Licensed to Kill
To Have (Or Not)
A Mongolian Tale
1990, you may recall, was not exactly a banner year for Hollywood filmmaking, even by contemporary standards. Here, by way of example, are the five pictures that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thought worthy of a Best Picture nomination that year: Awakenings, Dances With Wolves, Ghost, The Godfather, Part III, and GoodFellas. Your mileage may vary, but to my way of thinking, this is a singularly unremarkable lineup; GoodFellas, of course, is a masterpiece, but I can't imagine ever wanting to see any of the other four again in this lifetime. Nor was AMPAS overlooking numerous worthier candidates from the major studios; Reversal of Fortune was pleasantly nasty, and Henry & June impressively stylish, and The Hunt for Red October gratifyingly sleek, and Miller's Crossing another demented bullseye from the brothers Coen, but none of these (with the possible exception of Miller's Crossing) strikes me as the kind of film that buffs will still be obsessively talking about fifty years down the road.
However, I've omitted one semi-notable title: 1990 also saw the release of a gleefully energetic and ferociously tacky nouveau-B-movie called Miami Blues. Directed by Roger Corman protégé George Armitage, and starring Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward, it was a critical and commercial failure, panned by the likes of Ebert and Maltin and grossing a pathetic $10 million in North America. It was also, as it happens, not merely one of the best films of 1990 (though I stupidly overlooked it in my own top ten list for that year, having already expended my then-meager reserves of aesthetic courage by including the much-maligned Joe Versus the Volcano), but one of the best and most original studio films in recent memory, and I confidently predict that future cinéastes will speak of it with the same reverence that my own generation accords to such only-in-hindsight favorites as Detour and Freaks. Blending offbeat comedy and offputting violence in a manner that nowadays would immediately and unjustly be labelled Tarantinoesque, Miami Blues, fueled by first-rate performances by all three principals and Armitage's unfussy and confident style, is so alive and electric that even Coppola's overheated final Godfather entry looks comatose by comparison; long after every picturesque image from Dances With Wolves has faded from my memory, I'll still be chuckling over the haiku that Freddie Frenger (Baldwin) improvises for girlfriend Susie (Leigh) during an impromptu ransacking of the apartment next door ("Break/ing/En/ter/ing...").
I've more than occasionally wondered, over the course of the past seven years, what the hell Armitage has been up to since Miami Blues. Had he died, on a day when I happened not to glance at the obituaries? Or, more likely, had he joined the depressingly large coterie of talented filmmakers who can't get a picture financed because nobody came to see the last terrific picture they made? Whatever the reason (and I think we can rule out his death at this point), there was nothing but silence for an uncommonly long period...until, at long last, and long after I'd more or less given up the notion of every seeing another Armitage film, I spotted his name in the ads for Grosse Pointe Blank, that disarmingly oddball-sounding hitman-goes-to-high-school-reunion thing I'd been hearing about for some time. CUE whoops of joy, and CUT TO: yours truly standing eagerly in line on opening weekend (followed by INSERT of handwritten "Sold Out" sign on ticket window, and DISSOLVE TO: the following Wednesday evening at a less crowded theater). And while his latest effort almost inevitably pales in comparison to Miami Blues, it's still a welcome breath of fresh air, as well as the first film released by Hollywood Pictures since 1995's Crimson Tide to contradict the conventional wisdom that "if it's the Sphinx [Hollywood's logo], it stinks!"
Armitage doesn't write his own pictures -- Miami Blues was based on a fine novel by Charles Willeford, and Grosse Pointe Blank boasts no fewer than four names in its writing credits, including that of star John Cusack -- but he's clearly attracted to a particular sensibility: quirky, dark, verbose, cheerfully amoral. That's not to say that Grosse Pointe Blank's tone is identical to that of its predecessor, however. Miami Blues, however warped, was always grounded, however flimsily, in the real world; Grosse Pointe Blank, by contrast, dispenses with naturalism from the opening scene, in which Martin Blank (Cusack) guns down a cyclist from his hotel room window while simultaneously listening to his secretary (sister Joan Cusack) read him his invitation to his tenth high school reunion over the phone. That Cusack the younger, who's as charming and likeable here as ever, is hardly believable as a hard-hearted assassin seems fairly irrelevant -- Grosse Pointe Blank is a farce, and there's little point in kvetching about its lack of fidelity to life as we know it (though that hasn't stopped some critics). The pertinent question is: How funny is it? The answer: Pretty darn.
