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When Celebrated Directors Lose The Plot: Interesting Left Turns And Failures In An Auteur's Oeuvre

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 21, 2011 at 6:55AM

Even the greatest of auteurs in cinema generally take one or two big missteps in their careers, either early on -- as happened to a lot of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls generation of American filmmakers, bringing their hirsute hubris down to earth with a bump -- or later, when poor judgement and a degree of fossilisation can cloud a director’s vision -- see Quentin Tarantino’s remarks, for example, about not wanting to be a "geriatric" filmmaker, making films deep into his old age because this is when filmmakers generally lose their mojo, or Steven Soderbergh’s early retirement plans, which he hopes will see him exit filmmaking at the top of his game.
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"Buddy Buddy" (1981) - Billy Wilder
Can we just settle on something now: Billy Wilder is one of the three or four greatest filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood, a man who knocked out classic after classic across a forty-year career. But while there were a few misfires along the way, including the Bing Crosby musical "The Emperor Waltz" and the troubled production of "Kiss Me Stupid," none was as painful as "Buddy Buddy," the 1981 comedy that would prove to be Wilder's last film. In theory, it was a home run: Wilder had a script, a remake of a French hit, with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, who worked on most of the director's best pictures, and reunited with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with whom he'd had much success with "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Front Page." But it's a shadow of their finer work by all involved, unfortunately. Matthau plays a hitman, whose latest job is impaired by a suicidal TV inventor, whose wife has fallen in love with a sexual therapist (Klaus Kinski, who would later deny being in the film at all). But the darker tone feels uncomfortable: Wilder would later tell Cameron Crowe, in the latter's must-read book "Conversations With Wilder," that the film "was not the kind of comedy I had an affection for... Here is the problem. The audience laughs, and then they sort of resent it. Because it's negativity. Dead bodies and such. If you hold up a mirror too closely to this kind of behavior, they don't like it." Of course, Wilder was behind plenty of very black comedies that worked like gangbusters, but there's something sour and charmless -- not an easy feet with Jack Lemmon around -- about "Buddy Buddy" and, more importantly, it's rarely funny, bar a few good lines (Kinski's "Premature ejaculations means always having to say you're sorry" being a stand-out). The film's critical and commercial failure clearly hit Wilder hard: he flirted with other projects, including "Schindler's List," but never made another picture. Having said that, it is still better than "The Emperor Waltz"...

Deal Of The Century” (1983) - William Friedkin
Something curious happened to William Friedkin after “The Exorcist” -- no one wanted to watch his movies. The trio of films that followed the horror classic -- “The Brink’s Job,” “Sorcerer” and the controversial “Cruising” -- were all flops to varying degrees but quality-wise, they were good (acknowledging that yes, the sexual politics and themes of the latter are queasy at best). But in 1983, if anyone decided to stay away from “Deal Of The Century,” we don’t blame them. Written by Paul Brickman (“Risky Business”) and starring a promising trio of Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver and Gregory Hines, if anything, the film proves that Friedkin doesn’t have a comedic bone in his body. One part “Airplane”-style farce, mixed with a subtler, more sardonic attempt at “Dr. Strangelove-type humor, patched together by a wandering, intermittent and unnecessary voiceover by Chase that finds him delivering quips better suited to a ‘50s police procedural, “Deal Of The Century” tries everything to get a laugh but doesn’t raise a smile. The plot, such at is is, sees Chase as a shady but successful arms seller (not unlike Nicolas Cage in “Lord Of War”) who has the chance to close a $300 million dollar arms deal when a sales opportunity falls into his lap. This is of course, the simplified version. We’ve failed to mention that he gets the job thanks to his competitor, played by Wallace Shawn, committing suicide, or that his partner Ray (Hines) is a born-again Christian, or that the film opens on Christmas Eve and closes with Alvin & The Chipmunks singing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” over the end credits for no discernible reason. We won’t even bother to explain how Weaver gets roped into the plot. The script fumbles desperately to try and make a statement about the inherent evil and emptiness of selling weapons, while painting the manufacturers as merchants of death, but the wildly uneven tone undoes the film at every turn, as politicians and military are as much the butt of jokes as they are part of it. Scenes that you think are supposed to be funny turn out to be dramatic, and then vice versa. And it certainly doesn’t help that after so much hand-wringing (particularly by Ray) about the consequences of their business, that the film’s climatic sequence is a (horribly shot and blue-screened) air battle that ends with a gigantic explosion. And that’s not to mention the casual racism that is peppered throughout, in particular aimed at South Americans. Perhaps in a bid to inject some kind of relevance, clips of Ronald Reagan making speeches about war are crudely inserted but it’s too little, far too late. Dull, and bereft of any wit, life or even a solid point, “Deal Of The Century” explains why Friedkin has waited nearly three decades to give comedy another whirl and his upcoming “Killer Joe” will let us see if he’s learned anything from past mistakes.

