Wild lives up to its name even tonally as it seesaws around. It wasn’t quite what I expected or what I might have wanted, but this could easily play in its favor for someone else.

Demme still shows himself to be a genuinely humane director. He likes people and with comic verve and music, he’s capable of whipping up something quite enjoyable. What is more, he shows himself willing to go somewhere else with characters.

I am slowly learning more and more about his oeuvre, but Something Wild suddenly makes a film like Silence of the Lambs feel less and less like an outlier. The jump is not too far to make, and we come to understand his movies even a little bit better. If you humanize a gangster, could it be the next step is to connect us with a serial killer? Wild Thing, indeed.

But I started out by talking about Bob Dylan, and it’s as good a place to end as any. Happy is a Yuppie word. It’s something fleeting — momentarily attainable — and then stripped away from us.

Dylan suggests a change in paradigm: between blessed and unblessed. Could it be that Charlie would agree? Because whatever assails Audrey and him, they are no longer dictated by the world’s measures of happiness. They can live by a new standard — a standard that is not dispositional or material. It’s based on us and whether or not we are prepared to search out the joys and blessings of life no matter the turmoil. That’s something wild. It can flip your world upside down.

3.5/5 Stars

Swing Shift (1984): Underrated Classic with Caveats

Swing_shiftAside from films actually produced during the war years, I’m not sure if I can think of a film that highlights the homefront to the degree of Swing Shift. The soundtrack is also perfectly antiquated (sans Carly Simon) fitting the era and mood to add another definite dimension. It effectively takes us back with the auditory cues of Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael, and the rest.

We read in our history books about Rosie the Riveter and women gaining a newfound freedom as they fell into work formerly held only by men. But here this reality is put into practice in a manner that makes tangible sense.

The events of the war happen to them as they walk along the pier, sit in their living rooms, or do their work. Instantly they become current events.

We understand the certain amount of independence women would have been allowed in this time, where they were given a part to play in the struggle against the Axis powers. War can simultaneously cause deep wells of tragedy and bring us the greatest joys.

Our relationships become entrenched with a profound camaraderie and yet we can hurt the ones we love. We change and they change. Things very rarely remain the same after something so cataclysmic.

There are several intentional and formative relational dynamics in Swing Shift. It is about two working women: Goldie Hawn and Christine Lathi. They are by each other’s side through the thick and thin of friendship. Putting in a solid day’s work and then getting dolled up to go out on the town. They’re inseparable. However, sometimes it’s relationships like these that can suffer the most.

It is about a husband (Ed Harris) and a wife (Hawn): one going off to war and the other staying behind — prepared to walk alone. This isn’t what they were planning, but it’s happened and they move forward through the paces of it the best they can. And yet life gets in the way — where time and space separates them — and makes the waiting and the worry all the more difficult.

It’s about a woman and a man who cannot contain the genuine feelings they foster for one another (In real life Kirk Russell and Goldie Hawn fell in love and never looked back). Because he is present, in the flesh, good-natured and available in a way her husband never was — even when he was around. And yet Lucky (Russell), when he’s not riding his motorbike or playing the trumpet, is a wounded soul in his own right. War only works to exacerbate the clouded emotions of the day and that goes for all these relationships. They are interconnected issues.

But I think this is the best compliment that can be paid to the story. Because sometimes it looks a bit like a TV soap, and the story doesn’t always fall together, and yet there is a broader sense of what this movie is and what the focal points must be. This I believe we can attribute to Jonathan Demme. It’s meant to be more than conventional romance and we get tastes of that.

I say tastes because Swing Shift also has to be one of the most notorious cases of artistic tampering, right up there with The Magnificent Ambersons or Terminal Station. Warner Bros., at the behest of Goldie Hawn, edited the movie and reconstructed the story after Demme had finished principal photography.

Aside from story or continuity questions causing a few head scratches, the issues seem to go deeper still. I am by no means an insider, but from what I can gather, Hawn’s version tried to center the story around her and Russell. There’s an obvious reason for this. They have more than chemistry. They have romance. However, it also attempted to simplify her image and rectify any conflict we might have with her character. In essence, the goal was to make her more likable.

It causes her to maintain some sense of moral dignity and still the movie ends on an unfulfilling, empty note. It’s as if some kind of greater catharsis was possible, and we are robbed of it all with a final tear and a whimper. The resolution is not quite a cop-out as it is an exercise in indecision. The picture dissolves when something more complex, something more evocative, was probably called for and just waiting to be excavated.