That's more or less in spite of its high-concept premise, however. There's but a single decent joke to be found in the conceit of a hired killer schmoozing with his erstwhile classmates, and it's repeated until it threatens to become tiresome: asked what he does for a living, or what he's been up to for the past ten years, Blank invariably tells the truth, and is invariably assumed to be joking. (One of the film's many nice touches is that nobody ever presses him to say what he's really been doing.; this could be criticized as a plot convenience, I suppose, but I got the distinct impression that everyone assumes that he's cracking wise because he's too embarrassed to confess that he hasn't accomplished much of anything, and politely changes the subject.) The comedy is in the details, and in the crazed subplots: another hitman (Dan Aykroyd, almost as wired as he used to be on Saturday Night Live two decades ago, and a welcome return to form it is, too) is organizing a union and schemes to have Blank rubbed out when he (Blank) refuses to join; Blank is simultaneously stalked by a Eurotrash killer hired to revenge the death of a dog he (Blank) accidentally iced in the course of an operation; Blank tries to woo the woman (Minnie Driver) who he'd abandoned on prom night ten years earlier, when he (Blank) (sorry, force of habit) impulsively skipped town to join the military. Some of this is a bit forced, and the Aykroyd thread culminates in a tedious two-fisted John Woo shootout that makes for a disappointing climax, but in general the level of invention and inspiration is uncommonly high. Any film in which Hank Azaria, as a duplicitous federal agent, gets to call a radio show and croon "Hi, Debbie, long-time listener first-time caller, love your show, listen..." is doing something right.
Debbie, by the way, is Blank's paramour, who works as a local disc jockey; her relationship with Blank gradually develops into a full-blown romantic comedy, which many people seem to find the least interesting element of the narrative. I was wowed by it, myself, largely because Cusack and Driver are given some of the best screwball dialogue since the last picture I saw that featured great screwball dialogue, which I apparently saw so long ago that no title is springing to mind. Cusack had already demonstrated, in Cameron Crowe's Say Anything..., that he's an appealing and creative romantic lead; Driver, on the other hand, hadn't impressed me in either her debut, Circle of Friends, or in last year's Big Night, and her sharp, canny, beautifully modulated performance here was a major revelation. Her first scene with Cusack, in which she interrogates him on the air about his disappearing act a decade previously, after he casually strolls into the station with an offhand "hey, how've you been," is a marvel of acerbic comic timing, and the range of expression she demonstrates, from befuddlement to rage to exasperation to curiosity to abiding affection, is so dizzying that it's impossible to believe that she can maintain it for the rest of the picture, which she subsequently does without breaking a sweat. (Her reaction to the news of Blank's true profession is priceless: told that she's overreacting, she puts such a sarcastic spin on the line "yeah, yeah" that it brings down the house.) Would that Driver, rather than the respectably bland Ione Skye, had played the female lead in Say Anything..., a terrific picture that had masterpiece potential but was hampered by Skye's lifeless work opposite Cusack. Oh, and did I mention that Driver's American accent is dead-on? (She's British.) Bite her, Streep.
I mentioned details a couple of paragraphs ago. One final example of the kind of thing that Grosse Pointe Blank does right, as well as of the kind of texture that's utterly absent from most alleged comedies these days, to their detriment: Martin and Debbie are sitting in a bar or café. They order drinks. They talk. Their server (played by yet another Cusack sibling -- they breed) brings the drinks, sets one in front of Martin, one in front of Debbie. He leaves. They talk some more. And as they're talking, Martin quietly switches drinks with Debbie, implying that they'd been accidentally reversed. This isn't commented on in any way, either by the characters or by the camera. Blink and you'll miss it. It isn't even worth a chuckle, really. It is, however, indicative of an attention to detail -- even in a film as outsized and over-the-top as this one -- that Hollywood filmmaking could use a lot more of. It made me smile, without unduly distracting me from the conversation that is ostensibly the purpose of the scene. It's the sort of moment that I expect from a Mike Leigh film, or maybe a low-budget Linklater or Hartley picture. It was exceedingly welcome here.
