"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, December 28, 2009

When Harry Met Sally...

Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way? This is the question that When Harry Met Sally... (1989) asks and then wisely leaves up to the viewer to decide. Released in 1989, this romantic comedy is a classic example of the right people in the right place at the right time with Rob Reiner directing, Nora Ephron writing and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the romantic leads with old standards re-interpreted by a then-up-and-coming singer Harry Connick, Jr. The results were amazing to say the least, launching the careers of the aforementioned into the stratosphere and creating a benchmark that every romantic comedy has since been judged by.

Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) meets Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) after they both graduate from university and share a car ride from Chicago to New York City. Along the way, they argue about the differences between men and women and Harry says that they can never be friends because sex always gets in the way, to which Sally disagrees. She finds him obnoxious and he thinks that she’s too uptight. Once Harry and Sally arrive in New York and go their separate ways, they figure that they will never see each other again. Over the years, Harry and Sally run into each other again during various stages in their lives and become friends. The film chronicles the development of their relationship.

In 1984, Rob Reiner, producer Andrew Scheinman and writer Nora Ephron met over several lunch meetings to develop a project together. The second meeting transformed into a long discussion about Reiner and Scheinman’s lives as single men. The next time they all met, Reiner said that he had always wanted to do a film about two people who become friends and don’t have sex because they know it will ruin their relationship but have sex anyway. Ephron liked the idea and Reiner put a deal in place at a studio. She then proceeded to interview him and Scheinman about their lives in order to have material to draw on. These interviews also provided the basis for Harry. In Ephron’s first draft, Harry and Sally did not end up together at the film’s end, which she felt was “the true ending,” as did Reiner until he met his future wife while making it and changed his mind.

At the time, Reiner was constantly depressed, pessimisitic yet very funny. Sally, in turn, was based on Ephron and some of her friends. When Crystal came on board the film was called Boy Meets Girl, and he made his own contributions to the script, making Harry funnier. Crystal “experience[d] vicariously” his best friend Reiner’s return to single life after divorcing comedienne and filmmaker Penny Marshall. In the process, he was unconsciously doing research for the role of Harry. During the screenwriting process, when Ephron wouldn’t feel like writing, she would interview people who worked for the production company. She also got bits of dialogue from these interviews. She worked on several drafts over the years while Reiner made Stand By Me (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987).

When the film started to focus too much on Harry, the classic deli scene was born. Crystal said, “we need[ed] something for Sally to talk about and Nora said, ‘Well, faking orgasm is a great one.’ Right away we said, ‘Well, the subject is good.’ and then Meg came on board and we talked with her about the nature of the idea and she said, ‘Well, why don’t I just fake one, just do one?’” Ephron suggested that the scene take place in a deli and it was Crystal who actually came up with scene’s classic punchline, “I’ll have what she’s having,” spoken by Reiner’s mother. At a test screening, Reiner remembers that all the women in the audience laughed during this scene while all the men were silent. Originally, Ephron wanted to call the film, How They Met and went through several different titles. Reiner even started a contest with the crew during principal photography – whoever came up with the title won a case of champagne.

The film’s dialogue has a ring of honesty to it, from Harry and Sally’s discussion about having good sex early on in the film, to their conversation about fake orgasms during the famous deli sequence. One memorable scene is when Harry tells Sally what all men think about after having sex: “How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home? Is thirty seconds enough?” Disgusted, she replies, “That’s what you’re thinking? Is that true?” Harry tells her, “Sure. All men think that. How long do you like to be hold afterwards? All night, right? See, that’s the problem. Somewhere between thirty seconds and all night is your problem.” What they talk about and how they do it really captures the way men and women talk to and about each other. Much of the dialogue is also very funny. For example, there’s the little asides, like Sally’s anal-retentive and very particular way of ordering food at restaurants, or the Pictionary scene where Harry’s best friend Jess (Bruno Kirby) ineptly guesses Sally’s drawing as “baby fishmouth” (?!). Crystal’s reaction to Kirby’s guess is absolutely priceless.

The film finds humor in painful situations, like when Harry tells Jess that he’s breaking up with his wife because she cheated on him. Jess tells him, “marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.” Harry replies, “oh really? Well, that symptom is fucking my wife.” The film is also chock full of brilliant observations about relationships – easily the best of its kind outside of a Woody Allen film. This is something that is missing from so many romantic comedies now. Most contemporary ones feel the need for some kind of zany premise to justify their existence and feature crude humor instead of working at creating fully-realized characters and authentic sounding dialogue. This is one of the strengths of When Harry Met Sally... because many of the situations and dialogue were based on the real-life experiences of the creative team that made the film.