Death Becomes Her” (1992) - Robert Zemeckis
Warning sign number one probably should have been that Robert Zemeckis, director of the warm-and-fuzzy "Back to the Future" trilogy, would be tackling a dreary black comedy. "But he co-created 'Tales from the Crypt!'" you exclaim. Yeah, well, those were thirty minute trifles that only needed a couple of gory exclamation points to rile up audiences, whereas a feature-length film, especially something as tricky as a dark comedy, requires a sustained, measured, perfectly punctuated sentence. Notorious for its poor test screenings and long-after-the-facts reshoots (which led to some creative last-minute editorial overhauls), "Death Becomes Her" sports an all-star cast (including Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossellini) in desperate need of better material. Ostensibly a farce about Hollywood's obsession with age and beauty, it's about two friends (Streep and Hawn) turned bitter enemies, who are assisted in their vainglorious pursuits by a mystic (Rossellini) offering the secret to eternal youth. Also, for some reason, Bruce Willis plays a plastic surgeon who spends much of the last act of the movie trying to kill everyone. Zemeckis, always searching for the opportunity to cram every movie he makes with some questionable cutting-edge technology, stages elaborate sequences where the characters nearly die but can't, due to the magic serum, so we get to see Meryl Streep with her head on backwards and Goldie Hawn with a shotgun blast through her stomach. The fact that these are arguably the movie's "highlights," should show you what pitiful material we're dealing with. The film's lone chuckle is coughed out during a sequence where Willis walks through a crowd of long-thought-dead celebrities (including Elvis). Funny that a movie obsessed with immortality should die such a quick death.

"Dune" (1984) - David Lynch
David Lynch didn’t so much "lose the plot" with “Dune,” as find one - 412 pages of plot, to be precise, that, as the resulting film evidences clearly, he had some difficulty marshalling into a manageable, understandable 2 hour-long film. Which is to say, he didn’t. Audiences found ”Dune” incomprehensible, grotesque and overly involved (all criticisms that have been laid at Lynch’s subsequent work but, you know, in a good way), and stayed away in droves. In retrospect, it’s easy to think he was a poor choice from the beginning, but this was a Lynch with only two features behind him, “Eraserhead” - which showed an appropriately off-kilter, retro sci-fi sensibility and “The Elephant Man,” - which showed he could do classic, crowdpleasing fare too: on paper, who more perfect to take on the beloved Frank Herbert epic? Now, full disclosure, this writer actually kinda loves the film despite the clunkiness of the dialogue, the redundancies of those horrible voiceovers, the cheese ‘n’ hamminess of some of the acting, and the, oh, about a million other problems. But in those rare moments when "Dune" succeeds, it’s actually dazzling - the steampunk design of the House Atreides interiors, the ornate, intricately detailed sets (all 80 of them), the improbable but oddly great anachronism of Toto’s '80s guitars meeting Brian Eno’s glimmery drones on the soundtrack: all these elements are truly visionary, and if you can get a handle on the narrative, the epic sweep of the filmmaker’s ambition actually serves the Messiah origin story rather well. However, Lynch did not have final cut (the studio added exposition-y voiceover and ruthlessly excised subplots and entire characters to reduce the running time) and since he largely refuses to talk about the notoriously troubled process of making the film, we’ll probably never know just how much better, or worse, his longer version might have been (this piece is good and Lynch shoulders a lot of the blame himself). That his next directorial outing would be his first truly auteurist masterpiece, “Blue Velvet,” however, a miracle of tonal control, creeping unease and economical storytelling, speaks volumes for just how steep a learning curve Lynch went through on "Dune." For that, if for nothing else, we should be glad of it.

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Robert Zemeckis, Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron Crowe, Brian De Palma, John Frankenheimer, Roman Polanski, Peter Yates, Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger


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