You know, I recall being disappointed by numerous aspects of Grosse Pointe Blank while I was watching it, but the more I write about it, the more I begin to think that my rating above is a bit too low...
Conceived as a jump-start project by Soderbergh, who was feeling burnt out after making the ill-fated Criss Cross remake The Underneath, Schizopolis was shot in a big hurry for what looks like about $75 (though it's easily the most technically proficient no-budget movie I've ever seen, even if the sound is typically poor). The director himself, who had never acted before, stars as Fletcher Munson, a drone in the employ of self-help guru T. Azimuth Schwitters, founder of Eventualism (apparently a Scientology/Dianetics spoof, and a feeble one). Munson is assigned at the last minute to write a speech for Schwitters, which causes him considerable stress -- almost as much as does his strained marriage to his unnamed wife, played by Soderbergh's real-life ex-, Betsy Brantley. Munson eventually learns that his wife is having an affair with a local dentist, Dr. Korczak, who is also played by Soderbergh, and it isn't too long before he actually becomes Dr. Korczak...who subsequently falls head over heels for Attractive Woman #2, also played by Brantley. Meanwhile, randy exterminator Elmo Oxygen (longtime Soderbergh buddy David Jensen, who played the laughing lunatic in Kafka and often works on Soderbergh's crew), tired of bedding one lonely housewife after another in Schizopolis in scenes only tangentially related to the rest of the plot, accepts an offer from a rival film crew to appear as an action hero in a different film altogether, some of which we then see. Oh, and I neglected to mention the subplot about the mole in Munson's office, who just may be Munson's nervous colleague, Nameless Numberheadman -- whose wife, Attractive Woman #1, is one of Elmo Oxygen's favorite clients.
Bewildered yet? Heck, that's nothin'. As if his narrative weren't bizarre enough to begin with, Soderbergh plays Stoppardian language games throughout. Elmo Oxygen and Attractive Woman #1 speak in a nonsense language (e.g. "Aardvark rutabaga calliope drone?" -- I made that up, but it's in the ballpark); Munson and his wife often say the descriptions of their dialogue rather than the dialogue itself ("Muted expression of affection." "Acknowledgement"); in later scenes, Munson's dialogue is dubbed randomly into French, Italian, and Japanese, none of it subtitled. There's also some subpar Monty Python-style sketch humor: silly newscasts, a running gag about a naked mental patient on the run, etc. The general impression is that Soderbergh crammed every leftover goofy idea he's ever had into a single movie, so that he can finally throw his damn notebooks away and start from scratch. That, along with the casting of himself and his ex-wife as an unhappy couple (he's a fairly decent actor, incidentally, and quite hilarious as Dr Korczak, deadpanning lines like "You don't have to floss all of your teeth -- only the ones you want to keep"), suggests that the value of the project for Soderbergh was as much therapeutic as creative.
That being the case, should those of us who don't know Soderbergh personally bother with it (assuming we can find it in the first place -- it's being distributed by tiny Northern Arts)? I won't lie and tell you that it works, but at the same time I don't for a moment regret having seen it; I laughed a lot, albeit in sheer astonishment as often as in response to a particular gag, and it's bracing, as New York Press critic Godfrey Cheshire noted, to see a world-class director making his first student film almost a decade after winning the Palme d'Or. You certainly won't leave the theater complaining that you've already seen half a dozen movies this year just like it. It's a judgment call, but if you're a fan of Soderbergh's work, or if the description above intrigues you, I'd say go ahead and give it a chance. Who knows, you may wind up following the advice given by the director in a brief, riotously funny prologue (paraphrased from memory): "Keep in mind that if you are confused or upset by the film, this is your fault, not ours -- you will have to see it again and again and again, until you understand everything. And full price, none of this bargain matinee stuff..."