Because When Harry Met Sally... is so character and dialogue-driven, many forget just how beautifully shot a film it is, thanks to Barry Sonnenfeld, who got his start with the Coen brothers. The establishing shot of New York City early on shows the iconic skyline bathed in golden sunlight. There is another scene where Harry and Sally walk through Central Park and are surrounded by fallen leaves that perfectly capture the city in autumn. The sequence is saturated in warm yellow, reds and browns. These shots and the locations used in the film are captured in such loving detail by someone who is a native of the city, as Reiner was at the time.

I have a yearly ritual of watching this film between Christmas and New Year’s because part of the film is set during the holidays. There is a nice montage of New York during winter: people window shopping, sledding in the park, the streets covered in snow and Christmas decorations, and Harry and Sally getting a tree. Not to mention, the film’s climactic moment takes place on New Year’s Eve.

The casting for this film is perfect. Billy Crystal’s character is definitely cast in the neurotic Woody Allen mould with his obsession with death. For example, he tells Sally early on that when he buys a book he reads the last page first so that if he dies before finishing the book he’ll know how it ended. However, Crystal is infinitely more charming than Allen and has a certain vulnerability that is attractive. Meg Ryan is adorable as Sally, bringing a perky, irrepressible charm to the role. She compliments Harry’s pessimism. Ryan also nails Sally’s need to control every aspect of her life as typified by the way she orders food at a restaurant. She is the epitome of practicality as typified by the argument she has with Harry about who Ingrid Bergman should’ve ended up with at the conclusion of Casablanca (1942).

They are ably supported by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher as their respective best friends. Not only do they play well off Crystal and Ryan, but also each other once their characters become a couple. Fisher’s scenes with Ryan where they speak honestly about their respective relationships have an honest feel to them. When Sally tells Marie that she broke up with her boyfriend, her friend laments, “you had someone to go places with. You had a date on national holidays.” They talk about dating and Fisher demonstrates fantastic comic timing, like when she goes through her Rolodex of available men and when told that one is married, folds over the corner of the index card with his contact information and puts it back – you know, just in case.

A memorable scene with Kirby includes the blind date where Harry tries to hook Jess up with Sally but he ends up getting involved with her best friend Marie. They are at dinner and Marie ends up quoting a line out of one of Jess’ restaurant reviews and his reaction is so real and genuine. I would have loved to have seen a film from the perspective of Jess and Marie showing how their courtship and marriage played out. This was one of the late-great Kirby’s most memorable roles and watching him in this film again serves as a sad reminder just how poorer cinema is with his passing.

Columbia Pictures released When Harry Met Sally... using the “platform” technique which involved opening it in a few select cities and then gradually expanding distribution over subsequent weeks. Crystal was worried that the film would flop at the box office because it was up against several summer blockbuster films, including Batman (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

When Harry Met Sally... was not only a commercial success but a hit with critics. Roger Ebert called Reiner "one of Hollywood's very best directors of comedy," and said that it was "most conventional, in terms of structure and the way it fulfills our expectations. But what makes it special, apart from the Ephron screenplay, is the chemistry between Crystal and Ryan.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley praised Meg Ryan as the "summer's Melanie Griffith – a honey-haired blonde who finally finds a showcase for her sheer exuberance. Neither naif nor vamp, she's a woman from a pen of a woman, not some Cinderella of a Working Girl.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Crystal is funny enough to keep Ryan from all-out stealing the film. She, though, is smashing in an eye-opening performance, another tribute to Reiner's flair with actors.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Caryn James described the film as "often funny but amazingly hollow film" that "romanticized lives of intelligent, successful, neurotic New Yorkers." James characterized it as "the sitcom version of a Woody Allen film, full of amusing lines and scenes, all infused with an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu."

When Harry Met Sally... doesn’t answer the question about men and women being friends because it is more concerned with the differences between the sexes. Harry and Sally spend most of the film trying to under one another and find themselves attracted to each other’s idiosyncrasies that one finds endearing only after you’ve gotten to know someone over a long period of time. This film is arguably the best thing that Crystal, Reiner, Ryan and Ephron have ever done. Crystal went on to make several decent if not exactly memorable films (except for City Slickers). Reiner has made one increasingly forgettable film after another (Rumor Has It, Alex and Emma, etc.). Ephron and Ryan teamed up again for Sleepless in Seattle (1993) which was a monster hit, and You’ve Got Mail (1998), but both films don’t quite resonate as well or as memorably as When Harry Met Sally...


“It All Started Like This.” When Harry Met Sally… Collector’s Edition DVD. 2008.

