FILMS

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

NATIVE SON Directed by Jerrold Freedman

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE January 5 1987
FILMS

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

NATIVE SON Directed by Jerrold Freedman

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE January 5 1987

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

FILMS

NATIVE SON Directed by Jerrold Freedman

A best-seller in 1940, Native Son is a book about a black youth's accidental murder of a rich white girl. It was—as its author, Richard Wright, intended it to be—a hard look at the black man’s rage over poverty and subservience to whites. But best intentions do not always produce vital results. The film adaptation of Wright’s pioneering novel is a case in point: the movie has retained just about everything about the book except its passion.

Bigger Thomas (Victor Love) is a young black working as a chauffeur for a rich liberal white family, the Daltons. But when he finds himself in the bedroom of Mary Dalton (Elizabeth McGovern), the family’s drunken, truant daughter, he inadvertently smothers her while trying to keep her quiet to avoid a scene. Panicked, he burns the body in the furnace. When the remains are found, he runs away. He is apprehended and faces trial and a foregone verdict because of his color.

Unfortunately, Native Son shows Thomas’s tragedy at an oddly respectful distance. The performances have the quality of self-contained theatrical turns, divorced from ensemble energy and tension. Matt Dillon is unbelievable as Mary’s Communist intellectual boyfriend; Geraldine Page mops up the floor, theatrically speaking, as the Irish maid; Oprah Winfrey (as Bigger’s mother) overdoes her big scene as she begs for her son’s life. And the director, Jerrold Freedman, a veteran of several made-for-TV movies, approaches Wright’s material ploddingly. Obviously a labor of love, Native Son fails—because it tries to portray black rage while wearing white kid gloves.

LAWRENCE O'TOOLE

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Directed by Frank Oz

Some plants scientists have a secret speculate life. If so, that it comes crashing out of the closet in Little Shop of Horrors, the engaging remake of the 1960 cult classic horror film, which was also a New York hit stage musical. The star, a man-eating plant from outer space named Audrey II, is bigger, better and even funnier in its latest incarnation. Despite its female name, Audrey lí demands: “Feed me! Feed me!” in the definitely male voice of Levi Stubbs of the Motown pop group The Four Tops. Clumsy Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), who works in the seldom-patronized Mushnik’s Flower Shop, decides to move the exotic bloom from the basement, where he has been tending it, to the shop’s front window. As shoppers flock to Mushnik’s to see it, Seymour is forced to meet its demands for nourishment: human blood. Audrey II—christened after shop assistant Audrey (Ellen Greene), the object of Seymour’s shy affections—keeps growing, Seymour becomes a national celebrity and matters get way out of hand.

Frank Oz, known for supplying the voices for such characters as the tiny alien sage Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, directs Little Shop of Horror's with sparkle. He appears to have nothing in mind other than the desire to entertain, which he does with great flair. And the casting is inspired: Moranis, all glasses, desperation and glinting buck teeth, is splendid as Seymour, and Greene as the dumb, lisping-butdelightful blonde, Audrey, is in her way as much a denizen of outer space as her voracious plant namesake. But the movie’s highlights are Steve Martin, who is brilliant as Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend, Orin Scrivello, and Bill Murray, who makes a brief appearance as his writhing, masochistic patient. Although Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) warns Audrey to stay away from Scrivello—“A date gives you a corsage, not multiple fractures,” he tells her—Audrey is too intimidated to leave.

Eventually, Scrivello disappears inside the ravenous Audrey II, who grows more disgusting, insulting and tiresome. But just as the movie shows signs of wilting, Oz brings events to a swift and painless finish. Right to the end, his verve keeps Little Shop of Horrors in full hothouse bloom.

-L. OT.

THE MORNING AFTER Directed by Sidney Lumet

s a murder mystery, the Morn ing After is transparent, sloppi ly constructed and easy to figure out. But as a gruesomely funny, cautionary tale on the terrors of drinking—and as a love story—it works beautifully. Jane Fonda gives her best performance in years as Alex Sternbergen, a failed alcoholic middle-aged actress with the movie name Viveca van Loren. After one night of particularly strenuous drinking, she blacks out—and wakes up the next morning in bed with a dead man. Remembering nothing, panicked and desperate, Alex tries to skip out of town. At the Los Angeles airport, she eludes police by jumping into the nearest car. Something of a wreck, it belongs to Turner Kendall (Jeff Bridges), who has retired from his job as a police officer under mysterious circumstances. Together, Alex and Turner attempt to solve the murder.

With compassion and sardonic humor, screenwriter James Hicks and director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict) tell a poignant tale of two outsiders trying to connect under pressure. While Turner buys Alex a Thanksgiving turkey dinner, she levels a barrage of insults at him between gulps of Thunderbird wine. But Turner remains understanding, and he makes it clear that he will stick by her. Few movies have so subtly and touchingly explored the desperate need of people to clutch at human warmth.

Fonda has delivered a string of bad performances in recent years. But as the has-been actress who never really was, she paints a raw and yet astoundingly delicate portrait of a woman whose life has left her with two dominant emotions: rage and regret. Bridges is equally superb as a fellow so lonely that he will do anything to please. “Whatever makes you happy,” is his catchphrase, one that echoes long after the film is over. Together, Fonda and Bridges are heartbreaking. Yet The Morning After never sentimentalizes drinking: watching it is like sharing someone’s hangover.

-L. O’T.

BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS Directed by Gene Saks

on wisecracks stage than often on work screen. better In Brighton Beach Memoirs, the movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s Tony Award-winning play, they interfere with what could have been an emotionally involving drama about a workingclass Brooklyn Jewish family, the Jeromes. Eugene Jerome (Jonathan Silverman)—Simon’s alter ego in the loosely autobiographical script—is a human joke machine. As he recalls growing up in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach district in 1937, Eugene indulges in so many clever asides that he distances the audience uncomfortably from his family’s story. But the difficulties of the Jeromes demand more sober treatment than the film script, also by Simon, gives it.

Simon undoubtedly intended the sex-obsessed Eugene’s juvenile witticisms to lighten the gravity of the family’s situation. Despite a serious heart condition, the boy’s father, Jack (Bob Dishy), works at two jobs just to keep his household in food and clothing. Relations are at best uneasy between Eugene’s mother, Kate (Blythe Danner), and her widowed sister, Blanche (Judith Ivey)—whom the Jeromes have taken in, along with Blanche’s two daughters. The adults all oppose Blanche’s eldest daughter, Nora (Lisa Waltz), who plans to audition for a Broadway chorus. As for the pubescent Eugene, anxiously sneaking peeks at naked aborigines in the National Geographic, he too harbors frustrating dreams: he wants to be a writer— if he cannot be a baseball star.

The film’s greatest liabilities are its casting, and director Gene Saks. Saks also did the original Broadway play, and his movie version of Brighton Beach Memoirs never really leaves the stage. The deadpan Silverman is fitfully funny as Eugene, and Dishy is fine as the beleaguered father. But Blythe Danner is oddly gentile as his mate, while other members of the cast—Brian Drillinger as Eugene’s older brother, Stanley, and Ivey, as the nervous, passive Blanche—seem stagy and theatrical.

Brighton Beach Memoirs has a lot of heart. But, punctated with jokes that are like useless shots of adrenalin, it beats with discomfiting irregularity.

—L.O'T.