Erstwhile star of the beacon of TV Americana that was “Happy Days,” occasional actor, and now Oscar-winning director and major Hollywood power player, Ron Howard is, by every account you can find the length and breadth of the World Wide Web, a really nice guy. Almost every interview starts with a reference to his niceness, his approachability, his affability, his talent for not taking himself too seriously. Which kind of makes it okay for us not to take him too seriously either.
After all, Howard may be a peer-respected, skilled director of crowdpleasing mainstream fare, but the flipside of that is a reputation for occasionally oversincere blandness, for being a little whitebread and a little too, well, Richie Cunningham for snobbier cinephiles like us to wholly embrace. And yet he’s also one of those directors who, when we take a good hard look at his body of work, has a pretty high batting average for someone who’d never lay claim to the "auteur" label, and has made far more good Hollywood pictures than bad over his long career (which sounds like faint praise, but really isn’t). A bit like Monty Python and the Romans, we can dismiss Ron Howard as having not done a great deal for us, but then we actually start to remember that however many turgid ‘Da Vinci Code’s there are on his resume, there are a hell of a lot more solidly entertaining prestige pics, frothy comedies and well-made dramas. And his new film “Rush,” which opens wide this weekend, is right up there with his best work (read our review here).
“Rush” is the story of the fierce rivalry between Formula One stars Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It’s also an interestingly off-kilter choice of subject matter, because as everyone’s repeatedly said, U.S. audiences aren’t really into the sport. That alone is one more strike against Howard’s rep for predictability and blandness, and it got us thinking about looking back over his career again, with a view to giving maybe a little more credit where it’s long overdue. There have been highs and lows and we’re hardly going to spearhead a “Ron Howard is the new Godard” movement, but, using this eight-film sample from across his catalogue, we’re going to try to tell the story of a directorial career that we, and we suspect many others, may have kind of undervalued up to now.
“Night Shift” (1982)
For those only familiar with Henry Winkler as the Fonz, his turn in “Arrested Development” as the shyster attorney Barry Zuckerkorn might have seemed a major change of pace, but in many ways it harkens back to “Night Shift,” Ron Howard’s second feature-length film (some TV movies came in between this and his debut “Grand Theft Auto”). Featuring excellent chemistry between its three leads, Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long, “Night Shift” centers on a brilliant, but meek and nebbishy Wall Street guy (Winkler) who finds a job in a morgue in order to lead a quieter, less stressful life. During the titular night shift, he meets his wild, irresponsible get-rich-quick scheming co-worker (Keaton), falls under his charming spell and the two eventually front a prostitution ring after Winkler’s character learns that his escort neighbor’s (Long) pimp has died (and she’s being slapped around without a protector). Howard’s direction, and his movies, have been called nondescript and simple-minded, but for this comedy at least, the straightforward, workman-like approach to the material definitely works. With a bolder script that followed through on some of the edgier elements the film promised in its first half, “Night Shift” could have been Ron Howard’s version of Scorsese’s “After Hours.” Shame, then, that it takes potentially risky material and plays it safe, but that said, it’s still pretty damn enjoyable and funny, even if it's congenial and unthreatening. The ridiculously implausible plot unravels rather hard in its last act, thanks to the sentimentally hokey notes and broad character arc cliches that define Ron Howard to some, but it’s still one of the most successful and charming collaborations between Howard and his longtime writing team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel ("Happy Days" and “Laverne & Shirley” writers who also wrote “Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Gung Ho,” and “ED TV”). Featuring a score by Burt Bacharach (think his symphonic shmaltz, hilariously reduced to tinny-sounding ‘70s keyboards, which is both terrible and enjoyable), he even co-wrote many of the pop songs in the film by The Pointer Sisters, Rod Stewart, Quarterflash and Al Jarreau. Curiously enough, the tiny nebbish pimp genre would receive one more installment one year later with “Doctor Detroit," but "Night Shift" is now largely regarded as the throat clearing before Howard's first hit, that would come just two years after.
It’s fitting that Howard’s first real, bona fide smash hit also came off a script with frequent collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (kind of an 80s/90s writing superteam, who’d go on to count “City Slickers,” “Parenthood” and “A League of Their Own” among their credits), and out of his first teaming with go-to star of choice Tom Hanks. In fact as much as any one film launched Hanks and defined his everyman appeal, “Splash” did just that (it was his first proper feature lead after a mostly TV career to that point.) But what’s perhaps even more remarkable about the mermaid-in-Manhattan romance, is just how well it still holds up, especially if you compare it to some of its similarly themed peers: where 1987’s “Mannequin,” for example, is almost unwatchable today, “Splash” still feels fresh and funny, despite the inherent daftness of its premise. Howard’s unobtrusive directing style ages well and is already in evidence here in just his third theatrical feature. Of course by this stage he’d been in the industry for more than twenty-five years as an actor, so we can hazard that he had a perspective that gave him respect for aspects of the process that other neophyte directors might have overlooked. As a result he lets his stars Hanks and Daryl Hannah shine as well as giving generous time to the more slapstick antics of Eugene Levy and John Candy in support (we’re particularly fond of the smoking-while-playing-squash scene that the latter gets), while keeping the tone from ever getting too zany. In fact, as much as “Splash” starts out hokily, with Hannah’s naked, mute dream girl essentially fulfilling the most unenlightened of teen boy fantasies before discovering the joys of the American Way of consumerism and TV catchphrases. As the film goes on it gets weirder and more anti-establishment, before culminating in an ending that’s more or less the opposite of what you might predict. If it’s not quite subversive, then the subtext of the love-conquers-all finale where Allan abandons his family, his job, New York City, his biological dependence on air and his whole damn species, to live under the sea forever, comes pretty close. The film gave Hanks his career, coined “Madison” for use as a girl’s name and went on to make $70 million off an $8 million budget. Ron Howard’s gentle, unshowy ascension up the Hollywood ladder had begun in earnest.