Someday I hope the Demme version might go back into circulation, not just so we can see the movie as it was meant to be seen, from the untarnished vantage point of its creator. That’s part of it. But there’s also a sense Demme attempted to develop something more full-bodied and well-contoured.

Hollywood is always obsessed with primary action — the characters at the center of the story — but so often what is most interesting is what remains on the periphery. The supporting characters or the elements of the world that make it come off the screen and feel real.

One is reminded of the moment a smartly dressed soldier boy comes up to one of the swing shift members (Holly Hunter). He’s there to give her the horrible news, and she knows it before the words leave his lips. She falls onto him and he apologizes — he’s never done this before. How horrible and pitiful and lovely it is because it feels so innocent and honest.

Moments like these are a testament to a movie with so much to offer, bubbling up under the surface. It’s a shame it was so badly mangled. We must be thankful for what we have and hold out that someday we might get to see the cut that kept to Demme’s vision. Here’s to hoping. For what, it’s worth, Swing Shift might well be an underrated classic with a couple substantial caveats to include.

3.5/5 Stars

Parenthood (1989): It’s a Mess and That’s Okay

Parenthood_(film)_posterThere’s something apropos about baseball having such a central spot in the storyline of Parenthood because this is a movie wrapped up in the American experience from a very particular era. Yes, the euphoric joys and manifold stressors of parenting are in some form universal, but Ron Howard’s ode to the art of childrearing is also wonderfully indicative of its time.

What is more relatable than wrangling the whole family to go to a ball game together?  Gil (Steve Martin) and Helen (Mary Steenburgen) Buckman corral their family together, gathering all the stuff, and making sure the little ones don’t get run over by oncoming traffic as Randy Newman drawls his theme song. Piling into the family van and loading up to head home is a process unto itself. In one way, it’s a treat and an ordeal all rolled into one. A lot like parenting.

In fact, with its subject matter considered, this is not your prototypical Ron Howard movie, and by that I mean it feels more overtly personal in nature. Certainly, Clint Howard gets his usual cameo, but the story speaks more about experiences — experiences of the worries and the joys that overtake you.

They become a focal point of this story as the adults try to navigate life together with three kids and a large extended family.  To a lesser degree, Little League baseball also becomes an integral part of life with Gil coaching his son Kevin’s team. It’s a different indicator of life as his boy is constantly made fearful of messing up.

He’s hardly the next Ozzie Smith or Ryne Sandberg. And when you’re a kid, the respect of your peers makes or breaks everything. You don’t want to be the one to let your team down. Could this all be part of the issues Kevin has according to his teachers?

However, as the roving ensemble is introduced with a patchwork of interrelated stories stitched together, you begin to appreciate the problems visible everywhere. This is imperative. They are part of what makes us human, and the full-bodied cast is what makes the relational dynamics sing.

Helen Buckman (Dianne Wiest) is a single mother just trying to get close to her kids with a distant son (Joaquin Phoenix) who won’t talk to her and a daughter (Martha Plimpton) who’s gone and got shacked up with a real airhead (Keanu Reeves). It’s like her life is crumbling all around her, and she must learn to hold it together, the best she knows how. This is her life.

Nathan Huffner (Rick Moranis) and his wife Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) are raising their daughter to be some sort of savant and her IQ runs circles around her cousins. She’s also simultaneously missing out on all the joys of being a kid. Her mother becomes overwhelmed by their strict parenting regimen, and it begins to leave a toll on their marriage. It’s so very easy to forget your priorities — how you ever fell in love in the first place.

Then, there’s the rather cantankerous Jason Robards. He’s fond of his youngest child Larry (Tom Hulce), the black sheep of the family because he’s lively and fun. Even dad is surprised when his boy returns home with a young son named Cool and a raging gambling problem; it’s got him in bad with some dangerous thugs.

Can you imagine the family dinners that these people have? There’s so much going on and yet they’re probably not all that far removed from our own family holidays. At least the spirit is there — something we can latch onto — and probably relate to.

However, it’s the party scenes allowing Steve Martin to showcase his comic chops as he takes on his cowboy persona to captivate all the kids and earn their appreciation while upholding his son’s reputation. It’s an emotional high in the bipolar ride you go through as a parent. Like any parents, they dream their little darlings will be valedictorians, and other times they fear that they might just as easily turn into a shooter. Often reality strikes a middle ground.

