Friday, July 29, 2016

The Great Gatsby

Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby was published, Hollywood has been fascinated with adapting his novel into a film. To date, there have been five official versions, from a silent film made in 1926 to Baz Luhrmann’s postmodern take in 2013. Filmmakers have long been intrigued by the novel’s themes of decadence, excess and its portrait of the Roaring Twenties, making it a haunting critique of the pursuit of the American Dream.

In 1974, a particularly intriguing version of The Great Gatsby was released starring Robert Redford in the titular role and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, the object of his affection. It was directed by British filmmaker Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola. The film received scathing reviews and was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globes – even winning a few of them. It is generally regarded as an uneven adaptation at best and an outright failure at worst but I’ve always found it a fascinating take on Fitzgerald’s novel.

The opening credits play over a montage of Gatsby’s opulent mansion that is oddly devoid of life, coming across more as a sterile museum full of nice things: an expensive car, piano, ornate furnishings, marble floors, and exquisite d├ęcor, all the while echoey music plays as if to suggest ghosts of the past haunt this place. While the camera lingers over expensive jewelry, it keeps returning to a newspaper photograph and portraits of Daisy Buchanan (Farrow) – the only thing that Gatsby really cares about.

We meet Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) arriving in West Egg, Long Island via boat to spend the summer hanging out with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom (Bruce Dern) who live in the far more fashionable East Egg, “drifting here and there, unrestfully, wherever people played polo and were rich together,” Nick observes via voiceover narration. He’s met by Tom and they head back to his house where he’s reunited with Daisy and meets her friend Jordan Baker (Lois Chiles).

One is immediately struck by Daisy’s flighty condescension and Tom’s smug superiority. These people live in their own rarefied world because they can afford it. She even tries to appear deep by making an observation about a bird on the lawn but it comes across as a half-hearted attempt. The film wastes no time showing what a hypocrite Tom is with his talk of the superiority of the rich, upper class and his polo games but his mistress Myrtle (Karen Black) is the wife of a destitute mechanic (Scott Wilson) living in a garage located among a desolate wasteland of ashes.

Nick arrives home and only catches a fleeting glimpse of his enigmatic neighbor Jay Gatsby (Redford). The film cheekily juxtaposes Nick’s simple existence – eating a modest steak dinner he prepared himself with a glass of beer on the porch of his modest rental house – dwarfed by the army of groundskeepers and caterers that prepare Gatsby’s estate for one of his lavish parties. We only catch a couple of glimpses of him until 35 minutes into the film when Nick is brought up to meet the man one-on-one in the heart of his mansion. It is an impressive introduction as Robert Redford flashes that high wattage movie star smile and one can see why he was the ideal actor to play the enigmatic man with loads of charisma.

Daisy and Gatsby have a doomed love affair. When they first met they couldn’t be together because she was rich and he wasn’t. This violated the rules of the upper class. Gatsby spent years amassing a large personal fortune, buying his way back into Daisy’s world in the hopes of proving himself worthy, only she didn’t wait for him and married another rich man. They reunite for a brief affair, knowing it can’t last but are determined to savor every moment they have together.

Bruce Dern does an exceptional job of portraying an Alpha Male reeking of entitlement. He uses up people with little to no thought of the consequences. Karen Black plays his ideal foil, an equally duplicitous spouse that when she wants something, like a puppy being sold on the side of the street, has Tom pay for it. The actress does a wonderful job conveying Myrtle’s indulgence of excess. These aren’t very nice people and Dern and Black aren’t afraid to portray them as such. And yet for all of her vanity, Black gets a moment to suggest that Myrtle is something of a tragic figure while Dern’s Tom is ultimately nothing more than a wealthy bully. “They’re careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smash things up and then they retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness…leaving other people to clean up the mess,” Nick says of them, which perfectly nails their characters.

Sam Waterston plays Nick as a blank slate audience surrogate, acting as our guide among the rich and powerful. The character’s purpose is to react to the behavior and actions of the colorful people he encounters throughout the film. The actor does a decent job portraying the wide-eyed outsider in a world he is familiar with but can never truly be a part of because he’s not rich. As the film progresses, a friendship forms between Nick and Gatsby and this gives Waterston something to do other than being an observer. Nick is a true friend to Gatsby as he doesn’t like him because of his money but because he truly admires him.

