Friday, August 12, 2011

The January Man

Outside of Ishtar (1987) or maybe Gigli (2003), you’d be hard-pressed to find another more critically savaged film than The January Man (1989). And what an ass-kicking it took at the box office, pulling in just under five million dollars in the United States. Why so much vitriol directed at one film? Coming off the success of his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Moonstruck (1987), John Patrick Shanley assumed he could do no wrong and for his next film assembled an impressive roster of talent with Pat O’Connor (A Month in the Country) directing, Marvin Hamlisch (The Sting) composing the score, and a cast that featured the likes of Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman, Harvey Keitel, and Rod Steiger. For good measure, Shanley’s Moonstruck director Norman Jewison produced the film.


With this insane amount of talent in front of and behind the camera, how could The January Man fail? Critics and audiences were not ready for the end result: a thriller with sudden tonal shifts, veering from comedy to romance to mystery, often within the same scene. Some of the cast delivered low-key performances while others chewed up the scenery. The film was deemed a mess, a disappointing misfire from brilliant artists that should have known better. Yet, the messiness of this film is what I like about it as it reflects the messiness of the protagonist’s life. The January Man is an underrated critique of the thriller genre and deserves to be rediscovered and re-assessed now that enough time has passed.

Someone in New York City is strangling and killing beautiful young women. It has been going on for almost a year with 11 women dead. When the latest victim (Faye Grant) was last seen by the mayor’s daughter Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and could have easily been the one dead, his Honor (Rod Steiger) leans heavily on police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) to do something about it. He wants the best man the chief’s got on the job and that would Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline), Frank’s estranged brother. It turns out that Nick used to be a hot shot police detective but was screwed over royally in some sort of scandal and is now a firefighter.

We are introduced to Nick as he heroically saves a child from a burning building. After reviving the kid, the understandably exhausted man requests an espresso – the first indication that The January Man is going to be something different. It’s the absurdity of Kline asking for an espresso amidst the carnage of a raging inferno that deflates his heroic action and gives us a clue as to what kind of person we’re dealing with. Nick isn’t some glory hound but genuinely cares about saving lives at the risk of his own. Frank appeals to his brother to help him out and in return he’ll be fully reinstated and given carte blanche on the case. Nick only has one condition: to make dinner for Frank’s wife and his ex-lover, Christine (Susan Sarandon). Judging from her reaction when Frank tells her, she still has feelings for Nick.

Nick returns home to find his best friend Ed (Alan Rickman) painting with a nude female model and a kitten as his subjects (let’s not forget a talking parrot commenting on the action in the corner). Coming off his classic villainous role in Die Hard (1988), Alan Rickman goes completely in the opposite direction with this hilarious low-key character full of dry wit. The actor proceeds to steal the scene (and every other one he’s in) with a simple look he gives Kline while defending his intrusion in Nick’s apartment. He goes from defensive to warm and inviting when he agrees to clear out so that Nick can prepare his dinner for Christine. What also makes Ed such a memorable character is how he speaks, like the way he tells the model, “Just languish there, darling. Don’t molest anything.” It’s how he emphasizes the words, “languish” and “molest” that make this bit so funny. It’s an incredible example of what a great actor can do with a bit of dialogue just by how he says a word a certain way. Apparently, Ed is some kind of computer expert in his spare time and Nick hires him to help out in his investigation.

The scene where local precinct captain Vincent Alcoa (Danny Aiello) confronts the mayor about reinstating Nick under his watch is a master class in over the top profane scenery chewing. Danny Aiello comes in bellowing (“Don’t bullshit me besides screwing me!”) and then takes it up another notch. Not to be outdone, Rod Steiger cranks it up to a whole other level (“You think I’m your wife, you wanna fuck me?!”) and becomes so enraged that you swear his head will explode at some point. Harvey Keitel wisely plays it low key as he does throughout the entire film. So much so that it’s kind of spooky, like he’s sleepwalking his way through the film – uncustomary for the usually intense actor. There is a method to Shanley’s madness, however, as this scene satirizes the hot-tempered chief chewing out a subordinate by showing how ridiculous it is to have two grown men yelling at each other.

The dinner scene between Nick and Christine also subverts convention. One assumes that he is trying to win her back and would prepare food that she would like. But no, he has made the most unusual culinary challenged meal that includes octopus, which Christine is clearly not thrilled with eating. What’s odd about this sequence is its placement in the film. Shanley stops the thriller story cold and inserts this scene that is straight out of a romantic comedy as Nick and Christine rehash old times. Coming off her earthy, sexy role in Bull Durham (1988), Susan Sarandon plays a very different character – one that is cold and distant as she is part of an unhappy marriage. This sequence feels like a different film entirely but it works if you understand what Shanley is trying to do: subvert the conventions of the thriller genre by plopping down a tonally different scene from a disparate genre. It’s a ballsy move on Shanley’s part and a potential deal breaker for an audience expecting a standard thriller. However, what he’s doing is what Quentin Tarantino would excel at in the 1990’s (see Pulp Fiction) so maybe it took audiences a few years to catch up to what Shanley was doing in The January Man.

