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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 6, 2011 at 6:55AM

Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s -- Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc. -- perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.
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“Lookin’ To Get Out” (1982)
A wonderful concept in theory and an excellent retroactive tool in cinema, the director’s cut can only be so powerful when it comes from an artist in decline. Such was the case with “Lookin' To Get Out," the 1982 Hal Ashby oddball buddy comedy about two New York gamblers on the run in Las Vegas. Barely released and just dumped into theaters by Paramount at the time, the picture found a new lease on life in 2009 when the “extended version” was released on DVD, leading to cinephile revisionist claims of a lost masterpiece. Not quite. Starring Jon Voight, Ann-Margret and Burt Young, the film was the second picture in Ashby's unfortunate losing streak in the 1980s, ironic given "Lookin' To Get Out" -- which was co-"written"/improvised by Voight and screenwriter Al Schwartz -- was essentially about a gambler down on his luck with one last shot at redemption. Ripped apart gently by critics at the time (the beloved Ashby always got a pass, or at least at first he did), the reconstituted version is better, allowing for breathing space, meditative moments and a less truncated rhythm, but let’s be honest with ourselves, the picture is still fairly average with some middling humor that's almost pratfall-ish at times. Frustrated with Paramount’s meddling at the time, Ashby abandoned the picture leaving it to his editor Bob Jones to finish it. But even this slightly longer version reveals Ashby’s laidback magic-in-a-bottle genius was starting to sadly wane. [C+]

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1983)
“The Last Waltz,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Stop Making Sense,” these are the classics that come to mind when you’re describing the all-time live-concert documentaries. So there’s good reason that not many people have heard of, let alone seen, Hal Ashby’s 1983 live music doc, “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” documenting The Rolling Stones' 1981 North American Tour promoting Tattoo You. Near the beginning of Ashby’s sad decline (and after the bomb “Second-Hand Hearts”), the doc is largely uninspired, moving from wide shot, medium shot, close-up and back ad nauseum. While there’s a bit of backstage footage here and there to break-up the monotony of a concert shot in day light in a gigantically impersonal outdoor stadium in Arizona (where much of the footage comes from), none of it illuminates at all and the peek behind the curtain is nothing more than the Stones smiling at the camera or doing their hair. Ashby allegedly overdosed before one of the shows in Phoenix as his health was already deteriorating and his drug-intake was beginning to rise. An unfortunate and completely forgettable concert documentary and for Stones completeists only. [C-]

“The Slugger’s Wife” (1985)
Considering his unassailable run of classics in the 1970s, Hal Ashby's missteps in the 1980s, due to poor choices and circumstances (more than just drugs too; bad luck with studios, clouded judgement, poor scripts, films that went into production without finished scripts), were heartbreaking. One of the biggest, though not particularly horrible, just extremely dated, is 1985's "The Slugger's Wife." Based on a Neil Simon script that never seemed to be especially suited to Ashby's sensibilities (the author was billed over-top of the director and somehow he had more control), the romantic comedy centers on two lovers from opposite ends of the social spectrum; a boorish, hotshot Major League baseball player (Michael O'Keefe), and an ambitious, fiercely independent singer (Rebecca DeMornay) in an '80s synth-pop band (co-fronted by Loudon Wainwright III performing covers of Neil Young and Prince) trying to get her career off the ground. Head over heels, the cavalier ball player quickly woes the woman with his dopey charms, much to her chagrin. The picture’s conceit: the deeper the athlete falls in love, the better his hitting game gets, to the point that he becomes the Atlanta Braves' star player. But as soon as the relationship becomes tempestuous, his batting average starts to plummet and it’s up to the ball team (Martin Ritt, Randy Quaid and Cleavant Derricks) to get him back on track. Shot by Caleb Deschanel, even his keen lens can’t really help this largely unfunny misfire. [C+]

This article is related to: Feature, Hal Ashby, Features


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