Robert Redford always struck me as an actor that kept his cards close to the vest, never letting audiences inside and showing a vulnerable side. It always feels like he keeps audiences at arm’s length and in the process maintaining an air of mystery, which is ideally suited for playing Gatsby. The actor portrays him as an elusive figure that only interacts with people on his own terms.

If Redford is ideally cast as Gatsby then Mia Farrow is very much miscast as Daisy. Her fickle, bird-trapped-in-a-gilded-cage take on the character is grating at times and makes us wonder why Gatsby is so taken with her. That being said, the scene where Daisy and Gatsby meet for the first time in eight years demonstrates incredible on-screen chemistry between the two actors. In particular, Redford’s reaction to seeing her is quite powerful as we see Gatsby, a man always in control, caught up in the moment – a rare thing that sees him letting his guard down.

The Great Gatsby features beautiful cinematography courtesy of Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and features memorable shots like that of Nick leaving the Buchanan’s at the end of the day with the sky and water bathed in the warm orange, pink and yellow hues of the sunset. The soft focus approach gives everything an almost hazy look, making all the metal of the expensive silverware, glassware and jewelry sparkle and shimmer.

For years, the likes of Sam Spiegel, Ray Stark and Sydney Pollack had wanted to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a film. Actress Ali MacGraw dreamed of playing the much-coveted role of Daisy Buchanan, which prompted then-husband and head of production at Paramount Studios Robert Evans to buy the film rights as a gift to her. He partnered with Broadway producer David Merrick who was friends with Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie. At the time Merrick approached her there were other interested parties and it took him a year before he closed the deal for $350,000.

Potential directors circled the project, including Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, but none of them wanted MacGraw to play Daisy. British director Jack Clayton was hired to helm the film. He had actually tried to acquire the rights to The Great Gatsby himself in the 1940s and was obsessed with the novel for 30 years. To this end, he not only consulted with Fitzgerald estate curator Matthew J. Bruccoli but also with Scottie and literary experts.

Evans hired Truman Capote to write the screenplay. Clayton felt that the first draft had “far too much dialogue and exposition.” Evans was also unhappy with the script, which included confusing dream sequences and flashbacks. He asked Francis Ford Coppola to write a more straight-forward adaptation. The filmmaker was looking for a change of pace from working on The Godfather (1972) and wrote the script in five weeks. Clayton loved Coppola’s script and removed some passages he felt were unnecessary and inserted material from the book that the filmmaker had not included. It was these additions that upset Coppola, including an ending that he felt was anti-climactic.

Evans wanted either Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson to play Gatsby with the former agreeing but only if MacGraw played Jordan Baker, and the latter only if she was not cast as Daisy. Evans was determined to have his wife play the role. He approached Marlon Brando but couldn’t afford him, especially after The Godfather. They were two months away from the start of principal photography and still hadn’t found their Gatsby. When Robert Redford heard about the project he approached Evans who turned the actor down. Redford met with Clayton who was interested in Nicholson as Gatsby but after talking with Redford for 90 minutes wanted him to play the part. Clayton said of the actor, “You can see the possibility of danger beneath the romantic WASP image.”

Evans still wasn’t convinced and felt that Redford didn’t look the part, which drove the actor crazy: “I began to think Evans never read the book. Sure, he liked the idea of doing Fitzgerald, but he didn’t know the text.” He had first read the novel in college and found it “florid,” but revisited it for the film and “I saw it was something extraordinary, the depiction of human obsessions, and I felt some great screen work could come from it.” The studio also backed Redford and he was cast as Gatsby.

Merrick wanted MacGraw to play Daisy and McQueen to play Gatsby. At the time, Evans and MacGraw were getting divorced after he discovered she was having an affair with her co-star on The Getaway (1972), Steve McQueen. Evans, understandably, disagreed with Merrick and had Paramount executives meet with him and Merrick to decide on potential actresses to play Daisy: Mia Farrow, Katharine Ross, Candice Bergen or Faye Dunaway. Merrick continued to insist on MacGraw while Clayton wanted Farrow and Evans agreed. The studio executives concurred and she was cast in the role. After being cast she discovered that she was pregnant. The shooting schedule was moved up a week and her dresses were altered to hide her pregnancy.