During his investigation, Nick befriends and then becomes romantically involved with Bernadette, which complicates things on two fronts: she was friends with one of the murder victims and she’s the mayor’s daughter. Their initial meeting is interesting in the sense that it’s a meet-cute right out of a romantic comedy except that their conversation veers from the murder to Nick’s relationship with Christine to him hitting on Bernadette and then having sex with her in the next scene. She’s upset over her friend getting killed and he’s feeling vulnerable after the uncomfortable dinner with Christine. They find a bit of solace together, a brief respite from the ugly murder that they’re both linked to. The script alludes to a rich backstory for Nick with a complicated past that involves his brother and Christine. The details aren’t particularly important, just the fallout and how it informs their relationship with one another in the present.

What I like about Kevin Kline’s character is that he’s a thinker. Director Pat O’Connor shows him studying evidence, observing people and their behavior, all the while analyzing the case in his head. Nick is definitely a left-brain person who thinks outside the box. The role also allows Kline to show off not only his comedic chops (of which are superb) but also his aptitude for drama, like when Nick begins to delve deeper into the case, or the complex relationship with his brother Frank. Kline is a versatile actor able to go back and forth from comedy and drama, often in the same scene, making him the ideal choice for this role. I’ve always found Kline to be an offbeat leading man. He’s not traditionally handsome, like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but he has a very likable persona that is charming and disarming. Only Lawrence Kasdan (I Love You to Death) has really been able to consistently utilize him to his full potential. The actor had just come off his Academy Award-winning turn in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and with The January Man played a radically different character – an intelligent romantic as opposed to the outlandish buffoon as in Wanda.

When Kevin Kline read the screenplay for The January Man, he thought it would be fun to do. “It’s so outrageous, it’s got such panache. It’s not really a murder-mystery thriller, it’s about family and betrayal and the individual outside the system.” In addition, producer Norman Jewison described it as “a romantic comedy thriller.” The film was shot over ten weeks in Manhattan and Toronto. With a background in documentaries, director Pat O’Connor made sure the precinct featured prominently in the film looked authentic, right down to the layout and the way the extras looked. He hired Ed Zigo as a consultant. He was one of the police detectives who helped catch David Berkowitz a.k.a. the Son of Sam. Zigo took some of the cast and crew on tours of precincts in and around New York City. By all accounts, principal photography went smoothly so what went wrong? Perhaps something during the post-production phase? The most telling comment came from screenwriter John Patrick Shanley who saw three cuts of the film. “One time I saw it, I didn’t like it. One time I saw it and I really liked it. And then the third time I saw it I was confused and wasn’t sure how I felt.” Guess which version was released.

It is a gross understatement to say that critics savaged The January Man when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars and wrote, “Nothing fits. Every role seems to have been faxed in from a different movie, and the actors are on such various planes of emotional intensity that sometimes you can catch them, right there on the screen, looking at each other in bewilderment.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Pat O'Connor, the director (Stars and Bars, A Month in the Country, Cal), has imposed no risible order on this minor chaos, nor has he been kind to Mr. Kline. He allows this very gifted comic actor to work so hard trying to be funny that one alternately sweats and cringes while watching him.” USA Today gave the film one out of four stars and Matt Roush felt that “the movie is all concept, with little ingenuity applied to the execution.” Time magazine gave the film a mixed review, addressing Shanley’s script: “His busy plotting may require a suspension of incredulity, but he is well served by good actors; by a director, Pat O'Connor, with a taste for the acrid flavors of big-city life; and by his own delight in human eccentricity.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Eliot called April the cruelest month, but then he hadn't seen The January Man. Billed as a mystery with romance and comedy, it is a damp sock of a movie that makes you wish for leap year.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen wrote, “There are isolated scenes (bantering with his artsy sidekick, confronting an old flame, seducing a new) that sail along marvelously. But, each time, our raised hopes are quickly dashed, and apparent redemption ends as merely a momentary reprieve.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “The whodunit is spectacularly implausible, the comedy misjudged, the romance forced.” Finally, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin came the closest of anyone to giving the film a positive review when he wrote, “You are left with some genuine laughter, with a renewed awareness that Shanley is a special and considerable talent, and with an equally renewed feeling that nobody wins 'em all.”

Shanley casts a discerning eye upon the thriller genre without beating the viewer over the head with its conventions. Most thrillers are plot-driven but The January Man is inhabited by characters that you care about – you want to see Nick end up with Bernadette at the film’s conclusion. The film critiques the police thriller by presenting all of its conventions – the loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules; the gruff boss who’s tired of his screwball antics; the ex-lover who creates romantic tension; tantalizing hints of political corruption; and the serial killer following a specific methodology – and then proceeds to subvert them by confounding our expectations, like the killer turning out to be a nobody just following his own sick impulses, or making the cop protagonist an artsy bohemian type. Even the climactic showdown is unusual – a messy, amusing sequence that goes on longer than you’d expect as Nick is portrayed as not the most adept at physical combat. The film’s intent is best summed up by its most memorable line of dialogue that Nick says to Christine when he realizes that he doesn’t love her anymore: “I loved an idea I had that looked like you.” It’s like Shanley loved an idea he had of a thriller that looked like the one that is the film. As if anticipating the critical shellacking his film was going to take upon its release, Shanley has Ed say at the end of the film, “The world’s either great or wretched, isn’t it? So many people are just finished.” He could so easily be talking about Hollywood and what I always assumed to be Shanley’s love/hate relationship with it.