It’s far from flawless in its narrative, but that’s the point. It gets so bad Martin is going batty lashing out at his wife and everyone else. His son’s emotional anxieties have him worried. He’s stressed by a workplace that feels totally opportunistic and callous. Now, his wife’s supposed to have a baby and the news feels more like a burden than a gift.

If life doesn’t radically change, then perspectives certainly do. Robards and Martin have a surprisingly poignant conversation while sitting in the Little League dugout. Father talks to son about how there is no end zone in life. Your children and the people around you are there for good. And you’ll love them no matter what. It’s one significant moment of sentiment among many others.

In this way, Parenthood confidently modulates between drama and pathos, humor and romance, then circling back again. If little has changed from the beginning to end, then certainly their perspective evolves. It has something to do with embracing this beautiful chaos of life. Enjoying the ride as opposed to fearing every jolt of turbulence.  Sometimes the simplest wisdom can be the most profound if you let it.

Grandma says she’s always appreciated the rollercoaster to going round and round on a merry-go-round. Parenthood is the rollercoaster and that’s a compliment. It feels alive and idiosyncratic in a way one does not usually attribute to Ron Howard’s more recent work. It’s a refreshing take and probably a high point of his directorial career. I am not a parent myself, but I can only imagine how its observations would take on new resonance after becoming one.

3.5/5 Stars

Melvin and Howard (1980): A “Good” Samaritan and A Millionaire

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The opening sequence of Melvin and Howard takes on more and more meaning the longer the movie goes on. It’s very simple, really. We open up with some joyrider on his motorbike tearing through the desert, taking on every jump through the arid wasteland with reckless abandon.

As one might suspect, his foolhardy stunt bites him in the butt; he winds up in a spill, leaving him incapacitated in the middle of nowhere. It’s night and pitch dark now. Thankfully, there is a good samaritan who picks him up. As he gets closer and pulls the injured man into his car, we get a better look at him. He’s a scruffy-looking man well-advanced in years.

Here we have the inauspicious introduction of Melvin and Howard. Melvin (Paul Le Mat) is really a nobody, but he does have a sense of decency, picking up this old man without any pretense or sense of knowing who he is. Because Howard (Jason Robards), is Howard Hughes — the eccentric, aviating millionaire.

They talk and share something genuine between two people. Howard’s resistant at first. He doesn’t want to take part in Melvin’s friendly chatter nor does he go much for singing songs. Melvin nevertheless obliges with the tune he mailed into a music label for. They took his lyrics and supplied a tune. The outcome birthed a new Christmas classic, “Souped-Up Santa’s Sleigh.” Howard’s exterior cracks briefly as he relents and proceeds to hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in response.

The scene doesn’t look like much, but it plays extraordinarily well. Then, just like that, they part ways. At the request of Howard, Melvin drops him off out back of a hotel — the old man still hobbling and beat up. But he’s adamant this is where he wants to be, so Melvin relents.

We think this is just the beginning, and it is, yet we never see Hughes (or Robards) again (well, almost). But it’s this moment of initial connection and humanity that not only informs the rest of the story but sets the tone for Jonathan Demme’s free-flowing biography of a little guy.

If you want to think about it in such terms, it’s an off-center Howard Hughes biopic where the central character is a man named Melvin, who reflects a different cross-section of society. It’s the kind of story you wouldn’t think would get the Hollywood treatment and yet here it is, and the director gives it the kind of love and affection necessary to make it feel lived-in and sincere.

Here is a man who lives in a trailer. His wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is a sweet woman and together they have a darling daughter who only sees the best in her folks even if their flaws are forever visible.

These are the flaws that keep the life of the Dummars in a constant state of disruption. Whether it’s money troubles, due to Melvin’s spendthrift philosophy, or Lynda’s working of the seedy nightclub circuit, there’s a great deal of dysfunction in their family life. But at their core is a near-oblivious simplicity and so even as their life is a bumpy ordeal, there’s something endearing them — making us wish the best for them.

He’s visibly repulsed by her work — he doesn’t want her flaunting herself in front of strangers. His home life is humble, but he gladly sits in front of the TV with his daughter feasting on pop tarts and bacon. Lynda never seems to dislike Melvin; she just knows it’s not possible to rely on him. So, over the course of the picture, they get divorced, then remarried, complete with one of those throw-em-together hotel wedding ceremonies for $39.