Most people assume that the media blitzkrieg and merchandising of a movie started with Star Wars (1977) but forget that The Great Gatsby predated it with a then-unprecedented amount of hype as typified by Evans hubristically saying, “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.” Oh, how prescient that statement was when one considers the rise of the mass marketed studio blockbuster in the 1980s. Paramount spent $200,000 on publicity and promotion with product tie-ins valued at $6 million. The film was made for $6.4 million and made $18.6 million on advance bookings making it a financial success before it was even released in theaters!

Film critics savaged The Great Gatsby when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “But we can’t penetrate the mystery of Gatsby. Nor, to be honest, can we quite understand what’s so special about Daisy Buchanan. Not as she’s played by Mia Farrow, all squeaks and narcissism and empty sophistication.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Nothing that Mr. Clayton does with the actors or with the camera comes close to catching the spirit of Fitzgerald’s impatient brilliance…The plot has been dismantled like an antique engine and photographed, piece by piece, preserved in lots of pretty, glistening images that bath the film in nostalgia as thick as axle grease.” Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “A great deal of time, money and promotion have been concentrated here, but Gatsby’s sad and curious history has resulted in a dull, dreadful movie.” Finally, in his review for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann wrote, “In sum this picture is a total failure of every requisite sensibility. A long, slow, sickening bore.”

Redford said of the film, “The truth is, Hollywood wanted to make The Great Gatsby because it was a literary success, not because it was great literature. Enough time may not have been taken to work that one out.” Coppola hated the film and felt that Clayton had ruined his faithful script. Farrow felt that it “was a victim of overhype.”

The Great Gatsby takes a fascinating look at the idle rich and their decadent lives as typified by the people that populate Gatsby’s parties. They are filled with people that want to see and be seen, lose their inhibitions and indulge in all kinds of excesses – this was the Roaring Twenties where the United States was prospering after World War I. And yet, the film ultimately shows these parties as empty affairs that its host Gatsby rarely attends. Why should we care about these people? When it comes to the likes of Tom and Myrtle, we don’t and neither does Nick who becomes disgusted by them and their phoniness, turning his back on their way of life.

As Nick observes early on, Gatsby is a tragic and romantic figure: “For Gatsby turned out alright in the end. It was what preyed on him, what foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” He’s a self-made man that built himself up to impress a woman he loved years ago and never forgot. Unfortunately, he thought that money could buy happiness and return things to the way they were once years ago, but this proves to be his undoing. For its faults, this version of The Great Gatsby is remarkably faithful to its source material and a strong indictment of the vanity of the rich and the dangers of achieving the American Dream.


SOURCES

Callan, Michael Feeney. Robert Redford: The Biography. Vintage. 2012.

Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. University Press of Kentucky. 2004.

“Ready Or Not, Here Comes Gatsby.” Time. March 18, 1974.


Sinyard, Neil. Jack Clayton. Manchester University Press. 2013.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Lethal Weapon

Thanks to the success of 48 Hrs. (1982), the Buddy Action Movie became arguably the most popular genre in the 1980s and it seemed, for a short time, that studios were handing them out to any dramatic actor-comedian combo that wanted one. This resulted in the best of times (Beverly Hills Cop) and the worst of times (City Heat). By the late ‘80s, the formula had gotten stale and in need of an injection of new blood. Along came aspiring screenwriter Shane Black who had written an urban western inspired by Dirty Harry (1971). With Lethal Weapon (1987), he took the Buddy Action Movie to darker places than it had been before by teaming up a veteran cop in the twilight of his career with his new partner, an unhinged, suicidal loose cannon. Needless to say, the end result was explosive and the movie was a massive commercial success, spawning three increasingly inferior sequels and a television show.

