Richard Dreyfuss

Hello Down There (1969, Jack Arnold)

Hello Down There is a family comedy. Its target audience is families who want to see a sexy mom Janet Leigh and sexless teenagers. I think it’s for dads who somehow got stuck taking their tweens to the movies in the late sixties? When the movie starts, it almost seems like Leigh’s going to play a big part. She's scared of the water, the movie’s about her husband Tony Randall dragging her into an undersea house to see if a regular American family can inhabit it. Of course, they’re not a regular American family because Randall’s a genius underwater engineer, Leigh’s a burgeoning romance novelist (because she’s a sexy mom), their kids (Kay Cole and Gary Tigerman) are in close-to-signing terrible mainstream hippie rock band, and… actually, no, they don’t have any pets.

Eventually they get a pet for two scenes when they’re living in the underwater house and a seal gets down there and becomes Leigh’s sidekick. It’s kind of a good scene. There’s potential. It never pays off, but potential’s rare in Hello Down There so you take what you can get.

The movie opens with millionaire underwater construction industrialist Jim Backus (in a godawful performance) going down in a submarine to see what his chief designer engineer Randall has been working on. The underwater house. It’ll solve overpopulation problems. Except Backus, being a millionaire industrialist, had no idea what Randall was working on and Backus thinks it’s stupid. Backus likes smarter projects; he loves Ken Berry’s idea to vacuum up the ocean floor and collect all the gold. Because there’s lots of gold there.

Oh, yeah, Hello Down There is for families all right… dumb ones.

Or maybe it’s just for dads who really liked Janet Leigh and needed an excuse to see her in something family-friendly?

Anyway, Randall has to promise Backus he and his family will live down there for thirty days, which Backus assumes is impossible because Leigh’s afraid of water and Backus is a little too interested in Leigh. Because he’s a creep in addition to being an idiot.

Leigh freaks out then goes off for some alone time and comes back in lingerie—chaste lingerie but lingerie—to seduce Randall as her way of apologizing for not getting over the aqua phobia immediately upon his request. They get interrupted by the kids, who don’t want to go because their band is about to hit it big with record producer Roddy McDowell (also godawful but not as embarrassingly as Backus). So they bring the band along. The rest of the band is Richard Dreyfuss, who’s better at lip synching than acting here, and Lou Wagner, who dresses like a court jester hippie and does nothing else.

Will the family make it? Will the band make it? Will there be a disappearing hurricane, dolphins, a shark attack, Tony Randall fighting a shark, Charlotte Rae playing one of her first housekeepers, an underwater rescue sequence, lots of crappy music montages, lots of mansplaining, shirtless Tony Randall separate from shark fight, and Merv Griffin? No spoilers but it’s not like you can just make up such a strange list.

Oh, yeah, there’s also Arnold Stang, who apparently drowns because the movie forgets about him. And a whole subplot about the U.S. Navy being too stupid to figure out there’s the underwater house, even though it presumably took a while to build and you’d think they’d notice because it could be the Soviets or whatever.

On the other hand, why blame screenwriters John McGreevey and Frank Telford… there’s no way to make this one good. It’s a bad production, with lousy music (courtesy Jeff Barry), lousy photography (Clifford H. Poland Jr.), questionable special effects, and occasionally bad, barely mediocre direction from Arnold. Ricou Browning directs the underwater sequences, which are bad when they’re a nature film and boring with establishing shots… but awesome when it’s action. There’s that Tony Randall vs. shark sequence (fingers crossed it was former Creature from the Black Lagoon Browning doing the uncredited underwater stunt work).

Everyone except the kids, who range from bad to worse, and Leigh just mug their way through the film. Randall included. Leigh doesn’t have much to work with, but at least she doesn’t just give up like everyone else. It’s an embarrassing movie, but she’s got nothing to be embarrassed about with it.

As opposed to literally everyone else involved. It tries to be a ninety-minute sitcom and fails. Not even shark fighting and a drunk Rae can save it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by John McGreevey and Frank Telford, based on a story by Art Arthur and Ivan Tors; director of photography, Clifford H. Poland Jr.; edited by Erwin Dumbrille; music by Jeff Barry; produced by George Sherman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tony Randall (Fred Miller), Janet Leigh (Vivian Miller), Roddy McDowall (Nate Ashbury), Jim Backus (T.R. Hollister), Ken Berry (Mel Cheever), Charlotte Rae (Myrtle Ruth), Kay Cole (Lorrie Miller), Richard Dreyfuss (Harold Webster), Lou Wagner (Marvin Webster), Gary Tigerman (Tommie Miller), Arnold Stang (Jonah), Harvey Lembeck (Sonarman), and Merv Griffin (Himself).