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If it’s not evident already, Melvin & Howard is a film that seems continually preoccupied with the desert backroads and small-towns of America. Where the country music is ubiquitous and people live simple, unadorned lives. Where Melvin’s chances to earn the mantle of milkman of the month get threatened or the car gets repossessed.

But there’s also an itinerant element — to pick up and go in search of new lives and new fortunes — and because the film chooses to stay with Melvin, the story itself takes on this antsy quality. Never being fully satisfied to dwell in one place. However, far from giving off a superficial impression, it winds up coloring a world with all sorts of genuine nooks and crannies.

It’s not a charmed life, but he meets it with continual candor. The reunited family gets by losing themselves in TV game show episodes of Easy Street, which become a kind of communal event for everyone. Lynda fulfills a dream by getting on the show as a contestant and feverishly tap-dancing her way through the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the prize of $10,000!

Still, the family splinters again. Melvin picks up and moves to Utah after marrying a Mormon girl. They set up shop in a gas station. The so-called focal point of Melvin’s life feels squeezed into the end of this movie, not that it’s shoehorned into the story by any means, but it shows how his life adds up to something more than the media frenzy that soon overtakes him.

Because he was the man who had the unsubstantiated will of the late Howard Hughes dropped on his gas station desk naming him as 1/16 beneficiaries of Hughes’s fortunes. That added up to approximately $156 million! In the aftermath, he found himself brought into court to testify as his story was heavily disputed. It does sound absolutely ludicrous. 

How this seemingly unextraordinary individual could find himself at the center of something so grand and earth-shattering is a real-life farce. However, what lingers is the import of the first scene. Demme does well to return there if only briefly, to remind us what this frenzy was about.

Lest we feel slighted that this movie wasn’t really about Melvin and Howard at all (or at least mostly Melvin), in some way it says as much about Howard Hughes’ life by leaving out all the trumped-up treatment. It’s the romantic in me, but I would like to believe that even our momentary interactions with one another can be blessed.

It is possible to touch someone else, adding even a little bit of goodness into their lives. It’s this kind of goodwill to strangers that can stay with them for a lifetime, whether or not they include us in their wills or not. Who knows, you might be entertaining angels unawares, or misanthropic millionaires, for that matter.

4/5 Stars

Jean-Paul Belmondo: Up To His Ears, Le Magnifique, The Professional

Because of his meteoric ascension in Breathless, patterning his insouciant hoodlum on the Hollywood image of Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo is easily identified with his predecessor. He was a tough guy — gladly so — and he offered up a long line of memorable performances over a stellar career.

Pierrot Le Fou (Godard) and Le Doulos (Melville) quickly spring to mind, but then you only have to look at something like Leon Morin, Priest, where he plays the eponymous clergyman, to recognize the range he was capable of.

In honor of his career, we wanted to highlight three of his later action films. They are not his most acclaimed pictures, but they are defined by his legacy so it seems fitting to acknowledge them.

Up To His Ears (1965)

Up to His Ears is cut out of the same cloth as Philippe de Broca’s prior film with Belmondo from the year before: That Man from Rio. It’s a globetrotting picture all across the orient with madcap chase sequences and quite a few attempts at Bond-like intrigue.

Overall, it bends more toward dated gags and goofy antics than out-and-out thrills, and it seems mostly content with this. When they flee an onslaught of Chinese gangsters, Belmondo and company sneak down into a pillbox, down to an underground tunnel, and on and on. There always seems to be a fortuitous out for them.

If their good fortune and the fact they aren’t completely annihilated seems farfetched, then you don’t understand the ambitions of the film. It’s all sendup. Belmondo seems to be enjoying himself, and his adventures lead to a desert island with Ursula Andress. He can’t believe his luck.

Obviously, the movie cannot quite muster the same glory as That Man from Rio, but Belmondo is still a great action hero able to play the crazy comedic moments and still move through space with vim and vigor. It ain’t Godard, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3/5 Stars

Le Magnifique (1973)

Also known as Our Man in Acapulco, and its dashing hero, Bob Saint-Clar (Jean-Paul Belmondo) feels like an amalgamation of ’70s era Bond (Moore and Connery) with a lot of Get Smart thrown in for taste.