Veteran Los Angeles police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is assigned a case involving a coked-up, pill-popping prostitute that took a swan dive off her high-rise apartment building. He becomes personally involved when the dead girl’s father (Tom Atkins) turns out to be an old Vietnam War buddy who tells him that she was murdered and desperately implores his friend to find those responsible and kill them. If that wasn’t hard enough news to take, he’s also been assigned a new partner – Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) – who may or may not have a crazy death wish.

They soon run afoul of retired General Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) who is running a heroin-smuggling operation and employs a team of mercenaries including his fiercesome right-hand man Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), an impeccably dressed individual that pulls a G. Gordon Liddy with an underling’s lighter to show what a badass he is. It’s a nice scene that shows what a serious threat these guys are to our heroes. I like how the film gradually reveals the kind of threat Murtaugh and Riggs are up against and they are people that use deadly force, which tempers the comedy that is sprinkled liberally throughout. Black’s script gets the mix just right – something that subsequent Black-less sequels did not with their increasingly lazy sitcom elements typified by the addition of Joe Pesci’s annoying mugging.

Director Richard Donner immediately shows the contrasting lifestyles of Murtaugh and Riggs with the former a loving family man that lives in the suburbs while the latter starts the day with a cigarette and beer in a trailer with his dog by the beach. Not surprisingly, they also have contrasting approaches to police work and this is memorably illustrated when we see Riggs at work, going undercover to bust a trio of drug dealers at a Christmas tree lot and proceeds to throw them off guard by going all Three Stooges on them in a moment that is hilarious but quickly turns deadly on a dime when one of them pulls a gun. After dispatching a few of them, one of the crooks grabs Riggs and puts a gun to his head. Instead of freaking out or begging for his life, he repeatedly taunts the guy to shoot him, which unnerves the crook so much that Riggs is able to disarm him.

The scene where Murtaugh and Riggs first meet is a memorable one as the former spots the latter taking out his gun, assumes he’s a criminal and charges him only to be taken down very quickly by his new partner. This starts the beginning of a contentious partnership as Riggs tells Murtaugh early on, “Let’s just cut the shit. We both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal in which I’m fucked ‘cos nobody wants to work with me. Or, they think I’m faking it, draw a psycho pension in which case I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.” Not surprisingly, Murtaugh isn’t thrilled to be working with Riggs either and tells him, “God hates me, that’s what it is,” to which his partner replies, “Hate him back. Works for me.”

I like that the film takes the time to establish the volatile relationship between these two men, showing their contrasting styles of police work as evident in a scene where they deal with a guy threatening to jump off a building. Riggs’ solution is certainly a novel if not completely batshit crazy one. This leads to an excellent scene where they have it out and Riggs tells Murtaugh about his suicidal tendencies, which features intense acting from both men. It gives Lethal Weapon an edge as Murtaugh (and us) don’t know what Riggs is going to do next even as the movie goes through the usual Buddy Action Movie beats.

Chemistry is everything with this genre and Gibson and Glover certainly have it and not just in the action scenes but the crucial downtime in-between, like when Murtaugh takes Riggs home to meet his family and afterwards they hash out the case up to that point, which shows them gelling as a team. It is a nice moment between these guys as we get to know them and care about what happens to them. Black’s script tempers this quiet, bonding moment with Riggs’ parting shot before he heads home: “When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could’ve made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.” Gibson delivers this dialogue with just enough matter-of-fact edginess as to give off a chilling vibe.

Riggs is haunted by the death of his wife and in a powerful scene puts a loaded gun in his mouth. The utter sadness and despair Gibson conveys in this scene is powerful and gives his character an added dimension beyond being simply a wild and crazy cop. It also gives us insight into what motivates him. Murtaugh is a police detective celebrating his 50th birthday when we first meet him and is really starting to feel his age thanks to his oldest daughter who has started dating boys, much to his chagrin. Glover does a nice job of juggling his role as beleaguered family man and someone who is becoming increasingly exasperated by the dangerous antics of his new partner.

Lethal Weapon would establish Black’s tried and true motifs that he’s used in most of his movies: a mystery is kickstarted by the death of a prostitute or stripper, which establishes a favorite recurring thematic pre-occupation of innocence lost. In order to solve the murder, an older, burnt-out character partners with a younger, zanier one going up against a villain who is an older, richer white character that employs an impeccably dressed, unfailingly polite sadistic henchman with the story usually taking place during Christmas in Los Angeles.