Keyser, Lucy. “It’s Love at the Box Office for Harry Met Sally…Washington Times. July 25, 1989.

Lacey, Liam. “Pals Make Buddy Picture.” Globe and Mail. Jul 15, 1989.

Peterson, Karen. “When Boy Meets Girl.” USA Today. July 17, 1989.

Weber, Bruce. “Can Men and Women Be Friends?” The New York Times. July 9, 1989.

“When Rob Met Billy.” When Harry Met Sally… Collector’s Edition DVD. 2008.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Ref

If you’re tired of the non-stop parade of saccharine Christmas specials or the glut of sappy seasonal programming on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels, then may I recommend The Ref (1994). Directed by the late Ted Demme and starring his pal, comedian Denis Leary, this film is a wonderfully acerbic comedy with a heart that actually delivers on its zany premise of a small-time cat burglar forced to pose as a marriage counselor to a bitterly dysfunctional couple on Christmas Eve. For once, hilarity does ensue.

We meet Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) discussing their sex life (or lack thereof) to their marriage counselor (B.D. Wong). Caroline complains that they haven’t had sex in a long time and when they did it was a routine, going-through-the-motions act. She even has dreams of her husband castrated and being served up buffet-style. Lloyd is disgusted with her admissions and is clearly not thrilled with discussing the intimate details of their sex life with a stranger. His contempt for her hangs so thick in the air that you could practically cut it with a knife. Lloyd and Caroline have issues that could give the couple from The War of the Roses (1989) a run for their money.

Meanwhile, Gus (Denis Leary) is breaking into an expensive-looking house only to get sprayed with cat urine when he trips an alarm connected to the safe he’s trying to crack. He’s then attacked by a dog and beats a hasty retreat. In a nice touch, Demme shows us just how tough the dog is when Gus whips a pool ball at it which the canine catches in its mouth and then crushes with its teeth. On the run from the police, Gus takes Caroline hostage while she’s in a convenience store and forces her and Lloyd to go back to their house where he plans to hide out until the heat cools off. Gus gets a preview of what he’s in store for when, en route to their house and despite being held at gunpoint, Lloyd and Caroline continue to argue amongst themselves. An exasperated Gus mutters, “Great. I hijacked my fucking parents.”

Lt. Huff (Raymond J. Barry), the town’s police chief, has his hands tied with deputies who are inept and hopelessly inexperienced. The town elders (led by Robert Ridgely as a pompous blowhard) are breathing down his neck because they’re worried about the thief running loose in their nice, affluent small-town. You really feel for the chief who is stuck with incompetent deputies, is bullied by the rich townsfolk and muscled off the case by the state police. Raymond J. Barry wisely doesn’t play him as an idiot but as a guy good at his job but surrounded by idiots and mired in local politics.

Once home, Lloyd and Caroline’s teenage son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.) shows up. He is a burgeoning blackmailer currently framing one of his teachers (J.K. Simmons) at the military academy he’s attending with incriminating photographs. Things get interesting when Lloyd’s mother (Glynis Johns), a real piece of work/battle axe, and her bossy daughter-in-law (Christine Baranski) with her family show up for dinner. Gus poses as a marriage counselor. Naturally, much of the film’s humor is derived from the thief’s blue collar attitude colliding with this snobby family.

The real villain of the film isn’t Gus but Lloyd’s shrew of a mother. She’s always complaining or telling others what to do and the real fireworks occur when Gus puts the woman in her place. The Chasseur family dinner is one of the film’s major comic set pieces as everyone wears these ridiculous headpieces consisting of a crown with several lit candles on them. Lloyd, Caroline and Gus try to maintain a facade of normalcy while the thief attempts to bluff his way past Lloyd’s mother’s nagging questions. Kevin Spacey has a blast feigning happiness in an obvious way and Judy Davis is a lot of fun to watch as her character gets progressively drunker, almost as if she’s auditioning for a lead role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Denis Leary plays ... well, himself, or at least the angry guy persona from his stand-up comic routine at the time. Nobody plays pissed off quite like or as well as Leary, like when he chews out his sad sack accomplice Murray (Richard Bright) over the phone, slamming the receiver repeatedly on a countertop for effect. Leary also gets some of the film’s choice lines, like when he breaks up the incessant bickering between the Chasseurs by telling them, “You know what this family needs? A mute!” Leary’s bitter thief speaks his mind which inspires Lloyd and Caroline to open up and finally get down to the root of their problems. Leary is gracious with sharing screen time with the other actors and Demme knows when to let Spacey and Davis take front stage while Leary observes. Despite the marketing that placed an emphasis on Leary, The Ref is really about Lloyd and Caroline as they learn to finally listen to each other.