Philippe de Broca’s at the helm again offering up some of the most self-reflexive parodies of the hypermasculine, suave international spy genre. It pulls out all the comic book scenarios — with dastardly villains et al. — and the resolutions, seeing our hero always prevail. He must live to fight another day.

Broca himself readily contributed to this spy phenomenon during the ’60s with Belmondo to boot. However, it’s so over-the-top to the point of being offputting. Then, we realize our secret agent is being dreamed up by a hack writer, named Francois (also Belmondo) on a strict deadline!

Suddenly it breathes new life into the premise with a renewed perspective, and these long-trod pulp-bound conventions become only part of the gimmick and, hence, only part of its appeal. Not to be outdone, he’s taken the English sociology student (Jacqueline Bisset), who lives across the way and dreamt her into his story as the beautiful Tatiana. His supervillain is none other than his own pompous editor (Vittorio Caprioli).

We’ve followed his story umpteen times before. Although he writes pulp trash for a rapt audience of many, his active imagination all but compensates for a fairly nondescript private life. He’s got a bit of Walter Mitty in him. In the most fated of meet-cutes, Christine (Bisset) accidentally picks up one of his works and finds herself instantly inspired for her college thesis.

Soon she’s dropping by to blow through whole shelves of his novels. And then the idealized man dreamed up on the page, must take a stand in his own life. For what it is — plagued by many of the shortcomings of its genre and the era — I can’t help but appreciate Le Magnifique.

It mostly comes down to Belmondo’s dual role and his rapport with Bisset. Again, they’re having palpable fun taking it over the top, and like any great screen icon, Belmondo gets the girl — twice.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professional (1981)

It feels like your prototypical dated ’80s blockbuster replete with gratuitous violence, a rogue’s gallery of heavies with all the other corny ingredients mixed in together. Belmondo is an agent, undercover in an African country, prepared to assassinate their leader only to be drugged and sent to a labor camp.

He escapes and ultimately returns to France as a kind of rogue operative on the lam. His former superiors want to do away with him, but he’s always one step ahead. He’s not going to be eliminated that easily.

Although it’s not a Bond movie, there are pretty girls, and he seems to know them all intimately all while slinking around to preserve his own skin and complete his objective. Belmondo is undeniable, handling everything from fisticuffs, stunts, and seduction with his usual roguish charisma. He never takes himself too seriously. It’s as if he’s in on the joke of it all and enjoying himself in each individual moment.

The final car chase changes my whole verdict of the picture because it really does take my breath away. It’s yet another showcase for Belmondo the consummate action hero, effectively taking the film by the horns and really living and breathing the part.

While the score isn’t prototypical Ennio Morricone, it gained a new life and legacy in The Professional. He receives what might be termed the briefest of homages as the film’s main leitmotif comes to life between crosscut closeups of its hero and villain a la Leone. It’s like a mini showdown transposed to the world of French secret agents.

There is so much of Bourne here beyond the car chase, and it comes down to the inexplicable predicament of the protagonist. He is thrown into a world that is not right-side-up, and his only choice is holding fast to what he knows. He’s smart and cunning, making a real go of it.

But sometimes the world in all its order and pragmatism doesn’t make a shred of sense. At least, to the very last minute, Belmondo looks cool doing his job. In a movie like this, surely that’s all that matters. Adieu, Jean-Paul. Thank you for what you gave us.

3.5/5 Stars

Down By Law (1986): An Offbeat Jarmusch Noir

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A raspy vocal emanates from the screen verging on spoken word as it sings to a mambo-infused rhythm. Casual tracking shots lead us by the local architecture at the pace of a car ambling along on a Sunday afternoon. I only confirmed after the fact this is Tom Waits singing his tune “Jockey Full of Bourbon” from an earlier album.

These are the streets of Louisana, and the man helping to capture these glorious, sweeping shots is none other than Robby Muller (probably most famous for his work with Wim Wenders). His partnership with Jim Jarmusch was just being established and it would continue well into the ’90s.

This is the opening prelude of Down by Law if you will. Because the real intimate stretches of humanity — at least the ones dwelling in this story — can be found in the dirty, dilapidated interiors and on the sketchy street corners. It’s these bombed-out, grungy aesthetics giving the film its layers of instant character.