Ever the consummate professional, Donner’s crisp direction keeps things chugging along with a slick, glossy look that was synonymous with most ‘80s action movies. The action sequences are coherent, we always know where everyone is and they aren’t edited within an inch of their lives. Best of all, he makes sure to spend enough time letting us get to know Murtaugh and Riggs, showing how their partnership develops over time as they learn to trust each other by surviving death-defying situations. The film also isn’t afraid to forego logic and indulge in its Alpha Male reptilian brain at the climax when, despite being surrounded by cops, Riggs decides to have it out with Mr. Joshua for a knock-down, drag-out fight where the cop is finally allowed to let his inner caveman out. And everyone lets these guys do it! It makes no common sense but the film has been building up to this point and we want to see these two guys go at it to see who is the bigger badass.

The commercial success of Lethal Weapon propelled the young Shane Black into the stratosphere and for a short while he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Donner, Gibson and Glover did pretty well for themselves, reteaming for three more sequels – the second of which (1989) was the only one that was any good. None of them have been able to touch the lightning in a bottle that Donner, et al were able to catch with the first movie and for a brief moment it seemed like the Buddy Action Movie was going to be given a new lease on life. After all, Midnight Run came out the next year and was also a breath of fresh air but sadly these two movies were the exception and not the rule for some time to come.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Canadian author Mordecai Richler let his best friend and roommate Ted Kotcheff read the manuscript of his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1958. At the time, they were sharing a flat in London, England and the latter proclaimed it to be “the best Canadian novel ever written.” Others felt the same way, too. It was published in 1959 and went on to become one of the most highly regarded examples of Canadian literature. Described as Canada’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye, it chronicles the misadventures of a scrappy young Jewish kid from the streets of Montreal.

Ever since he first read Richler’s manuscript, Kotcheff had wanted to adapt it into a film and finally got the chance in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. The actor famously was so disappointed with his own performance that he feared it could potentially end his promising movie career. He had turned down a pivotal role in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and begged to be cast in the film before any negative buzz from Duddy Kravitz could reach the powers that be. The rest is history and Kotcheff’s film not only became the most commercially successful Canadian film at that time, but also features what might arguably be Dreyfuss’ best performance.

The film immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of 1950s Montreal by showing how the whole neighborhood comes out to see the cadet marching band making its way through the streets. We see kids playing on the street, men talking on the street corner and old women buying produce at the fruit market. Duddy Kravitz (Dreyfuss) slips away from the parade to a local deli where his taxi cab driver father Max (Jack Warden) is holding court, telling an engrossing story. The veteran character actor commands the screen with his animated style of storytelling that harkens back to a time when guys like him would tell colorful tales in bars and delis.

Duddy hangs out with his grandfather (Zvee Scooler) who imparts pearls of wisdom like, “A man without land is nobody.” He’s one of the few adults Duddy respects and the words really make a big impact on the young man. He gets a summer job as a waiter at a Jewish resort hotel in the Laurentian Mountains – a world away from the streets of Montreal – where he uses his hustling skills to make money on the side. He soon finds that there’s a definite pecking order with the waiters, all of whom study at McGill University and look down at the working class kid. This includes the cook who gives the other waiters their orders first. However, Duddy is a fast learner and works harder and earns more money than the others by knowing which wheels to grease.

Duddy is full of quick rich schemes, from filming bar mitzvahs to selling pinball machines. He’s got street smarts, which rubs his uncle Benjy (Joseph Wiseman) the wrong way and lets his nephew know it: “You’re a born pusher, a little Jew boy on the make and guys like you make me feel sick and ashamed.” This provokes Duddy to say, “Oh, you lousy, intelligent people! You liars! Your books and your socialism and your sneers, you can be one more pain in the ass, you know that?” It’s the summer resort all over again with the educated university students laughing at Duddy. He feels the same sense of superiority from his uncle. It is a wonderfully delivered speech from Dreyfuss as the scene underlines one of the film’s central themes – street smarts vs. intellectualism.