The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross)

The Goodbye Girl is excessively genial. Usually at the expense of lead Marsha Mason. It’s her movie too. Not hers to lose, because it’s so much her movie–she’s The Goodbye Girl–instead hers to be taken away. And take it away writer Neil Simon does. The film starts being about single mom Mason getting dumped by her live-in boyfriend. He’s a New York actor, she was a Broadway dancer. He goes to Italy, dumping her and the kid (Quinn Cummings) instead of taking them to L.A. as promised.

Of course, the ex-boyfriend is never in the movie. He’s got his pictures up all over the apartment, but he’s never in the movie. It’s the best thing Simon and director Ross end up doing in the film. The establishing of this awful ex-boyfriend just through exposition and visual suggestion.

The ex sublets the apartment out from under Mason and Cummings. Enter Richard Dreyfuss, Chicago actor come to New York, subletter.

The apartment is central to the film. Simon’s script has play trappings while still paced like a movie; Ross never goes stagy. The direction’s not great, but it has a lot of depth. The apartment becomes gradually familiar in the first half of the film. It becomes comfortable. Even though Mason and ten-year old Cummings are living with part-time nudist, wheat germ enthusiast Dreyfuss. Though all of Dreyfuss’s first act eccentricities disappear right after being established.

Goodbye Girl has some behind-the-scenes drama and some of it might explain Simon’s disjointed script. But the lack of consistency just comes off as lazy. It makes a lot of Simon’s set pieces come off contrived. Especially once they become at the expense of Mason. First couple times, it’s not at the expense of screentime for her, it’s at the expense of her performance. See, once Dreyfuss warms to Mason–which seems impossible after their first few scenes together–and takes a liking to Cummings (who’s likable in the thinnest part in Simon’s atomic-thin cast of characters), he sort of starts stalking her. Like he goes to her job to mess with her.

Then Mason stops doing anything but decorating; once she and Dreyfuss do hook up, she stops caring about anything except redecorating.

The movie has some problems with plotting. Ross doesn’t do summary well so it’s never clear how long they’re living together before the third act. It just makes for a disjointed picture–Dreyfuss and Mason go from bickering funny to romantically funny in about five minutes. And it’s Dreyfuss becoming a completely different character.

That character is far from an organic development. The movie doesn’t even really acknowledge that his character is developing. While he should be warming up to Mason and Cummings, Dreyfuss is busy in the play from hell subplot with Paul Benedict as a misguided but insistent director.

So, while Dreyfuss is doing all that stuff, Mason gets to keep her movie. Then she loses it.

By the finale, all Goodbye Girl has got keeping it going is the charm of its three stars. Because everyone else in Goodbye Girl is disposable. It’s just Dreyfuss, Mason, and Cummings. If their parts were stronger, it’d be enough. If their parts were at least consistent, it might be enough.

The film’s dramatically inert. But pleasant–even when it’s being creepy–and amiably acted. David M. Walsh’s photography doesn’t help with the excess geniality. His lighting is too soft. Dave Grusin’s score is a little light too. Everything in Goodbye Girl is too thin, too soft, or too light. They have to be to match Simon’s unsubstantial script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Ray Stark; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marsha Mason (Paula McFadden), Quinn Cummings (Lucy McFadden), Richard Dreyfuss (Elliot Garfield), Paul Benedict (Mark), Barbara Rhoades (Donna), and Theresa Merritt (Mrs. Crosby).


Tin Men (1987, Barry Levinson)

Tin Men is expansive. So expansive writer-director Levinson can’t get everywhere. He doesn’t have time in 112 mintues, he doesn’t have the structure for it either. Tin Men establishes its narrative distance firmly, deliberately, and usually hilariously in the first act. When Levinson gets to the end of the second act, he’s way too interested in all the plot strands he’s got going on. By that time, the film has–for better or worse (worse, but more on it in a bit)–become Danny DeVito’s movie. DeVito had been sharing more with top-billed Richard Dreyfuss, but then Levinson moves the focus away from Dreyfuss. Except then Levinson becomes immediately more interested in everything going on around DeVito. Except DeVito’s completely unaware of all the things going on around him. So it changes the film’s tone.