Spacey and Davis don’t play Lloyd and Caroline as just superficial, materialistic WASPs but two people who, at one time, had real dreams and aspirations (like running a restaurant) but over the years life hasn’t worked out as they would have liked. Occasionally, you can see this regret play across their faces and it takes Gus to finally confront them for the Chasseurs to deal with their issues. Only a year away from acclaimed turns in Seven (1995) and The Usual Suspects (1995), Spacey turns a solid performance as a frustrated man dominated by the women in his life. Matching him at every turn is Davis, who had a great run in the 1990s, as his disappointed wife.

The Ref was written by Richard LaGravenese and his sister-in-law Marie Weiss, inspired in large part by their own families. The dinner scene, in particular, came from their own experiences. LaGravenese said, “Both Marie and I are Italian Catholics who married into Jewish families, so we do have those big holiday dinners.” Furthermore, he said, “Families always have these unspoken dramas, and at holidays everyone is supposed to sit down and pretend that none of that is going on. Part of the fun in writing the dialogue was completely breaking down the veneer and finally having everybody say what they wanted to say.” Weiss actually began writing the script in 1989 after she and her husband moved from New York to California. Inspiration came from an argument she had with him and she thought, “wouldn’t it be great if there were a third party to step in and referee?”

Weiss wrote several drafts and consulted with LaGravenese in 1991. They took the script to Disney. The studio approved the project within 20 minutes. Made for less than $12 million, the film was produced by the most unusual candidates: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, known for making some of the most popular Hollywood blockbusters of the 1980s. Simpson described the film’s tone as “biting and sarcastic. Just my nature.” LaGravenese spent a year rewriting the script until he finally got “tired of doing rewrites for executives.” Nine months later, Demme and Leary, fresh from working together on No Cure for Cancer, a stand-up comedy special for Showtime, expressed an interest in the project. This prompted LaGravenese to re-enter the fold. He worked throughout the production and even beyond when test audiences responded poorly to the film’s original ending – where Gus turns himself in – and a new one was written and shot in January 1994.

The Ref did not perform as well at the box office as Leary would’ve liked and he blamed how the studio marketed it. He said, “They did me like the MTV guy. And they shortchanged what the movie was all about.” The film received mixed notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “material like this is only as good as the acting and writing. The Ref is skillful in both areas.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers praised the performances of Spacey and Davis: “They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James praised Leary: “For the first time he displays his appeal and potential as an actor instead of a comic with a sneering persona.” However, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was not so taken with the comedian: “A stand-up comic trying to translate his impatient, hipster editorializing to the big screen, he doesn’t have the modulation of a trained actor, only one speed (fast) and one mode of attack (loud).” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman felt that the film was “crushingly blunt-witted and monotonous in its celebration of domestic sadism.”

Gus is sick and tired of rich people that think they’re entitled to everything and isn’t afraid to call them on it. He can’t understand why these people are pissing and moaning about their trivial problems when they have so many things going for them but The Ref goes to great lengths to humanize Lloyd and Caroline. In this respect, the film does something that few Hollywood films have the balls to do: draw attention to the differences between the upper and working class. Demme’s film also shows that not everyone is happy during Christmas. Being with family, especially those you don’t like very much, can be a trying experience and test anyone’s patience as old grudges and bad memories surface.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Author! Author!

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes I wonder why Al Pacino hasn’t done more comedies. After all, he played straight man to George Clooney et al in the fun, colorful romp that was Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and was quite funny as a quirky hobo opposite Gene Hackman in Scarecrow (1973). Interestingly, these films bookend a career chock full of critically-acclaimed, award-winning performances in dramatic fare like Serpico (1973), The Godfather films, The Insider (1999), and so on. So, where are the comedies? And then I’m reminded of Author! Author! (1982), the unwanted step-child in Pacino’s filmography. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Pacino was a single father in charge of five kids then this is the film for you. Sadly, it wasn’t the film for many and tanked at the box office while also getting mauled by critics at the time. This film is the cinematic equivalent of the scrawny little tree that Charlie Brown rescues in A Charlie Brown Christmas and like it; this film deserves a little love and someone to realize its true value. I love Author! Author! for all of its flaws (of which there are several) and consider it something of a comfort movie.