Richard Dreyfuss’ Duddy is a whirlwind of energy and the actor instills the character with a vitality that is exciting to watch. It’s hard not to get caught up in his dreams of making money even if they turn out to be schemes more than anything else. The actor conveys a confidence and bravado that often comes from being young with nothing to lose and this ideally suited a character like Duddy. Dreyfuss isn’t afraid to show the lows that come with the euphoric highs, like how Duddy vomits after losing all his money in a roulette game.

Duddy Kravitz makes a point of showing the distinction between classes, most significantly Duddy’s working class neighborhood vs. the rich, snobby university students that work at the resort. He resents this and, as a result, always has something to prove. Father figures also play a prominent role in the film as Duddy’s dad hardly gives his son the time of day and so the young man looks to people like his grandfather or an alcoholic blacklisted film director (a hilariously bitter Denholm Elliott) for approval and wisdom, which makes him something of a tragic figure as the impetus for what he does comes out of trying to impress his father.

Ted Kotcheff was born and raised in Toronto and wanted to be a film director but ended up working for the CBC in the mid-1950s directing live television dramas. There was no film industry in Canada at the time and so he moved to London, England to learn about making movies. It was there that he met, became friends with and roomed with writer Mordecai Richler in 1958. At the time, the author was writing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and when he was finished, let Kotcheff read it. The director told Richler, “This is the best Canadian novel ever written. Someday I am going to go back to Canada and film it.”

For years, Kotcheff tried to get Duddy Kravitz made but potential producers feared that the subject matter might be misconstrued as being anti-Semitic, much like the accusations leveled at Richler when his novel was published. One American producer – Samuel Z. Arkoff – wanted to change Duddy Kravitz to a Greek character. Finally, the Canadian Film Development Corp., which was government financed, agreed to help back it and National Film Board of Canada veteran John Kemeny agreed to produce it. However, the existing screenplay needed work and Richler came in to rewrite it in six weeks. Kotcheff was able to make the film on a thrifty $900,000 budget.

The filmmaker had no problem finding the supporting cast but found choosing the right actor to play the titular character a challenge because he would have to make the audience care for a guy that does awful things over the course of the film. Time was running out when a friend of Kotcheff’s, casting agent Lynn Stalmaster, recommended a young actor by the name of Richard Dreyfuss, fresh from appear in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Kotcheff remembered, “As soon as he opened his mouth it was electrifying. Richard had everything: the core of Duddy’s drive and obsession.” The actor recalled, “As soon as I read the script, I realized I was holding in my hands the greatest part ever offered to a young actor.” Dreyfuss had never heard of the book and “got on a train, read the book and spent the rest of the time on the train writing ‘Add this, add this, add this’ because the novel was so rich.”

At the time, Dreyfuss had repeated turned down a role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Jaws but had a change of heart when he saw himself in Duddy Kravitz. He thought that his performance was so bad that he would never work in film again. “I thought it was a wonderful movie but I didn’t like my performance because I had no experience in watching me for that amount of time. I saw all the things I didn’t do. I didn’t see it as story-telling.” He begged Spielberg to cast him in Jaws.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was a box office hit in both Canada and the United States. It was also named Canada’s Best Film of 1974, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award for its script. Pauline Kael said of Dreyfuss’ performance: “No matter how phenomenal Richard Dreyfuss is in other roles, it’s not likely that he’ll ever top his performance in this teeming, energetic Canadian film.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It’s a little too sloppy, and occasionally too obvious, to qualify as a great film, but it’s a good and entertaining one, and it leaves us thinking that Duddy Kravitz might amount to something after all, should he ever grow up.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby found it an “alternately sad and hilarious movie of dreams rampant.”

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is about a selfish opportunist, a young man desperate to make money and realize his dreams any way he can and along the way he ends up hurting those close to him, either emotionally or, indirectly, physically. Dreyfuss delivers a fearless performance in a breakout role. In the end, Duddy achieves his goal but at a terrible cost and it seems like a hollow victory at best. The film is a coming-of-age tale with Duddy learning some harsh lessons about life.


