City Paper is not for tourists
In its glory days, Hollywood offered deluxe tours of Paris, first-class all the way with glamorous, sophisticated companions—Garbo, Astaire, Dietrich, Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. But, like our currency, American filmmaking has been drastically devalued since that golden age, and this summer’s trip, Forget Paris, is a cut-rate package: congested charter flight, two-star tourist hotel with bathroom down the hall, McDonald’s meal vouchers, and Billy Crystal as tour guide.
The opening credits—evocative black-and-white images by Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, and other photographers underscored with Billie Holiday’s bittersweet recording of “Love Is Here to Stay”—are fetching but foreboding. While enchanting to eye and ear, they warn us that what’s to follow will be recycled goods.
Crystal produced, directed, co-scripted (with those thigh-slappers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel), and stars in this dismal romantic comedy, as unsavory and leaden as yesterday’s Spam soufflé. The plot’s meet-cute gimmick, swiped from Billy Wilder’s lovely, underappreciated Avanti!, finds pro basketball referee Mickey (Crystal) encountering American-born, Paris based airline rep Ellen (Debra Winger) while transporting his father’s coffin to France for interment. She sympathetically offers to show him the City of Light’s “good stuff,” which predictably consists of the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, and her bedroom. Following several trans-Atlantic trysts, they wed and return to the States. The interminable remainder of the movie chronicles the couple’s sitcom marital difficulties—conflicting professional goals, culinary and cultural disagreements, infertility. I doubt that readers will chastise me for revealing that most of these problems are resolved by the fadeout, if you can force yourself to stick around that long.
Beyond cannibalizing a cinemateque’s worth of sequences from films as diverse as An American in Paris, The Red Balloon, and The Birds (not to mention the larcenous lifting of gags from Reversal of Fortune and Polyester), the screenplay is cursed with an unwieldy flashback framing structure. During a prenuptial supper, Mickey’s pal Andy (Joe Mantegna, in what has come to be known as the Tony Roberts role) recounts the story of his buddy’s troubled marriage to his curious fiancée Liz (Cynthia Stevenson). They are joined by two other couples who expand the saga. These serial narrators comment on the flashbacks, which, to put it kindly, hardly require extended analysis. Liz urges them to continue but, if I were in her shoes, I’d be begging them to desist.
Crystal is not without comedic skill, as his stint on Soap and his Saturday Night Live Fernando and Sammy routines demonstrated, but he’s ill-equipped to serve as a romantic leading man. With his teased, enhanced hair, prunish face, and sagging pecs, he’s hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. (I hasten to point out that I’m no beauty myself, but I’m not charging people admission to watch me make love.) Like Crystal’s City Slickers and Mr. Saturday Night characters, Mickey is an unappealing mixture of vulgarity (gas and phlegm jokes) and maudlin sentiment, notably a sappy graveyard farewell to his father’s corpse. Pushing 50 hard, he’s decades too old to be convincing in a role designed for a man half his age.
Attempting to rescue her flagging career from a long string of ambitious flops (Everybody Wins, The Sheltering Sky, A Dangerous Woman), Winger, looking uncharacteristically pale and puffy, walks through her performance with obvious embarrassment. Although she should be ashamed of her atrocious French, she deserves an honorary Oscar for the feigned smiles she lavishes on Crystal’s feeble one-liners. The remainder of the unprepossessing cast seems like a bad dream dislodged from television’s collective unconscious—Richard Masur and Julie Kavner, reunited from Rhoda; uneasy cameos by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, and other basketball stars; Rush Limbaugh as his unwelcome self; and David Sanborn blowing a white-soul version of the national anthem. William Hickey, as Ellen’s dotty, grating father, and foghorn-voiced Cathy Moriarity, as the feisty wife of one of Mickey’s fellow referees, are the only bright spots in an otherwise dispirited ensemble.
It’s hard to believe that many moviegoers will warm to this sub-Nora Ephron, sub-sub-Woody Allen piffle, with its shameless product placements for Eagle Snacks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Subaru, and repellent reproductive jokes. (We’re shown X-rays of Ellen’s clogged fallopian tubes and forced to witness Mickey’s hapless attempts at masturbatory sperm production for in vitro fertilization.) I’ll admit I giggled twice—at an infantile fat-ass joke and a putdown of Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of my pet hates—while gazing impatiently at my wristwatch and thinking about how to spend the money I’ll receive for writing this review. If you’ve never seen a romantic comedy before, you might unearth another laugh or two. Otherwise, forget Forget Paris.
