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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.