At one point, DeVito gets called out on his apathy; while he doesn’t improve, he does start getting more likable. Likable is one of Tin Men’s biggest problems. Levinson loves all of his characters way too much. They’re all a little too precious. When the film starts, however, the characters aren’t likable or lovable or precious. In fact, they’re not supposed to be any of those things, much less all of them.

Tin Men opens with a very nostalgic, sentimental opening title sequence. Levinson’s got some issues with the sentimentality in the film. There’s very little, except when he forces it. After the titles, we meet DeVito and suffering wife Barbara Hershey, then DeVito runs into Dreyfuss. Literally. Car accident.

From their inital argument, which is before the characters are established (and it takes Levinson around half the movie to establish DeVito), Tin Men moves on to setting up the ground situation. DeVito and Dreyfuss are both aluminum siding salesmen. They work for different companies. They have acquaintances in common, but don’t know one another.

Then it’s time to introduce the acquaintances, which is where Tin Men is often its most easily amusing. Big list. Here we go. John Mahoney is Dreyfuss’s sidekick. Jackie Gayle is DeVito’s. Mahoney and Gayle have about the same size parts, except Mahoney’s drama and Gayle’s comedy. Levinson sets DeVito up to have the more humorous storyline, which requires no one like DeVito. Not the other characters, not the viewer.

Sorry, off track already.

Supporting acquantiances–Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow, Matt Craven, Alan Blumenfeld, and Michael Tucker are Dreyfuss’s entourage. Cassel’s amazing. His delivery of his one-liners transcends. Every one of his scenes is phenomenal. Portnow and Craven are background. Blumenfeld’s a new salesman, so he gets more. Tucker’s a cameo. He’s good, but it’s a cameo. A meaty one, because Levinson loves the characters so much. When he’s being overindulgent with the characters, he’s able to keep the sentimentality in check. When he’s just trying to package the film? That sentimentality flails, always at the wrong time. Levinson can’t figure out how to package the film because it’s not sentimental, even if he intends it to be.

I’m off track again. Tin Men is so much at once, so much.

DeVito’s entourage is Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, and J.T. Walsh as the boss. Brock’s hilarious. He’s the Cassel analogue but the delivery is different. Kirby’s the straight man and he’s great. His deliveries of Levinson’s speedy dialogue is magical.

So back to complaining about the packaging. Between the opening and closing bookends, Levinson examines all sorts of things. Sure, there’s the overarching story of Dreyfuss discovering true love with Hershey after stealing her away from DeVito as a prank, but Levinson loses track of that story. He focus on Hershey briefly, setting her up to have a bigger part separate from Dreyfuss, Levinson pulls back. And it’s a shame because Hershey’s awesome and Levinson writes her scenes well. He just can’t keep the film away from DeVito.

Because DeVito is spellbinding. He never learns. He never impresses. He should be loathsome but he’s not because he’s kind of a dope. The character’s usually unpleasant but watching DeVito isn’t.

Dreyfuss is excellent. His part’s not as good.

DeVito overpowers Tin Men until Levinson gets distracted with the American Dream angle. Once Levinson grazes that idea, he can’t stop circling it. Because Tin Men is positive. It adores the trappings of its time period while eagerly anticipating coming progresses. Levinson beautifully foreshadows in the film.

Whenever there’s something deft, Levinson can handle it. When it’s the big stuff like Dreyfuss and Hershey’s romance, he gets distracted. And maybe even bored. Dreyfuss and Hershey get some movie moments–like a lovely rain reconcilation–but Hershey’s best opposite DeVito, not Dreyfuss. Levinson fumbles the character focus in the second half.

Great score (and songs) from Fine Young Cannibals. Stu Linder’s editing is breathtaking. Levinson and Linder cut loose a few times and create these bombastic and sublime sequences. Superb editing.

Peter Sova’s photography is all right. Tin Men is a Touchstone eighties movie and it looks like one. It’s overly saturated, which is great to emphasize the clothes and sometimes the cars; it doesn’t help with the rest. It’s not crisp enough. It’s Levinson’s fault. Sova seems perfectly capable of lighting an interior with some personality. Levinson isn’t tasking him.