Right off the bat, the filmmakers assault our senses with an awful early 1980s ballad, “Coming Home to You,” complete with those annoying synth drums that were so fashionable with New Wave bands back then. The first image of the film is of an actor pretending (badly) to die on stage, which is apt metaphor for what happened to Author! Author! when it was released in theaters. Famous experimental theater director Andre Gregory (one of the stars of My Dinner with Andre) has an amusing cameo in the beginning as a director who gets fired. Ivan Travalian (Al Pacino) is a New York City playwright trying to rewrite his latest play, English with Tears, while trying to raise five children after his wife Gloria (Tuesday Weld) has left him for another man.

We are introduced to his unruly brood when Ivan comes home and they give him a surprise birthday party that he forgot all about. Ivan rattles off all the things he did that day with the last one being to beat his kids. In mock surprise he says, “I forgot to beat my kids!” and proceeds to chase them around the house. Ah, how times have changed. A joke like that would never fly in today’s ultra-sensitive, politically correct environment. We actually get to see Pacino have a cushion fight with his kids which I have a feeling is not something we’ll see in a montage of his career when he receives a lifetime achievement award.

Pacino does a good job of playing a man barely keeping it together. He’s depressed, unable to sleep and focus on his work. His wife has left him and he can’t figure out how to improve his play even as opening night rapidly approaches. Ivan does manage to convince Alice Detroit (Dyan Cannon) to be in his play and they start an affair of their own. Amidst all of his doubts and depression, Alice provides a chance for Ivan to take a time out and enjoy himself. It’s nice to see Pacino loosen up and his character opens up to Alice. Dyan Cannon provides Alice with a bubbly, playful personality but her character is no ditz and is quite good for Ivan. She and Pacino have decent chemistry together and we want to see their characters as a couple. Cannon was originally asked to play the role of Gloria but turned it down because she found the character “bitchy” and had already played that kind of role. She was then asked to play Alice and agreed because she loved the character. Cannon enjoyed the experience of making the film and compared it to “being on a cruise.”

Author! Author! comes to life in the scenes between Ivan and his kids. Geraldo (Benjamin Carlin) is the youngest of the bunch and is adorable quirk is being unable to pee in front of Ivan and one of his brothers (“Because I’m Spanish!” he says in exasperation). Spike (B.J. Barie) is the middle son from another one of Gloria’s marriages but Ivan makes him feel like he is part of the family. There’s a nice moment when Ivan picks up his eldest son Iggy (Eric Gurry) from school and they talk while walking the streets of New York. The boy has already anticipated Ivan and Gloria’s divorce. Ivan confides in Iggy and the boy has a wise beyond his years thing going on. He is also quite funny as evident in the scene where Alice leaves a sexy message on Ivan’s answering machine, proposing an affair at a hotel in 51 minutes and 12 seconds. Iggy tells his father, “If I were you, I’d spend 50 minutes dressing and a minute and 12 seconds sprinting to the corner of Seventh Avenue and West Fourth Street.” Pacino’s bemused expression as he listens to her message says it all.

It is refreshing to see a father talking honestly and openly with his kids. Ivan doesn’t talk down to them. He lets them say their peace. He is also sympathetic to their plight and really does love them, like when he consoles one of his daughters, listening to her pouring out her fears and frustrations. Pacino is very generous with the kids and allows them to steal the scenes they’re in together. In particular, Benjamin Carlin and Eric Gurry demonstrate excellent comic timing and play well off each other and Pacino.

The film’s dramatic moments are between Ivan and Gloria. She is portrayed in an extremely unsympathetic light as she coldly and casually breaks things off with him. Their scenes are filled with uncomfortable intensity and are fortunately few and far between. Author! Author! spins its wheels when Ivan is working on the play. Comedian Alan King plays Pacino’s incredibly neurotic Jewish manager Kreplich who always seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He plays a broad stereotype and his scenes feel forced and tired. King has said that his character was a cross between Hal Prince and Zero Mostel, which may explain the lack of originality.

Israel Horovitz, the film’s screenwriter, first worked with Pacino in the mid-1960s developing the play The Indian Wants the Bronx. The play was produced in 1968 and both men won Obie awards for their work. They remained friends over the years. The origins of Author! Author! came from conversations Horovitz had with his three children and how he dealt with raising two of them on his own. He said, “I felt there was a lot of room to explore the ease with which people get married in this country, the way kids come along in huge bunches and the irresponsibility of parents in taking care of those children.” Instead of going the dramatic route a la Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Horovitz decide to make a comedy because, as he said in an interview with The New York Times, "The film had to be written in a comic mode, because otherwise it's too painful to deal with." Director Arthur Hiller was drawn to the project because it was about an extended family and it showed “that love is what makes a family strong, not necessarily who’s the natural parent.”