Muller’s cinematography is an immediate asset and no matter the subject matter within the frame, he makes it feel captivating and strikingly beautiful, whether it’s a street corner, a jail cell, or a boggy bayou. We’re drawn to keep watching and relishing his images.

John Lurie is a pimp who feels like a nobody. He tries to act big only to get sucked into the shadiest of business deals. Tom Waits isn’t much better off as a disgraced disc jockey. His girl walks out of him in a fit of rage, and he proceeds to go drown his sorrows.

However, first, he must gather up his shoes from the street below where they have been unceremoniously tossed. The inhumanity of Gene Pitney’s record (I think that’s him) cast out into the street says it all — both the mood and the crispness of the photography.

I’m not sure if Tom Waits is an actor as much as he’s an enigmatic personality exuding something we can latch onto as an audience. Lurie’s not altogether intriguing to me, but with Waits there’s something different — something we want to find out more about.

The manner of this off-beat noir is now fully established because the mood is the key when plot feels almost secondary even tertiary in importance. The dialogue is laughable, but somehow it fits into this world gladly mixing both style and sendup of the past. And yet it’s only the most affectionate homage to bygone years with its chiaroscuro, smoky street corners, and fedoras to fill out a modern underworld.

It’s the kind of movie where a guy will just walk up to you on a deserted street corner and offer you keys to a Jaguar and a wad of Franklins to do his dirty work for him. Sometimes the dirty work has strings attached.

Pretty soon Zack’s in the can and Jack’s with him. What a sorry pair they turn out to be. But there is eventually a saving grace. Enter Bob. Aside from being another tribute to Jarmusch’s wildly diverse casting tendencies, Roberto Benigni holds the film together with his charming personality.

He single-handedly redefines the tone of the movie making it into a kind of reluctant buddy movie. Because his instant good nature, loquaciousness, and limitations with the English language give him the powers to add something radically different to the film’s cocktail.

If he’s ever the butt of the jokes as the foreigner, more often he’s the movie’s champion, a force of joy and goodwill bringing together two bunkmates of the most cynical and standoffish sort. When they start their giddy tirade — yelling at the top of their lungs — You scream, we scream, we all scream for ice cream, it feels like “Moses Suposes” antics taking over the jailhouse.

Even with the introduction of Benigni, there is this sense Jarmusch is once more working in these near-stagnant scenes involving shooting the bull or playing cards much like Stranger Than Paradise. It’s once more observational and altogether content in the idiosyncratic. The elliptical sense of filling the spaces in between is also surprisingly prevalent. The biggest example being, of course, the prison escape.

Tarantino would choose to not show the heist 6 years later in Reservoir Dogs. To some degree, Jarmusch beat him to the punch as far as genre deconstruction with a jailbreak movie missing its most crucial lynchpin. But for what he’s going for, it works wonders. It works far better by throwing away convention because he never rested on it, to begin with.

Soon they are fleeing through the bayou, then canoeing, then getting left adrift without any inclination where they are going. Thankfully, they find a bunkhouse in which to recalibrate (though it looks eerily similar to their cell). However, the real prize is when they happen upon Luigi’s Tin Top. In its own way, the restaurant is an oasis.

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We had been through so much already, it completely slipped my mind that this moment was coming. It feels like a slice of serendipity. Here we have Roberto Benigni playing opposite Nicoletta Braschi as two Italians madly in love in the middle of nowhere. Again, they somehow operate outside the pervasive tone — the underlying stench — of the movie and its other characters.

However, what makes it feel fortuitous comes with context. They would wind up getting married 5 years later and remain so to this day as far as I know. Over a decade later, they would star in their most renowned foray Life is Beautiful, which pretty much bottled up everything disarming and magical about Benigni and enchanted the world over with its abundant good cheer and tenderness.

For now, they dance cheek to cheek in a lonely restaurant out in the boonies. It’s inauspicious while signifying something so much more. We leave them knowing they have a rewarding life ahead.

In the final moments as Lurie and Waits walk down the path, trees on either side, I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest, most atmospheric noirs: The Third Man. Except as Jack and Zack split off at the fork in the road to forge their own paths, we can’t help but be reminded of Robert Frost.

Because Jim Jarmusch might as well be summed up as such. A noir aficionado with the sentiments of a poet. Down By Law is not quite bombastic pop culture pulp in the mode of Tarantino. There’s a distinct artfulness there that still never quite loses its idiosyncratic yearnings and inclinations.