Great production design from Peter Jamison.

Tin Men is an excellent (if oversaturated) production. It looks wonderful. It moves wonderful. It sounds wonderful. Tin Men just doesn’t get anywhere wonderful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Stu Linder; music by Fine Young Cannibals; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Mark Johnson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (BB), Danny DeVito (Tilley), Barbara Hershey (Nora), John Mahoney (Moe), Jackie Gayle (Sam), Stanley Brock (Gil), Seymour Cassel (Cheese), Bruno Kirby (Mouse), J.T. Walsh (Wing), Richard Portnow (Carly), Matt Craven (Looney), Alan Blumenfeld (Stanley), Brad Sullivan (Masters), and Michael Tucker (Bagel).


Poseidon (2006, Wolfgang Petersen)

Almost all of Poseidon is extremely predictable. Even if it didn’t rip off every blockbuster since 1995 for one detail or plot twist or another, it would be extremely predictable. There is one big departure into unpredictability and it’s so jarring, for a while I maintained interested hoping screenwriter Mark Protosevich would try it again. Unfortunately, he does not.

It’s nearly impossible to find anything nice to say about Poseidon. Wolfgang Petersen’s direction is nowhere near as bad as it was in Air Force One or Outbreak. I suppose that statement is complementary.

But all of the acting is awful and a disaster movie can’t have awful acting. You can’t be rooting for the characters to die off just to be rid of them and, in Poseidon, it’s about all one can do to keep interested. Obviously, the annoying cameo from Stacy Ferguson makes her a prime target, but I never thought I’d be wanting less Andre Braugher in a movie. He plays the ship’s captain. He’s awful.

The film’s worst performances, in no particular order, come from Josh Lucas, Emmy Rossum, Mike Vogel and Kevin Dillon. Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Jacinda Barrett and Mía Maestro are all awful too, but they’re not as bad as the others. Though it is mildly amusing to try to guess how many pounds of makeup Russell’s wearing.

Freddy Rodríguez easily gives the film’s only “good” performance.

Even with its short run time (about a hundred minutes), Poseidon is an exceptionally trying viewing experience.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Mark Protosevich, based on a novel by Paul Gallico; director of photography, John Seale; edited by Peter Honess; music by Klaus Badelt; production designer, William Sandell; produced by Mike Fleiss, Akiva Goldsman, Duncan Henderson and Petersen; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Josh Lucas (Dylan Johns), Kurt Russell (Robert Ramsey), Jacinda Barrett (Maggie James), Richard Dreyfuss (Richard Nelson), Emmy Rossum (Jennifer Ramsey), Mía Maestro (Elena Morales), Mike Vogel (Christian), Kevin Dillon (Lucky Larry), Freddy Rodríguez (Marco Valentin), Jimmy Bennett (Conor James), Stacy Ferguson (Gloria) and Andre Braugher (Captain Bradford).


Let It Ride (1989, Joe Pytka)

I wonder how Let It Ride would play if it were competently made. Pytka’s not a terrible director, but he’s not any good either. His mediocre composition is undone by the absolutely atrocious song choices for the soundtrack. The film would probably be better with no changes other than that track excised. Not that Giorgio Moroder’s score is anything special; it’s mildly okay, just because it basically plagiarizes Danny Elfman’s score for Midnight Run.

The biggest shame is Pytka doesn’t give editor Dede Allen anything to work with. One of the best editors in Hollywood and she’s got nothing….

Oh, and Curtis Wehr’s photography is awful.

Now, on to the rest—i.e. the acting and Nancy Dowd’s script.

Let It Ride takes place over a day at the races where Richard Dreyfuss all of a sudden starts winning. The tension of whether or not he’ll keep winning eventually gets mildly nerve-wracking (a good director would have made it excruciating) in last half hour.

Dowd’s story is really small. It serves as a showcase for actors… in an easy comedy. Dreyfuss has almost nothing to do until the end. Still, he manages a solid lead performance.

Lots of great supporting performances. Teri Garr’s excellent as his wife (maybe the best performance). David Johansen and Jennifer Tilly are both good. Robbie Coltrane, Michelle Phillips and Cynthia Nixon, all good.