Horovitz worked closely with the cast and Hiller, rewriting scenes and characters (much like Ivan does in the film) based on what individual actors brought to their respective roles. However, Pacino did not get along with Hiller. Years later Pacino said, “Sometimes people who are not really meant to be together get together in this business for a short time. It’s very unfortunate for all parties concerned.” Pacino agreed to do Author! Author! because he was interested in making a film “about a guy with his kids, dealing with New York and show business. I thought it would be fun.” He did not have a good time working on the film but did enjoy acting with the child actors who played his kids.

When Author! Author! was released it bombed at the box office and drew scorn from critics. The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott criticized the child actors: “The brood is composed of the most appalling set of exhibitionistic child actors this side of Eight is Enough.” Ouch. Furthermore, he wrote, “That this comedy is not funny is bad enough; that is resolutely and maliciously anti-female is unforgivable.” The film didn’t fair much better with the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold. He felt that “Pacino’s maddening articulation would seem to argue against further flings at comedy. Line after line is obscured by his whispery mumble, and this mangled speech seems particularly inappropriate in a character who’s supposed to be a playwright.” In his review for Newsweek, Jack Kroll wrote, “There’s nothing sadder than a movie that tries to be adorable and isn’t. Author! Author! tries so hard that the screen seems to sweat.” Finally, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that Pacino handled his role, “appealingly and comfortably,” but that “the movie is virtually over before the audience is given a chance to figure out where it is going, which is toward a one-happy-family resolution, 1980's style.”

After these scathing reviews is it any wonder that Pacino retreated from doing comedies and dramatically switched gears, making Scarface (1983) soon afterwards? Even though Author! Author! is a comedy about divorce, it doesn’t make light of it. The film shows the damage caused by two parents splitting up and how it affects their kids on an emotional level. Ivan and his kids use humor to cope with their situation. The film never loses sight of how much he cares for and is willing to support them.


Bennetts, Leslie. "Author! Author! Shoots in N.Y., N.Y." The New York Times. January 24, 1982.

Chase, Chris. "The Author of Author! Author!" The New York Times. July 2, 1982.

Grobel, Lawrence. Al Pacino. Simon and Schuster. 2006.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Real Genius

In the 1980s, Martha Coolidge’s films were a welcome antidote to the dominance of John Hughes’ output. On the surface, her films appear to be quite similar, but whereas Hughes’ films ultimately play it safe and are conservative in nature (i.e. the status quo is preserved), Coolidge’s films champion the outsider in society – for example, Nicolas Cage’s punk rocker hooks up with Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl despite societal pressure in Valley Girl (1983). Real Genius (1985) appears to be just another mindless college comedy like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), but whereas that film had its outsiders ultimately become part of accepted mainstream society, the nerds in Real Genius rebel against it and are proud to be different.

Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is a brilliant high school student recruited by Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to become a student at Pacific Tech and join a special team working on an experimental laser. Hathaway tells Mitch and his parents in person at a science fair. The exchange between them is priceless. His parents obviously have no idea just how smart their son is and only want him to get the best education. At one point, Mitch’s mother asks Hathaway, “I saw your show the other night on radioactive isotopes and I’ve got a question for you. Is that your real hair?” He cheerfully replies, “Is Mitch by any chance adopted?” They are oblivious to the implied insult and Hathaway pulls Mitch aside and tells him, “We’re different than most people. Better.” Hathaway’s elitist attitude is established early on, setting him up as an arrogant snob that must be taught a lesson in humility by our heroes.

Hathaway rooms Mitch with Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), the top brain on campus – at least he used to be until Mitch showed up. We first meet Chris as he’s being taken on a guided tour of a top science laboratory. He has a t-shirt on that reads, “I love toxic waste,” and a set of alien antennae on his head that demonstrate he is the antithesis of Hathaway. He may be super smart but he’s not a stuffed shirt. At one point, his tour guide asks him, “You’re Chris Knight, aren’t you?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I hope so, I’m wearing his underwear.” Val Kilmer’s deadpan delivery is right on the money and he demonstrates an uncanny knack for comic timing. The film could have so easily set up a rivalry between Chris and Mitch but instead they become friends and team up against a common foe: Kent (Robert Prescott), an arrogant senior student who is also working on the laser.

Chris is super smart, but something of a loose cannon, always cracking jokes and never taking anything too seriously, much to Mitch’s consternation because he doesn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. Mitch also has trouble adjusting to campus life and this isn’t helped by Kent who enjoys tormenting Mitch when the senior student isn’t busy sucking up to Hathaway. Coolidge replaces the class warfare in Valley Girl with in-fighting amongst academics in Real Genius. The setting may be different, but the tactics are no less mean-spirited as Kent delights in publicly humiliating Mitch. Meanwhile, Hathaway puts pressure on Chris to produce a working laser before the school year ends. Failure to do so will result in Hathaway making sure that Chris doesn’t graduate or work in his field of expertise. Unbeknownst to the ace student, his professor is getting pressured by a flunky and his superior from the CIA who want to use the laser for their own covert actions (assassinations from outer space?).