4/5 Stars

Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Jim Jarmusch

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One of the most revelatory aspects about becoming more familiar with Jim Jarmusch is how international his films are. At the very least, there’s this sense of them putting a lens to a broader cross-section of society.

He is unequivocally American, but whether it’s because he’s a cineaste or driven to a global perspective through music or other interests, he paints with a canvass broader than simply the American experience. He also seems to understand the American experience is framed and colored by those who come to us. In fact, we are a melting pot, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, made up of all nations.

As a storyteller, Jarmusch seems drawn to what I’ve heard termed the “mearcstapa” — the border walkers — people on the outskirts. They could be expatriates, foreigners, or people who simply conceive of the world in a different manner than you and me. Although the term is recontextualized from its Medieval connotations, it does take on renewed meaning. In the case of Stranger Than Paradise, it’s a visitor from Hungary.

But if any of this dialogue runs the risk of making the story sound too rarified, rest assured, it is far from that. It’s a picture content in the simplest of moments. The plot as it were is born out of a statement. Eddie (John Lurie) has a cousin arriving and visiting him from Hungary. That’s it right there.

He feels put upon having her stay with him. He doesn’t show her the town. He doesn’t give her food. He’s the most inhospitable person in the world. But then again look at his life. He subsists off TV dinners and beer.

His only friend is Eddie, a shifty-eyed, flighty fellow who’s half-witted in a lovable kind of way. They spend time watching football, playing cards, drinking beer, or going to the races. That’s just about all they ever do. And it hardly changes with the addition of Eva.

Still, what the movie exudes resolutely is a style and an aesthetic, forming something more substantial than the sum of its modest parts. Because it’s certainly humble, and the antithesis of flamboyant production values, and yet it manages to supersede the simple nature of what is happening onscreen.

Take, for instance, the sequence where Eva is walking down the streets with her suitcases in hand to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rumbles across the pavement, and it’s oddly mesmerizing.

Pairing this with the black and white cinematography, dominating the film with a dreary, dilapidatedness leaves a startling impression. It’s both the prevailing sense of the world and somehow complementary to the budget and resources he’s working with.

I am reminded of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder because there is the sense of almost two-dimensional space in many of the scenes — simple but purposefully done. In the case of Jarmusch, there are hardly any cuts, with the shots put end-to-end and void of any other type of true editing. It’s the simplest form, really, cut together by way of black inserted between the sequences.

You could point out Jarmusch is making a kind of glorified short film, and that’s how the narrative began sticking the footage together in three segments. But the black in-between the visuals also function as a kind of ellipsis.

Because pretty soon Willie and Eddy get up and go from Brooklyn and road trip it out to Cleveland. Why? Because Eva’s there. She is a fellow sojourner, and so they take to the road in order to catch up with her. In one of his typically dorky observations, Eddie tells his buddy, “Before I met your cousin, I didn’t know you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American.”

Pretty soon they’re staying with the Aunt and back to watching TV and playing card games. Shooting the bull and chewing the fat like they always do wherever they go. Even miles away in the icy tundra of the Midwest they realize, “You come someplace new and everything looks the same.” Restless for some meaningful experience, they head off to sun-soaked Florida to seek something else.

Finally, there’s some action, albeit off-screen and pretty much only alluded to. The boys lose all their dough at the dog races. In her own absurd turn of events, Eva winds up with a mother lode in drugs. That could be a whole rabbit hole all to its own. Instead, they take a trip to the airport to set up another adventure…undoubtedly just as absurd as the last.

It might not seem like much, but that’s the entire charm of Jarmusch’s movie; he’s so very comfortable bending away from Hollywood convention. Where location shooting becomes more of an in-joke than of a particular commodity and characters and story are more likely conduits of style. In fact, to this day, he’s made a career out of it.

Now, Stranger Than Paradise feels a bit like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. They played as important catalysts for subsequent generations of filmmakers because they were unique and of their own time with their own vision. And part of their merit is having done it first — using the world at their disposal and creating something that stays with us however mundane and unadorned.

Part of the paradoxical charm of Stranger Than Paradise is how you could conceivably make a movie like it, and yet you couldn’t ever match its essence because Jim Jarmusch made it just so — distinctly individual and measured to his own personal liking. That’s what it has going for it even to this day. It’s unmistakably him.

3.5/5 Stars