In their overpraised but lively resurrections of film noir, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and John Dahl (The Last Seduction) spiked the languishing genre with elements that could never have passed ’40s and ’50s Production Code strictures—torrential profanity, graphic violence, and brazen eroticism. Mark Malone, in his directorial debut, Bulletproof Heart, takes a different approach—minimalism. The result is a narcoleptic movie that deserves grudging credit for risk-taking, but not much else.
Gordon Melbourne’s skeletal screenplay, adapted from Malone’s original story, might have worked as a half-hour film, but is nearly excruciating extruded to feature length. Mick (Anthony LaPaglia), a burned-out New York hit man, is ordered by mob boss George (Peter Boyle) to murder the enigmatic Fiona (Mimi Rogers), a woman inexplicably avid to be dispatched. After a mildly kinky sexual encounter with his intended victim involving restraints and some tepid S&M, Mick experiences an unexpected spiritual awakening. Recharged by love and desire for Fiona, he embarks upon a new mission—keeping the morose temptress alive despite her own death wish and the instructions of his employer.
Melbourne’s spare, lugubrious dialogue is laced with moments of absurd pretension. His lower-depths characters lard their sentences with words like “abject,” “pariah,” and “conjecturally,” and early on, when Mick ponders, “What is the meaning of “meaning?’ ” one has to wonder whether familiarity with Wittgenstein has become a contemporary prerequisite for Mafia employment. Press material indicates that Malone’s father urged him to read Camus’ The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus, which inspired the novice filmmaker to employ existentialist thought as the basis for his mobster protagonist’s character. “If it is true that pleasure is derived only from valued things,” Malone observes in the production notes, “then it seems to me, a nihilist (one who sees the universe as essentially valueless) would eventually find himself in the throes of anhedonia—the inability to experience pleasure. Anyway, these are the straits the leading character (Mick) finds himself in when we meet him. And this is how the film was born.” (Let’s pause for a moment of gratitude that Robert Aldrich, Robert Siodmak, Joseph H. Lewis, and the other great film noir directors were spared crash courses in the existential novel.)
Malone’s visuals are surprisingly stolid and uninflected, replacing the bold, expressionist lighting schemes of classic noir with a generalized murkiness. Despite the shoestring budget, production designer Lynne Stopkewich comes up with a few intriguingly stylized touches in the decors of Mick’s spartan, gadget-strewn apartment and Fiona’s theatrical, postmodern flat. Heart‘s sole formal innovation is Jenny Holzerlike lines of pop-art dialogue (“You’ve got to be able to trust someone,” “Are you going to break my heart?”) printed on a black screen and used as transitions between scenes. I doubt that other filmmakers will feel compelled to adopt this mannered device.
Strongly reminiscent of noir icon Richard Conte, impassive LaPaglia, with his chiseled, Italianate features and powerful physique, is well cast as Mick, but it’s unlikely that any actor could convincingly embody Malone’s bookish notions of spiritual regeneration. Rubber-faced Matt Craven contributes some telling touches as Archie, Mick’s nattering flunky, who has fudged a recent hit (the consequence, he claims, of a magnesium deficiency). Monika Schnarre has a juicy bit as a hooker/masseuse sent to Mick by the mob as a thank-you gift, and Joseph Maher is splendidly depraved in his two brief scenes as a drug-addled doctor. (“He’s not a degenerate,” Fiona insists. “He’s my shrink.”) But for all of her considerable efforts, Rogers, alternately clad in fetishist, peep-show scanties and a dramatically voluminous white cape, fails to deliver as the literal femme fatale. Lacking the ethereal carnality of the legendary noir goddesses—Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth, Mary Astor—she behaves more like somebody’s toothy, ironical sister trying to act slutty. Hardly a Circe sufficiently enticing to reanimate a hit man’s stagnant soul.
There’s a potentially amusing shaggy-dog black comedy lurking in the shadowy ennui of this self-conscious movie—an extended joke about a death-seeking woman stalked by a killer who lacks the gumption to polish her off. (“Men,” Fiona sneers contemptuously, when Mick fails to squeeze the trigger of the gun held to her forehead.) But given Malone’s philosophical and metaphysical preoccupations, he’d probably consider making a comedy much too frivolous. In the ’50s and ’60s, Jean-Pierre Melville directed a series of austere, existential underworld pictures (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai) that worked marginally better, probably because his characters spoke French.