SOURCES

Howell, Peter. “Ted Kotcheff Finally Brings The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to Cannes.” Toronto Star. May 22, 2013.

Johnson, Brian D. “Richard Dreyfuss Owes Jaws to Duddy Kravitz.” Macleans. May 22, 2013.

Knelman, Martin. “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Gets New Life.” Toronto Star. February 16, 2013.


Lacey, Liam. “Dreyfuss on Duddy: ‘Roles like that don’t come along very often.’” The Globe and Mail. May 22, 2013.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Modern Romance

“You have to be fearless about it, you can’t go, Oh gee, am I gonna come off too this or too that? Don’t make the movie then, don’t do that subject if that’s what you’re afraid of, play a lovable teddy bear.” – Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks has always been a fearless performer unafraid to play characters that are unattractive (Taxi Driver) or arrogant (Broadcast News). In the films he wrote and directed, Brooks helped pioneer the uncomfortable comedy, which featured characters stumbling into awkward situations and off-kilter comic pacing that often involved stretches with no jokes that cleverly built-up to a punchline or joke that wasn’t always blatantly telegraphed. One can see this influence in the comedy of Garry Shandling, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. among others.

One of Brooks’ best films is Modern Romance (1981), a funny, wryly observed comedy about love featuring the comedian as a neurotic guy repeatedly breaking up and getting back together with his girlfriend played by Kathryn Harrold. The film famously did not test well with audiences back in the day and when he refused to make any changes the powers that be released it with little fanfare only for it to promptly die on the vine. He subsequently sunk into a deep funk only to be rescued by none other than Stanley Kubrick who told him how much he admired the film.

The first scene – where Robert Cole (Brooks) breaks up with girlfriend Mary Harvard (Harrold) – establishes the film’s off-kilter vibe as they order food and she endearingly wipes her lipstick off his cheek before he lowers the boom. She tries to prolong it by chitchatting about his work – he’s a film editor – until he forces the issue, calling their relationship, “a no-win situation,” like Vietnam. This isn’t the first time they’ve broken up and Robert comes off as a little paranoid and majorly neurotic. Brooks deftly juggles tones in this scene, inserting sly, little jokes amidst the heaviness of the moment, like when an understandably upset Mary gets up and leaves only for Robert to say, “Come back, we can at least eat!”

Robert goes to work and confides in his best friend and co-worker Jay (Bruno Kirby), giving himself a half-hearted pep talk: “There’s ten million people in this city alone. How difficult can it be to find one perfect woman? It’s not that big a deal,” to which his friend deadpans, “I haven’t but maybe you can.” They try to build each other up in an amusing moment but it feels like they are going through the motions.

Upset, Robert goes home and proceeds to call Jay on the phone. Brooks captures their entire conversation in one long, uninterrupted take as we see how the breakup with Mary has started to impact on him. He then calls Jay back after the two Quaaludes kick in and wanders through his house rambling on and stumbling around in a funny scene. Again, Brooks lets the scene play out as we follow Robert around his place, talking to himself after hanging up with Jay. Most other filmmakers would have cut away or used to music to manipulate our emotions but not Brooks who only uses music when it feels right – in this case, when Robert decides to put on a record, saying, “God, I have so many great albums. I love my albums,” and this other amusing gem, “Music is the doctor of the soul.” However, the song he puts on makes him sad and he takes the record off. This awkwardness feels intimate, like we shouldn’t be seeing this and it only adds to the authenticity of the moment. Here’s a guy who feels lost in life. He’s broken up with the woman he loves and now deeply regrets it.

Robert convinces himself that he’s starting a new life and so he loads up on vitamins, buys a new running outfit (from a salesman played hilariously by Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein), and then proceeds to clumsily try running with predictably poor results. He tries to get over Mary through sheer force of will and it is funny seeing him try. The rest of Modern Romance plays out his attempts to get over Mary and then his attempts to win her back.

The lovely Kathryn Harrold is ideally cast as Brooks’ love interest and one can see why Robert is crazy about Mary – she’s smart, beautiful and good at her job, which makes us wonder why they broke up in the first place? Early on, it isn’t clear why they keep breaking up and getting back together but by the last third of the film it becomes obvious – they don’t communicate very well. He doesn’t trust her and is insanely jealous, letting things build up until they become an issue.