The weakest performance is Richard Edson and he’s not terrible.

It should have been better; not heavier or more serious, just better.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Pytka; screenplay by Nancy Dowd, based on a novel by Jay Cronley; director of photography, Curtis Wehr; edited by Dede Allen and Jim Allen; music by Giorgio Moroder; production designer, Wolf Kroeger; produced by David Giler; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Jay Trotter), David Johansen (Looney), Teri Garr (Pam), Jennifer Tilly (Vicki), Allen Garfield (Greenberg), Richard Edson (Johnny Casino), Ralph Seymour (Sid), Cynthia Nixon (Evangeline), Richard Dimitri (Tony Cheeseburger), Michelle Phillips (Mrs. Davis) and Robbie Coltrane (Ticket Seller).


Red (2010, Robert Schwentke)

I was unhesitant to enjoy Red. It’s one of those ensemble feel-good pieces (like Sneakers or Ocean’s Eleven), but it’s not a particularly upbeat feel-good piece. But I was rather hesitant to approach it as a good movie. But it is a good movie. It’s smartly written, beautifully acted (Red’s casting is superior)… and impersonally directed. I’ve never seen any of Schwentke’s other films, but he’s a TV director inexplicably directing cinema. He’d be a fine TV director, he’s just not a filmmaker.

But Schwentke aside, there’s nothing not to recommend the film. However, I do think Bruce Willis going bald the last ten years makes it a little more difficult to take his balding as some sign of aging.

Red’s principal cast–Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich–is all exceptionally solid. It’s interesting to see Mirren in this kind of role (though she does it perfectly) and Malkovich is delightful in a role he easily could have played spoofing himself, but doesn’t. Freeman’s the mentor (to Willis) and Parker’s forty-something single woman has shades of Joan Wilder (in the best possible way).

The “supporting” cast consists of Karl Urban, Brian Cox, James Remar, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss. Whoever casted this film is a genius–if it was Schwentke, I’m a lot more enthusiastic.

Willis is most impressive in how well he works in an ensemble, never his greatest strength.

Red probably could do with a sequel. White?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Schwentke; screenplay by Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner; director of photography, Florian Ballhaus; edited by Thom Noble; music by Christophe Beck; production design by Alec Hammond; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Mark Vahradian; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Bruce Willis (Frank Moses), Morgan Freeman (Joe Matheson), John Malkovich (Marvin Boggs), Helen Mirren (Victoria), Karl Urban (William Cooper), Mary-Louise Parker (Sarah Ross), Brian Cox (Ivan Simonov), Julian McMahon (Robert Stanton), Rebecca Pidgeon (Cynthia Wilkes), Ernest Borgnine (Henry, the Records Keeper), James Remar (Gabriel Singer) and Richard Dreyfuss (Alexander Dunning).


Leaves of Grass (2009, Tim Blake Nelson)

I wonder if Tim Blake Nelson has read Disgrace. Cheap, cheap, cheap comment.

One-liner even.

It’s a one-liner.

Leaves of Grass is not–if I underlined, I would here–an American Disgrace. It’s something different from that sort of attempt, but also something different from a mainstream or independent attempt… it’s a comedy drama unlike most others because the comedy is absurd at times and it’s got Edward Norton playing a genius pot grower.

It’s also got him playing a genius classical philosophy professor, which then makes it a twin movie–in a genre occupied, with the exception of Parent Traps, mostly–in recent history–by Jean-Claude Van Damme. I wonder if anyone mentioned that one to Norton.

It’s a fine, fine film. It’s funny, it’s touching–it features the best Richard Dreyfuss performance in many years not to mention actually talking about anti-Semitism in an American film without being sensational. I don’t think, actually, anti-Semitism even gets a sensational handling in American film anymore. American film pretends the country isn’t chock-full of bigots, unless they’re bigots who get easily cured by the end of the picture.

Great acting by Norton (the lack of Oscar nomination is a hilarious, gut-bursting joke), Dreyfuss and Nelson. Susan Sarandon’s underwritten but fine, as is Melanie Lynskey. Keri Russell’s surprisingly okay.

It’s a great film until the third act, when Nelson seems to realize something should probably happen and it’s fine after that point.

