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The Films Of Sidney Lumet: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 9, 2012 at 11:00AM

Lumet was never fancy. He never needed to be, as a master of blocking, economic camera movements and framing that empowered the emotion and or exact punctuation of a particular scene. First and foremost, as you’ve likely heard ad nauseum -- but hell, it’s true -- Lumet was a storyteller, and one that preferred his beloved New York to soundstages (though let's not romanticize it too much, he did his fair share of work on studio film sets too as most TV journeyman and early studio filmmakers did).
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The Morning After” (1986)
There couldn't have been a more appropriate title for this 1986 Jane Fonda mystery-thriller (maybe "Paycheck Gig"), as the general handling of every story and idea is just as messy as an absinthe-induced hangover. Alcoholic ex-actress Alex Sternbergen (Fonda) wakes up next to a dead body without a clue of how she got there or what happened the previous night. She finds comfort in an ex-cop (Jeff Bridges) who decides to help her out of kindness/horniness, and together they lay low and play detective while somehow finding time to have romantic dinners and long conversations detailing Alex's backstory. A character being wanted for murder couldn't be higher stakes; yet somehow these stakes are promptly ignored as the plot waits patiently so two characters can further their relationship arc. We'd figure that maybe there was a deleted scene that explained of some sort of brain defect that the protagonists had, rendering them to randomly be unable to perceive the trouble they were in, except that every single character detail wasn't divulged twice over in the dialogue. Now it'd be one thing if only the wannabe-pulpy plot didn't work, but even the love story is shoddy, somehow containing zero chemistry between the usually lovely Fonda and a young & dashing Bridges. To top it all off, the entire thing is glazed with 80s music that would embarrass even the most delusional composer of the decade, and Fonda's breakdown over her addiction to the bottle is "Mommie Dearest" bad (yet was deemed Oscar worthy...). If you're still not convinced to forget about this one, even IMDB can't offer up more than a shrug, somehow constituting this as worthwhile trivia. Keep away at all costs. [D]

Running On Empty” (1988)
Likely impressed by his solid turns in "Stand by Me" and "The Mosquito Coast," Sidney Lumet quickly cast youthful actor River Phoenix as the heart in his 1988 drama, alongside a post-"Taxi" Judd Hirsch and a pre-"Chicago Hope" Christine Lahti. The premise here is that Arthur (Hirsch) and Annie (Lahti) exploded a lab that was creating napalm for the Vietnam War in their activist heyday, blinding an innocent janitor in the process. Since then they've been on the run, relocating and changing identities whenever Arthur feels the heat. That kinda life certainly doesn't leave much time for Michael (Phoenix) to do regular kid stuff, including putting his extraordinary talents on the piano to good use. Things get complicated in their new town when his skill is recognized by a music teacher which eventually leads to the boy falling in love and being ushered towards Julliard - much to the dismay of his family, who instead wish to keep living together and in secrecy. Lumet's outright refusal to squeeze tear-jerking scenes out of the plot is refreshing considering the story's ripe, innate sappiness. That said, the script by Naomi Foner (aka Mamma Gyllenhaal) is completely puzzle-less, written as if she was trying to arouse her screenwriting teacher by taking all the appropriate roads and hitting all the apropros notes. The actors feel very at home in their characters which lends to believable performances, but since everything is much too predictable so early on, even they can't keep the film from dragging. [B-]

Family Business” (1989)
However much you swallow the premise of this low-key crime caper depends on how willing you are to stomach the casting. We have to believe that Dustin Hoffman is the son of Sean Connery, despite being only seven years younger and recipient of some very, ah, different genes. Perhaps more difficult to accept is that Matthew Broderick, here as an enterprising young man who yearns to be involved in one of his grandfather’s criminal schemes, could sport a Jew-fro and thick-framed glasses and convincingly play a person grandfathered by the still-smooth Connery. Despite the flimsy age difference, there is fun to be had in watching Hoffman and Connery go head to head, their wildly different acting styles suggesting lifelong friends but still providing a compelling sort of chemistry. The heist itself is a bit of a fizzle, though, and the picture straddles the line between slack, listless drama and wet blanket comedy that suggests that the set became far more entertaining once someone said “cut.” [C]

Q&A" (1990)
Lumet was one of the great New York directors, albeit never in as extravagant manner as, say, Woody Allen was. But he understood the heartbeat of the city in an eminently truthful way, and in "Q&A," he delivers a crime picture that shows a vision of a multi-cultural New York melting pot that Spike Lee, a self-proclaimed fan of the elder director, would be proud of. The plot -- a rookie cop (Timothy Hutton) investigating the shooting of a Puerto Rican kid by a legendary, brutish cop (a walrus-like Nick Nolte, in possibly the best work of his career) -- might seem familiar, and it is. But Lumet, adapting the novel by New York supreme court judge Edwin Torres himself, gives it a rich underbelly, showing the racial ties that have always divided NYC, and never depicts a character in broad strokes, right down to Armand Assante's drug lord, who's given far more depth than most similar characters. It's an incredibly rich, almost novelistic take on the crime genre -- to the degree that, if you have a complaint about the film, it's that it's almost overstuffed. It's one of Lumet's most personal films, he even pulled a Coppola and cast his daughter Jenny Lumet as the love interest of Hutton's character -- like Sofia Coppola, she would go on to make films, rather than act, penning the script for Jonathan Demme's excellent "Rachel Getting Married" [A-]

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Sidney Lumet


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