Every so often, Mitch catches a glimpse of a mysterious long-haired man who goes into his closet at random times during the day. His name is Lazlo (Jon Gries) and he lives deep in the bowels of the school. He used to be the smartest student on campus back in the 1970s but cracked under the pressure and now spends all of his time generating entries for the Frito Lay sweepstakes (enter as often as you like) so as to get as many of the prizes as possible. Jon Gries plays Lazlo as a shy genius, smarter than Chris and Mitch combined. He’s a gentle soul and a far cry from the arrogant blowhard he would go on to play in Napoleon Dynamite (2004).

Over the course of the film, Mitch finds himself attracted to Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who never seems to sleep. She sports an adorable Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and a nervous energy that is oddly attractive. I had a huge crush on her when I first saw this film back in the day, quite possibly one of my earliest cinematic crushes. She was the ultimate nerd sex symbol in the ‘80s with her undeniable beauty and brains. Sadly, after a few films she grew disenchanted with the movie making business and retired to Canada to become a Zen Buddhist.

Remember when Val Kilmer was funny? Between this film and Top Secret! (1984), he displays some impressive comedic chops. Kilmer excels at delivering smartass quips and jokes but is also capable of delivering an inspirational speech that convinces Mitch to stick it out at school and get revenge on Kent. There are two scenes where he dispenses with the jokes and has a relatively serious conversation with Mitch about life. They are refreshingly heartfelt and elevate Real Genius above the usual ‘80s teen comedy.

Gabe Jarret is perfectly cast as the helplessly square Mitch with his dorky haircut and his J.C. Penney’s wardrobe. We aren’t meant to laugh at him and Coolidge shows that he’s a good kid thrust into a new and strange environment. He’s smart, but lacks the emotional maturity, which he will acquire over the course of the film. Jarret does a nice job of conveying his character’s arc. He doesn’t totally transform into Chris but instead absorbs some of his traits while remaining true to himself.

In the ‘80s, William Atherton seemed to be the go-to guy for playing douchebag authority figures, with memorable turns as the unscrupulous journalist in Die Hard (1988), the “dickless” EPA guy in Ghostbusters (1984), and, of course, his turn in Real Genius. Atherton’s job, and man, does he do it oh so well, is to provide a source of conflict for our protagonists. He portrays Hathaway as the ultimate arrogant prick and we can’t wait to see him get his well-deserved comeuppance at the hands of Chris and Mitch.

Real Genius does plug in the usual tropes of ‘80s teen comedies with the now dated soundtrack of New Wave songs, most of them forgotten except for “Everybody Wants to the Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, which plays over the blissfully carefree ending of the film. There are the wacky comedic set pieces involving pranks. There’s also the T&A factor when Chris takes Mitch to an indoor pool party populated by sexy beauticians. Not to mention, the dorm that Chris and his classmates live in which vaguely resembles the chaotic frat house in Animal House (1978), only inhabited by really smart people.

However, it is how the film presents these generic elements that sets it apart from the typical ‘80s teen comedy. For example, the pranks are quite inventive, like when Chris and Mitch manage to place Kent’s car in his dorm room. There are several and they all lead up to the mack daddy of them all, which occurs at the climax of the film. While there is the requisite T&A factor in Real Genius, the PG rating assures that we don’t see much, just some girls in bikinis. Instead, we get the understated romance that develops between Mitch and Jordan, which is rather sweet in its own unassuming way. The dorm is certainly not the debauched chaos of Delta House, but it clearly is a place of fun, led by Chris and his various antics.

Producer Brian Grazer loved the humor and the sensibility that Martha Coolidge brought to Valley Girl and asked her to direct Real Genius. She thought that the screenplay was funny, but it had “a lot of penis and scatological jokes” that reminded her of other teen comedies she had turned down in the past. However, Grazer brought in Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to give the script a polish and had Coolidge re-read it. She liked it and Grazer’s boundless enthusiasm convinced her to commit to the project. Still not completely satisfied with the script, Grazer brought in comedy writer P.J. Torokvei to help Coolidge create the story, come up with the ending and fully develop the characters. For example, it was Torokvei who came up with the character of Jordan and was responsible for many of Chris Knight’s memorably smartass remarks.

