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At a D.C. gig about a decade ago, Mel Tormé unwisely chose to sing “I’m Hip,” Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg’s wry put-down of squares trying to be groovy. (“Like dig/I’m in step/When it was hip to be hep/I was hep.”) The audience cringed in recognition that the aging, clueless would-be swinger was precisely the kind of person the songwriters had skewered.
I couldn’t help thinking of poor, oblivious Mel as I watched An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ satire of Tinseltown excess, stupidity, and corruption. Like an anorexic overseeing an eating-disorder clinic, Eszterhas fails to realize that he personifies the problem. His mock documentary about a director who steals the negative of his own compromised blockbuster, the most expensive action picture ever made, in order to save the world from exposure to yet another big-budget megabomb is even more wasteful, moronic, and venal than the production system he indicts.
As film buffs know, Alan Smithee, an anagram of “the alias men,” is the pseudonym directors use after studios have butchered their work beyond recognition. Don Siegel initiated it when Universal mangled Death of a Gunfighter in 1969. Other pictures bearing the Smithee signature include 1986’s Let’s Get Harry (Stuart Rosenberg) and 1987’s Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home (Paul Aaron). Burn Hollywood Burn, the latest addition to the Smithee filmography, was actually directed by Arthur Hiller, the veteran hack whose commercial hits (Love Story, Silver Streak) and box-office flops (W.C. Fields and Me, Making Love) are indistinguishably lackluster. Reportedly, Eszterhas and Hiller fell out over the film’s final cut, so the director adopted the Smithee pseudonym. However, a shot of the chummy-looking pair inserted into the closing credits strongly suggests that their dispute is merely a stunt fabricated to garner publicity for the movie.
They’re going to have to come up with a much better gimmick to drag audiences to this sour, humorless fiasco. (I heard a single, faint titter at the press screening, from which reviewers exited looking as if they’d just paid their final respects at a funeral home.) Wizened Eric Idle stars as Smithee, an English editor hired to direct Trio, an action-adventure production starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jackie Chan (who contribute narcissistic, career-wounding self-parodies). Purloining the pseudo-documentary style employed so effectively in This Is Spi¬nal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, Hiller charts the rise and fall of the doomed blockbuster through talking-head interviews with assorted studio executives, producers, and Hollywood hangers-on. In the spirit of magnanimity, I will not list the names of the other leading players, but I feel obligated, as a warning to potential ticket buyers, to mention that the rogue’s gallery of cameo appearances includes, among others, unctuous, former coke-freak producer Robert Evans, ubiquitous ass-licker Larry King, egomaniacal O.J. shyster Robert Shapiro (and family), and Eszterhas himself, who resembles a bloated queen-size mattress left in the rain for Salvation Army pickup.
I’m reluctant to anatomize Burn Hollywood Burn’s repulsivenessan inexhaustible undertaking. A few examples will have to suffice. The movie is divided into chapter headings, including “Missionary Position” and “Doggy Style.” Each character’s initial appearance is accompanied by a printed biographical subscript. The females, all whores and/or adulteresses, are identified as “feminist” and blacks as “oreo” and “motherfucker.” Need I continue?
Eszterhas, who was paid $3 million for his Basic Instinct screenplay, is hardly the writer I’d nominate to mock Hollywood prodigality. His attempts to settle what appear to be private scores with Eddie Murphy, Rupert Murdoch, and Mike Ovitz blow up in his face. In a breathtaking example of boomerang irony, someone characterizes Trio as being “worse than Showgirls,” which was, of course, an Eszterhas creation. The backfired joke is that An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn is vastly inferior to that deliriously tacky lap-dance melodrama, which was strewn with uproarious nuggets of unintentional camp. If I were Alan Smithee, I’d sue to have my name removed.
Hollywood moguls scan sitcom ratings and drool at the thought of luring the vast television audience into theaters. During the production hiatuses of those programs, they throw together jerry-built vehicles for sitcom players in hope of tempting potatoes away from their couches. The ploy rarely works. What the suits fail to realize is that most TV viewers regard these shows as animated nightlightsunobtrusive, ambient backgrounds for conversation, newspaper reading, making out, and catnapping. Inoffensiveness is the sine qua non for sitcom stars; magnified on the big screen, their one-dimensional personas evaporate. For every Helen Hunt who manages to survive the transition to theatrical features, a dozen others (Kelsey Grammer, Ellen DeGeneres, Matt LeBlanc, to name a few of the most recent) fall on their faces.
Friends nebbish David Schwimmer tanked in his above-the-title feature debut, The Pallbearer, and is unlikely to fare any better with Kissing a Fool, director Doug Ellin’s dead-on-arrival Gen X dating comedy. Misguidedly exploiting his influence as one of the film’s executive producers, the horsefaced comic has cast himself as a lady-killing Chicago sportscaster caught in a romantic rivalry with his boyhood friend, played by Jason Lee. (With his heartthrob looks, Lee is equally miscast as a lovelorn, overly sensitive writer who becomes tongue-tied and weak-kneed in the presence of desirable women.) The pals spar over Lee’s comely editor, Mili Avital. I’ll spare you a plot summary since the odds of anybody patronizing this movie are minimal.
In addition to being scrupulously mirthless, a quality it shares with last year’s ‘Til There Was You and A Smile Like Yours, Kissing a Fool, written by Ellin and James Frey, is cumbersomely structured and consistently implausible. The story is presented in flashbacks, narrated at Lee and Avital’s wedding reception by hostess Bonnie Hunt. This dimwitted gambit dissipates any interest we might sustain about the plot’s resolution and keeps interrupting the film’s minuscule momentum. The characters are risibly unbelievable. Avital, allegedly a high-power book editor, lavishes weeks on her complicated love life without ever dropping by her office, and Lee, an unpublished novelist lacking any apparent means of support, somehow manages to hop from Venice to Chicago to New York. Schwimmer bellows “fuck” in every other line of dialogue, an indulgence mercifully denied him on the tube. By the time you read this, Kissing a Fool will be on its way to television with profanity bleeped and considerably enlivened by commercial breaks.CP