This article was inspired by Mr. Peel's thoughtful examination of the film over at his blog.
 
*note: these fantastic screencaps were taken from the Movie Screenshots blog.


SOURCES

Alaton, Salem. “Punchin’, Kissin’ Writer Puts Pop in January Man.” Globe and Mail. January 13, 1989.


Pitt, David E. “The January Man Dossier: The Force is With It.” The New York Times. January 15, 1989.

12 comments:

  1. I remember liking the characters a lot but thinking the writer thought serial killers wrote fiendish puzzles in their spare time. Sort of like The Cell in that way.

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  2. Hi J.D.

    I've never seen the film and, as you so eloquently put it, it suffered a critical and utterly complete drubbing back in the day. You capture many of those highlights here.

    Since I often listen to those reviews, like Ishtar, I stayed away.

    Having said that, Kevin Kline is one of those actors I adore. Call it a bromance. The guy is a blast to watch. I love many of his films including Sophie's Choice, A Fish Called Wanda, Life As A House, The Ice Storm and The Emperor's Club. These are all terrific. It's funny, but I did like I Love You To Death too, but that never did well either and that followed The January Man the next year as a kind of misfire.

    I always love how you reassess a film like this. Even Ishtar has softened in some eyes today. But again, I enjoy how you spotlight unexpected films here at Radiator Heaven. The January Man was one of those welcomed sights. Nice work as always J.D.. best, sff

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  3. You make me want to give this movie another shot, J.D.. I saw it once in theaters during its original release and remember little about it now except that me and the two friends I saw it with hated it. But...that was many years ago and I have the feeling it would play differently for me now. I hope I do get around to seeing it again - just so I can compare my impression to yours.

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  4. Thomas Pluck:

    Yeah, watching it again recently it struck me not that the serial killer was all that smart per se but rather he just had such a specific obsession that the cops had a tough time zeroing on it until Nick came along and figured it out.


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend.

    Sometimes when a film gets so universally slammed critically it makes me curious to see it if only to check out what all the commotion was about. Most of the time it is usually warranted but sometimes you get gems like THE JANUARY MAN.

    I like Kline as well. He's an interesting actor to watch even if the film isn't all that good he is usually excellent regardless. I LOVE YOU TO DEATH is definitely one of my faves of his. Such an odd film but in a really good way.

    Glad you like me casting a spotlight on these neglected films.


    Jeff Allard:

    Thanks! I hope you check this film out and give it another go. It has aged quite well. As I said, now that Tarantino has made the tonal shift within films popular you can see that Shanley was trying to do the same thing with THE JANUARY MAN.

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  5. Many thanks for the kind shoutout. Such an odd movie that for me never finds the right tone or rhythm but I can definitely spot things in there that are worth pointing out. If only more films could be such interesting messes.

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  6. Mr. Peel:

    You are welcome!

    It is an odd film to be sure and I like the messiness of it. The tonal shifts are all off but somehow that works for me. As you say, if only there were more interesting messes like THE JANUARY MAN.

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  7. Hey, this was a great choice for a movie review. This film is little-known, and it's far from perfect, but it was a perfectly-competent effort. I'd take this over some of the mass-produced junk that has no heart, no script, and no feeling of effort.

    I actually posted a comment on this earlier, but never saw it posted. What gives?

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  8. Thaddeus:

    My apologies 'bout yer first comment! I never received. Must've got lost in cyberspace.

    Thank you for commenting again. I agree that THE JANUARY MAN is a flawed film. No doubt 'bout that but it is a fascinating mess of a film with a lot going on.

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  9. To say this film is "a mess" is an understatement. It tries to be too many things at once, failing at all. Most disappointing were the thriller "clues" that the genius managed to figure out--for instance, watching a truck go by that says "prime." It suddenly comes to him--prime numbers! Totally unrelated to the constellations, the song, etc. Nothing holds together. What a waste of good acting talent.
    But in a way, the film was fun--I just love it when films are unintentionally funny. :)

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  10. Elizabeth Parker:

    I really can't refute the points you make suffice to say that the jumps in logic are the least of the film's problems but it is an engaging, fascinating mess of a film. I always wonder if a coherent film was made and then butchered in the editing? Shanley's comments seem to suggest something going on there.

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  11. Not a film that I'm familiar with - and though your post made me curious, it's "saved" on Netflix so I won't become too much more familiar in the future!

    I like your description of the loose atmosphere, I like quite a few films like that, films which sidestep the whole issue of greatness, might not even be very good, but have a mood or atmosphere that ingtrigues. Even if they misfire.

    And the notion of Aiello and Steiger trying to out-scream one another is pretty amusing...

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  12. Joel Bocko:

    I would be very curious to know what you think of this when you get a chance to watch it. I find brilliantly flawed films like this fascinating to watch. Despite its problems there is still so much to recommend and enjoy about it.

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