Coolidge insisted on researching laser technology and policies of the CIA. The producers even brought in top-level consultants from the military and weapons development experts. To make Real Genius distinctive from other teen science fiction films at the time, the director went to great lengths to make sure the science was authentic and the science fiction aspect was plausible. At the time, scientists were actually working on the powerful laser Chris and his fellow students were developing for Hathaway, but the filmmakers could only work with a smaller wattage for reasons of safety and cost. The production used real lasers with very little visual effects enhancement, of which was used only sparingly at the film’s climax.

In addition, she interviewed dozens of Cal Tech students and based most of the stories in the film and the visual depiction of their school on Cal Tech, in particular Dabney Hall. Coolidge also met with all kinds of scientists and students, including the legendary Cal Tech mathematician grad that was rumored to have lived in the steam tunnels. To say that the director was a stickler for authenticity was an understatement. The graffiti in the dorm was copied from the actual dorm graffiti by scenic painters and then embellished further by Cal Tech students brought in by the production.

Not surprisingly, Coolidge and producers saw many young actors for the role of Chris Knight. It became obvious that Val Kilmer was the best actor to embody the role, but John Cusack was also considered at one point. However, once principal photography began, Coolidge found Kilmer not so easy to work with because he was “intellectually challenging and erratic.” He avoided working by asking a lot of questions and was sometimes late to the set and acted moody. That being said, over the 75-day shoot, they gained a lot of trust and worked well together.

The filmmakers also spent a lot of time trying to cast an actor for the role of Mitch Taylor. At one point, they seriously considered hiring a true young genius that had graduated college in his early teens. They discovered Gabe Jarret late in pre-production and he had the “right combination of seriousness, gawkiness, intelligence and emotion that we needed,” Coolidge remembers.

For the house that explodes with popcorn at the film’s exciting climax, the special F/X people designed all kinds of hydraulic systems to move the popcorn. The next challenge was generating all the stuff. They couldn’t buy all the popcorn needed for the scene in the short amount of time they had so the film crew popped 40 tons themselves on the lot over six weeks. All the popcorn was stored in 38 40-foot tractor-trailer trucks.

Real Genius received mixed to positive reviews when it was released. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin felt that the film was at its best when it took its characters seriously, “though it does so only intermittently." Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "When it's good, the dormitory high jinks feel like the genuine release of teen-age tensions and cruelty. Too bad the story isn't as smart as the kids in it." The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley felt that, "Many of the scenes, already badly written, fail to fulfill their screwball potential ... But despite its enthusiastic young cast and its many good intentions, it doesn't quite succeed. I guess there's a leak in the think tank.”

However, Roger Ebert awarded the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, saying that it "contains many pleasures, but one of the best is its conviction that the American campus contains life as we know it.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Salem Alaton felt that Coolidge “turned in the summer's best, and she didn't cheat to do it. There's heart in the kookiness. Real Genius has real people, real comedy and real fun.” Time magazine's Richard Schickel praised the film for being "a smart, no-nonsense movie that may actually teach its prime audience a valuable lesson: the best retort to an intolerable situation is not necessarily a food fight. Better results, and more fun, come from rubbing a few brains briskly together."

Real Genius argues that nerds can have fun too, but there needs to be a balance. You can love solving problems but it can’t be all science and no philosophy as Chris tells Mitch. People like Kent and Hathaway have no sense of humor and are self-obsessed egotists. They are ambitious to a fault, not caring who they step on the way, while Chris and Mitch are aware of the consequences of their actions. There is sweetness to this film that is endearing and rather strange considering that Neal Israel and Pat Proft wrote the screenplay (authors of such paeans to sweetness, like Police Academy and Bachelor Party), but Coolidge is firmly in charge and wisely doesn’t let Real Genius get too sappy. She also doesn’t let the funny stuff devolve into mindless frat humor, instead maintaining a proper mix that doesn’t insult our intelligence. The end result is a film that the characters in the film might enjoy, if they weren’t already in it. Achieving just the right alchemy may explain why the film continues to enjoy a modest cult following and is one of the few teen comedies from the ‘80s that stands the test of time.

The "Pacific Tech" in the film is actually a thinly-disguised version of CalTech in real life. Here is a page examining many of the references to CalTech in the film. Info on a real-life laser gun. Last, but certainly not least is Edward Copeland's fantastic look back at the film over at Edward Copeland on Film. His post inspired my own.


"Back to the 80s: Interview with Martha Coolidge." Kickin' It Old School. January 13, 2011.

O'Neill, Patrick Daniel. "Martha Coolidge." Starlog. September 1985. Pg. 35-37.