Just not great.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Michelle Botticelli; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Max Biscoe; produced by Nelson, Edward Norton, Bill Migliore, John Langley, Elie Cohn and Kristina Dubin; released by Millennium Films.

Starring Edward Norton (Bill/Brady Kincaid), Tim Blake Nelson (Bolger), Keri Russell (Janet), Richard Dreyfuss (Pug Rothbaum), Susan Sarandon (Daisy), Josh Pais (Ken Feinman) and Melanie Lynskey (Colleen).


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990, Tom Stoppard)

I’d heard of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, of course. I’d probably even meant to see it at one point, probably around the time of Branagh’s Hamlet, which is when I first got big into Shakespeare. But it was only available on VHS and I was already addicted to widescreen. Oddly, this viewing–at the wife’s request–was widescreen. I thought all the DVD releases were pan and scan. So waiting worked out.

More, it worked out because I probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the film as much ten years ago as I am able today. The characters trapped in the confines of a narrative, realizing they’re free of agency–well, I’m familiar with it from Breakfast of Champions. But Rosencrantz & Guildenstern goes a little further in discussing the drama as a whole.

It took me a while, I’ll admit, to realize what Stoppard was doing (at the beginning, I just figured they were dead and reliving the experience of Hamlet in some afterlife). Once I did, I appreciated it.

But, honestly, not as much as I appreciated the updating of “Who’s on first?”

Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are both fantastic. It’s stunning to see Oldman in such a well-written role. It’s been a long time since he’s been concerned with acting (kids, swimming pools, et cetera, I imagine).

Stoppard’s direction is excellent. It’s understated and profound.

Richard Dreyfuss is great in a somewhat unexplainable role. Iain Glen and Ian Richardson are good in the Hamlet sections.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tom Stoppard; screenplay by Stoppard, based on his play and a play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Nicolas Gaster; music by Stanley Myers; production designer, Vaughan Edwards; produced by Michael Brandman and Emanuel Azenberg; released by Cinecom Entertainment Group.

Starring Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz), Tim Roth (Guildenstern), Richard Dreyfuss (The Player), Joanna Roth (Ophelia), Iain Glen (Hamlet), Donald Sumpter (Claudius), Joanna Miles (Gertrude), Ljubo Zecevic (Osric), Ian Richardson (Polonius), Sven Medvesek (Laertes), Vili Matula (Horatio) and John Burgess (Ambassador from England).


American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas)

I don’t know where to start. The most flippant place to start–the most colloquial–is with George Lucas… specifically, what happened to the George Lucas who made American Graffiti. But it’s not just Lucas. Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck didn’t go on to write anything close to Graffiti–the conversations in the film, the dialogue, is exceptional, some of the finest I can think of. But Lucas’s composition is exalted with itself. The scene at the hop with Ron Howard and Cindy Williams arguing, Lucas’s delight at getting the other couple next to them into the shot is clear. The scenes with the cars it’s obvious, but Lucas is enthralled with filmmaking all throughout American Graffiti. It’s Lucas playing with that big electric train set, something almost no filmmaker ever does.

For a film with the cinematographers listed in the end credits, American Graffiti is beautifully lighted. I first saw the film when I was in my early teens and to this day, all my memories of teenage late nights are in the film’s day-for-night lighting. The street scenes are amazing. The scene with the police car is fantastic, but Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips’s entire ride is probably the best. It’s all just so perfectly executed–and only made better by the exceptional editing.

Starting the film this time, I tried to remember who got to be the de facto protagonist. Narratively speaking, it’s Richard Dreyfuss, but only because of the conclusion. During, it kind of roams. It’s never Charles Martin Smith, which is fine, since he and Candy Clark’s arc is probably the most amusing of the film. The Ron Howard arc is the most serious, with the Le Mat and Dreyfuss arcs sort of alternating in between. The most affecting arc has to be the Le Mat and Phillips one, just because their acting is so great. And Le Mat giving Phillips the tour of the hot rod graveyard–and of his own psyche–is one of the film’s defining scenes. Lucas, Katz and Huyck manage to do so much muted, so much in just two lines of dialogue.

With the postscripts, American Graffiti reveals its biggest surprise–the reality outside the one night of the film’s present action. Seeing it as a twelve year-old, I understood a bit of the Vietnam presence, but not for Dreyfuss’s character. With the soundtrack, the music going on the radio, American Graffiti cocoons itself. The postscripts, which come a few seconds later each viewing–with each viewing, the subjective takes over the clock’s ticking and I always hope this time they won’t fade in.