Bruno Kirby is well-cast as Brooks’ best friend and they play well off each other, especially early on when, after just having broken up with Mary, Robert confides in Jay. Later on, he pops up in a strong sequence that shows how the two men solve a post-production issue that the director tells them to resolve. I like that it’s a comedy where we actually see the characters working at their jobs. Brooks goes one step further and actually provides some detail on what a film editor does, which gives us an insider’s look that feels true.

The inspiration for Modern Romance came out of a personal experience Albert Brooks had:

“Two year ago, I was going out with a woman. The relationship had ended but I found myself driving around her house, over and over again. I felt pinned to my car. I couldn’t do anything else but keep circling the house and I couldn’t even figure out why I was doing it. Finally, I thought, why don’t I pull over and write this down? It might make a good film.”

Brooks actually incorporated that very anecdote into the finished film. He chose Robert to be a film editor because he had never seen a movie about Hollywood that featured one as the protagonist. Furthermore, he said, “I would not have made Modern Romance unless I had that kind of trouble in my life with breaking up. I didn’t do it as much as that character, but I did it enough to be able to write and do that, so for comedic purposes, I take behavior that I might do and I square it.”

Initially, Columbia Pictures was so happy with Modern Romance that then-studio head Frank Price flew Brooks and his co-star Kathryn Harrold from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the executive’s private jet for a test screening. It went so badly that Price ditched Brooks and flew back to L.A. Later, the two men met and addressed the problems the audience had with the film. People couldn’t understand why Robert was so unhappy and Price wanted Brooks to add a scene where he goes to a psychiatrist. Brooks refused because he didn’t know why the character was so unhappy as well. His then-agent Michael Ovitz urged him to add the scene in order to appease the studio. Brooks refused and changed agents. The studio released the film with little support and it performed poorly at the box office, polarizing critics and leaving Brooks depressed.

Then, out of the blue, Stanley Kubrick called Brooks and told him, “This is a brilliant movie – the movie I’ve always wanted to make about jealousy. You will not understand what I’m saying, but you must believe me: The studio decides before the movie is ever released how it’s going to do. It has nothing to do with you.” Kubrick’s call revitalized Brooks’ self-esteem. Over time, Brooks began to realize that his film resonated with people as he recounted in a profile for The New York Times, “A guy came running up to me on the street the other day and he says, ‘You’re the guy! You’re the guy! I got married because of that movie!’ I said: ‘Great. That’s a terrible reason to get married.’”

Modern Romance carries on the proud tradition of single guy romantic comedies like Annie Hall (1977), The Lonely Guy (1984), and High Fidelity (2000) by putting his own distinctive stamp on the genre. He doesn’t go for broad gags, opting for a more understated approach, setting up a situation and letting it play out organically unlike most comedies that go for an easy punchline.

“There are no gags in the picture. No zany comics. There are real people in real situations carried to a logical – or illogical – extreme. If the outcome is funny, it’s because life itself is funny.” – Albert Brooks

Brooks understands that a lot of comedy comes out of anger and pain and isn’t afraid to mine this territory for honest observations about love. He also understands that most of us don’t have an easy time when it comes to love and relationships take work. He also acknowledges the awkwardness of life and isn’t afraid to play someone riddled with self-doubt, which makes his character relatable. One has to admire Brooks for not being content to merely make a film that is nothing more than a joke delivery machine but actually try to say something about love and how people relate to each other.


SOURCES

Barron, Angela. “Post Modern Romance.” Editors Guild Magazine. September-October 2005.

Modern Romance Production Notes. Columbia Pictures. 1981.

Raab, Scott. “Albert Brooks Knows the Whole Hellish Truth.” Esquire. January 29, 2007.

Smith, Gavin. “All the Choices: Albert Brooks Interview.” Film Comment. July/August 1999.

Svetkey, Benjamin. “Albert Brooks Takes a Look Back on his Career.” Entertainment Weekly. May 30, 2003.


Weber, Bruce. “Reflections on Himself.” The New York Times. March 17, 1991.