FILMS

Manhattan mayhem

A new thriller abounds in eccentricity

Brian D. Johnson January 23 1989
FILMS

Manhattan mayhem

A new thriller abounds in eccentricity

Brian D. Johnson January 23 1989

Manhattan mayhem

FILMS

A new thriller abounds in eccentricity

THE JANUARY MAN Directed by Pat O’Connor

The combination sounds irresistible. The January Man is based on an original script by New York City’s John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar last year for Moonstruck. It is produced by the maker of Moonstruck, Canadian Norman Jewison, who assigned the directing duties to the award-winning Irish-born film-maker Pat O’Connor. The January Man’s exceptional cast includes Kevin Kline, fresh from A Fish Called Wanda, Susan Sarandon, rebounding from last summer’s baseball hit, Bull Durham, and Harvey Keitel, who played a tough-as-nails Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who hustled Tom Cruise in The Color of Money (1986), contributes a touch of sunny sexuality. And the cast is completed by two excellent character actors: Danny Aiello, the jilted fiancé in Moonstruck, and veteran Rod Steiger, who won an Oscar for Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). But despite such premium ingredients, The January Man falls short of its promise.

Shanley’s script plays a teasing game of hideand-seek with cinematic convention. Flirting with comedy, mystery and romance, it avoids making a commitment to any of them. The story starts with the murder of a young woman

as she returns to her Manhattan apartment on New Year’s Eve—the latest target of a serial killer who has strangled a new victim in each of the past 11 months. Although New York City’s homicide rate produces a murder about every five hours, the strangler’s steady output seems to have struck a sensitive chord with the city’s jaded populace. As public hysteria mounts, the mayor (Steiger) is literally screaming for an arrest. Apparently, the only person capable of cracking the case is a brilliant but eccentric excop named Nick (Kline), the estranged brother of the police commissioner, Frank (Keitel), who is married to Nick’s former love, Christine (Sarandon).

Under pressure from the mayor, Frank reluctantly reinstates his brother into the force. Nick, now happily working as a fireman, accepts the assignment—hoping to rekindle his romance with Christine. As Nick sets up camp at police headquarters, his unorthodox methods put the precinct captain (Aiello) in a rage: he moves in with a stereo system, a talking parrot and an artist who treats the office as his studio. Nick’s investigation leads him to the mayor’s daughter, Bernadette (Mastrantonio), who was with the strangler’s last victim on the night she was murdered. They waste no time falling in love. “I don’t want to ask you a lot of pushy questions,” Nick tells her, “because I want you to like me.” Meanwhile, guided by

quirks of mathematics and astrology, he closes in on a killer who is just slightly crazier than he is.

Like Nick’s investigation, Shanley’s story unfolds with a sense of serendipity. An iconoclast who seems bent on having it both ways, the screenwriter sabotages cinematic conventions even as he uses them. On the night before Nick’s attempt to ambush the strangler, Bernadette reassuringly tells him, “We’ll go to bed and then we’ll sleep, and tomorrow after a good breakfast you’ll catch the killer and save the girl.” Shanley cannot resist the impulse to deflate dramatic tension: irony and sincerity keep cancelling each other out. That can result in flashes of fine comedy—including a memorable fight scene in which Kline tumbles down several stories of a stairwell. But behind all the narrative sleight of hand and off-kilter dialogue, the story never finds its footing.

Like an overly ambitious juggler, Shanley has thrown up too many balls without enough concern for where they might land. A number of plot tangents spin off into nowhere, including an intrigue about a cancelled cheque that has something to do with police corruption. And the romantic subplot involving Sarandon is especially ill-fated. Although she receives top billing with Kline, her scenes are too brief, and the hunted look on her character’s face seems that of an actress wondering what on earth she is doing in the movie. Keitel’s talent also seems wasted. But as the deadpan hero, Kline is superbly cast and very funny. And Steiger, after a long absence from movies, makes an explosive comeback in a small but pungent role. With a resourceful use of the copulative verb, Steiger creates a wild caricature of a macho mayor, a cross between novelist Norman Mailer and New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

Above all, The January Man is an artifact of New York—although it was mostly filmed in Toronto. Like Shanley’s two previous movies, Moonstruck and 5 Corners, it deals with the strangely provincial quality of life in America’s largest city, from the romance of meeting in Central Park to the idiosyncrasies of a serial killer. Shanley, a native New Yorker, displays the sort of bemused affection for Manhattan that Woody Allen features in his work. And the movie’s gargoyle-like city officials, looking for scapegoats and villains to feed a frenzied media corps, recall Tom Wolfe’s satiric novel of New York City, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

However, The January Man tries to be too clever. Director O’Connor never seems to get a firm grip on Shanley’s self-conscious script. Too often, the characters seem like marionettes designed to show off the writer’s dexterity. Shanley has quickly acquired a reputation for invincibility. Insisting that no one rewrite his work, he has defied industry traditions and created a unique place for himself in the Hollywood sun. But The January Man’s script cries out for a little judicious tampering. After the triumph of Moonstruck, the screen’s hottest new writer seems to be suffering from a touch of sunstroke.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON