Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


March 22, 2016

Rob's still watching everything from 1991! This week: Shane Black and Phoebe Cates!

The Last Boy Scout
Directed by Tony Scott

I should add "Written by Shane Black" to that heading because there's just no way to approach The Last Boy Scout without discussing its legendary screenplay and the myriad "could have beens" that come along with it. For sure, Tony Scott gets what makes this biting deconstruction of the masculine temperament so smart and funny, but legend has it that Black and Scott butted heads with Expert Hollywood Producer Joel Silver and Movie Star Bruce Willis, both of whom likely signed on after hearing "Halle Berry plays a stripper." It's like if your high school football team staged an Oscar Wilde play. Anyway, The Last Boy Scout could have been a neo-noir-buddy-cop genre masterpiece. Instead, it's a pretty good movie.

Bruce Willis plays alcoholic private investigator and former secret service agent Joe Hallenbeck because of course he does. He has to play this role for the film to work (see Schwarzenegger in Black's Last Action Hero), but because Bruce Willis also has to swing his dick all over everything he does, half the script was rewritten to bro-ify his character. This robs the film of its meta elements and most of its humor (again, see Last Action Hero, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger lampoons his own persona for the sake of comedy). You get the sense that Willis was uncomfortable with his character's weakness and basic human decency, so he trimmed out the "chuffa" (a term he coined to designate script material he finds unnecessary), losing a lot of the nuance. Fact: Bruce Willis hates movies and we need to stop rewarding him for it. 

Anyway, Damon Wayans plays disgraced NFL star and prodigious Halle Berry sex partner Jimmy Dix (!), and he does his best to find the meat in the character with mixed results. His best scenes are those with Hallenbeck's foul-mouthed/awesome daughter Darian (Danielle Harris). Darian is the living avatar of the life left hanging by the noir detective's self-defeating personality. She's a violent, cynical, walking bruise. She's the least problematic female character in a film that really kind of hates female characters. Hallenbeck's wife is having an affair with his best friend just to get his attention and he can't even muster the energy to care. Halle Berry plays a young woman with sexual agency, so of course she gets fucking shot to death. This is surely all intentional and completely in line with the genre, but a more pronounced female presence could have better sold this particular film's themes of masculine alienation and the search for redemption. It would have made the film smarter. Then again, it would mean less time for dropping people into spinning helicopter blades. 

The Last Boy Scout reeks of rewrites and concessions to Mass Audiences, but sometimes it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Shane Black's brilliant noir script is molded into Joel Silver's brilliant action shlock. It's somehow thrilling to watch Joe Hallenbeck trod from one Stock Movie Setpiece to another with complete disdain for everything around him. Affable Psychopath Villain Milo (Taylor Negron) is rendered almost impotent by Joe's snarky eye-rolling. The violence is irresponsible, the treatment of women is reprehensible, and for a boy scout, Joe has quite the potty mouth. It's all pretty glorious. 

Drop Dead Fred
Directed by Ate De Jong

There's a tiny little beating heart inside of Drop Dead Fred, but it's buried under a mound of mud pies and circus wigs. It's a film with conscience and purpose, but whatever it's saying has been badly translated by a dyslexic child. Is Drop Dead Fred a lighthearted family romp or an oppressive black comedy? Is Fred himself a whimsical nymph or a demented sociopath? Is Lizzie a feminist iconoclast or a witless child? It's not to say that these things are all mutually exclusive (see Beetlejuice, which this film desperately rips off), but finding that balance takes a sure, even hand and a decidedly not-dyslexic voice. Un-lexic? Lexic? I'm saying it doesn't work. Moving on.

Lizzie (Phoebe Cates) is having one hell of a day: Her husband (the douche-tacular Tim Matheson, sporting a killer 90's mullet) has left her, her purse and car have been stolen, and she's just lost her job as a court reporter. She rushes back into the arms of her overbearing mother Polly (Marsha Mason, playing the classic Repressed Reagan Mom), who scolds her for her insolence and reminds her that the purest avenue to true happiness must surely be the approval and acceptance of one's husband.  While grieving the loss of her man, Lizzie happens upon an old jack-in-the-box and cranks it open to reveal Drop Dead Fred, her old imaginary friend. Fred wants to pick up where they left off twenty years ago, forcing Lizzie to leave behind the life of the Modern Woman in favor of that of a domestic terrorist (apparently one of their childhood pranks led to Lizzie's father's brief incarceration). As one might expect, it all goes to shit pretty fast. 

Fred is played by The Young Ones alum Rik Mayall, who despite contemporary reviews of the film, is not the problem here. Mayall's punk slapstick style is a nice counter to Michael Keaton's acerbic smartass in Beetlejuice, and we hadn't had enough Jim Carrey or Robin Williams in 1991 for it to feel worn out yet. Fred's meant to stand in for Lizzie's id, the destructive and dangerous forces that she's spent years repressing, and in that he succeeds. His wide-eyed sweetness plays especially well with young Lizzie (Ashley Peldon), and it's in these scenes we realize that a better film may have found something great in him. He knows exactly what he's doing and does exactly as he's asked, which at a truly alarming number of points includes looking under women's skirts and reporting vaginal conditions to Lizzie. Mayall does it with as much giddy joy and aplomb as is possible when you consider what I just said. 

Now that I think of it, Drop Dread Fred is full of actors giving it their level best. Phoebe Cates doesn't have a whole hell of a lot to do, but she plays a perfectly good straight man to Fred. It's certainly not her fault that no one knows exactly what her character wants or why she's doing or not doing anything at any given time. They said, "play it mousy and ineffectual!" and she was like, "bitchin'!" That's how those fuckers talked back then and it was awesome. Anyway, Carrie Fisher plays her best friend and has some of the most awkward and amazing lines in this or any film. She lives on a house boat and, in one scene, beats an empty desk chair to death with her shoe. Carrie Fisher is a national treasure, you guys. 

Did the divorce rate climb by a significant measure at the end of the 80s? Because in the Drop Dead Fred universe, every speaking character is in the middle of one. This is what we call "selling the theme" or "shoving a theme down the audience's throat." Trouble is, the film doesn't seem to have a firm position on divorce or marriage: Polly blames her daughter for her marriage's disintegration and considers herself fucked without a man.  Lizzie's childhood friend Mickey, though, is happily divorced and pursues (i.e. stalks) Lizzie throughout the film, entranced by her Manic Pixiness (i.e.: mental instability).* Lizzie's husband Charles is nailing every girl who walks into his Jaguar dealership, so he's clearly the villain. Then again, Carrie Fisher's character is banging some lady's husband and we seem to all be fine with that. It's a matter of taste, I suppose. Maybe the film is using marriage and relationships as a tool to explore self-confidence and independence, which is fine, but things get so muddled and disjointed that it's never entirely clear that those are things Lizzie even wants. Maybe she just wants out. One sympathizes. 

*To be fair, his final beat in the film is pretty great. He tells Lizzie that she has a lot of options right now and he'd just like to be one of them. The film doesn't assume she's going to run into his arms. Then again, Fred is now stalking his daughter, so she'll probably stick around. 

Rob DiCristino writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club (@UglyClubPodcast). Follow him on Twitter @RobDiCristino. He mostly tweets about Ben Affleck.


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