The acting’s all excellent, with Dreyfuss, Le Mat, Clark and Phillips the best. Bo Hopkins is also an essential component, just because he makes Dreyfuss’s adventures seem both threatening and, well, fun. Some of Dreyfuss being the protagonist is intentional, but a lot of it is just Dreyfuss’s command of the screen. The scene with Wolfman Jack, for example, is not a supporting character scene. To some degree, Howard gets left at the drive-in, but he kind of needs to be, since he’s the least likable character. As for Harrison Ford’s small role… he’s good, but it’s kind of unbelievable he eventually became a leading man (as he defers to Le Mat in all their exchanges).

I could waste time–on the last paragraph–speculating on what went wrong–because something certainly did–with George Lucas following this film, but I don’t want to. I don’t even want to make it in as a parenthetical. The best thing about American Graffiti is how it truly does get better with each viewing.

Choo-choo.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Lucas; written by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck; directors of photography, Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage; edited by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas; produced by Francis Ford Coppola; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Curt Henderson), Ron Howard (Steve Bolander), Paul Le Mat (John Milner), Charles Martin Smith (Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields), Cindy Williams (Laurie Henderson), Candy Clark (Debbie Dunham), Mackenzie Phillips (Carol), Wolfman Jack (XERB Disc Jockey), Bo Hopkins (Joe Young), Manuel Padilla Jr. (Carlos), Beau Gentry (Ants), Harrison Ford (Bob Falfa), Jim Bohan (Officer Holstein) and Jana Bellan (Budda).


What About Bob? (1991, Frank Oz)

What About Bob? is a special movie. It’s absolute dreck. Coming from screenwriter Tom Schulman, I suppose its lack of quality shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I think I was operating under the assumption producer Laura Ziskin wouldn’t let it get too bad. I mean, production wise, it’s got good people–Anne V. Coates is good editor and Michael Ballhaus has done some truly great films. I mean, sure, Frank Oz isn’t great shakes, but he’s competent.

So why’s Bob so awful? First, and easiest, it mocks mental illness. Though Bill Murray’s performance is atrocious and he’s never believably mentally ill for a moment in the movie–it’s a real problem, Murray playing the character as a totally sane, totally self-aware jerk (he just wants to make Richard Dreyfuss miserable)–he is supposed to be mentally ill. And the viewer is supposed to laugh at him. Second, it’s never believable the supporting cast would welcome him into the fold, knowing he’s a patient of Dreyfuss’s prominent psychiatrist. It’s ludicrous.

It’s got to be one of Murray’s worst performances (one can hear the paycheck deposit), but there’s a lot of terrible acting to go around. Julie Hagerty’s “acting” is something special, but Charlie Korsmo is even worse. He’s got to be one of the worst child actors I can remember. Just terrible.

Oddly, Kathryn Erbe’s steady, even though her writing is as bad as everyone else’s.

Dreyfuss has some moments and they’re mostly visible, where one can see he’s at least enjoying himself (for the most part, he isn’t). The rest of the time, he looks mildly embarrassed, but no more than the viewer who remembers his good, better and unspectacularly poor films.

Oz’s direction isn’t bad. The movie looks beautiful and Oz is competent when it comes to framing shots, especially all the (slightly) moving camera shots–mostly the camera following people as they go over to other people. And he also convinced me, somehow, if I kept watching, it’d get better (it never, ever does–the ending is just as awful as everything else in the movie).

What’s scary about Bob is how light-hearted it seems to be. It’s insensitive and garish. If it were from a better filmmakers, I’d try to find some stronger words… but Oz doesn’t strike me as particularly smart and Schulman is quite obviously, based on this one and his other “writing,” a functional illiterate.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; screenplay by Tom Schulman, based on a story by Alvin Sargent and Laura Ziskin; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Les Dilley; produced by Ziskin; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Bob Wiley), Richard Dreyfuss (Dr. Leo Marvin), Julie Hagerty (Fay Marvin), Charlie Korsmo (Siggy Marvin), Kathryn Erbe (Anna Marvin), Tom Aldredge (Mr. Guttman) and Susan Willis (Mrs. Guttman).


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