COMEDY AND FARCE DOMINATE THE HOLLYWOOD CHRISTMAS LIST
It was Sunday morning on a Halloween weekend in New York City, and Bill Murray was already into the Christmas spirit. "Let's make a pitcher of bloody marys," he said. While the barman in his hotel suite poured the vodka, Murray discussed his decision to star in Scrooged, Hollywood’s twisted version of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. “If they had asked me to play Ebenezer Scrooge, I’d have said, ‘Hit the road, pal,’ ” declared Murray. “But this is different. It’s about the bombardment of Christmas—the three months as opposed to the 12 days.” In Scrooged, Murray portrays a meanspirited TV network executive who exploits the holiday season as an opportunity to pump up ratings. But while sending up the selling of Christmas, the movie is part of a highly commercial attempt to capitalize on the Yuletide market. Murray, who starred in 1984’s Ghostbusters, was paid $6 million to battle the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future in Scrooged, a $30-million movie that cost an additional $15 million to promote and distribute.
Seductive: The holiday season heralds brisk business at the box office, as Hollywood’s studios compete to give audiences what they seem to have always wanted at Christmas: a good time. With stars ranging from the seductive Melanie Griffith to the strapping Arnold Schwarzenegger, most of the big Christmas movies this year are comedies. There are exceptions, including Tequila Sunrise, a lighthearted detective drama with Mel Gibson and Kurt Russell, and Rainman, starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man who inherits millions. The studios are also slipping a few serious movies into limited release before the new year to make them eligible for Oscars—notably Mississippi Burning, an incendiary civil rights drama, and Talk Radio, the story of a phone-in host battling a racist audience.
But on the whole, holiday movies tend to be light and unthreatening, with a cheering blend of humor and heart. And this season, Hollywood’s Christmas list is dominated by farces with outlandish premises about grown men enjoying adolescent fantasies. Scrooged, starring Murray, was the first out, opening last month (because of its seasonal theme, it has a short shelf life). This month marks the release of five more comedies, three involving Canadians. Murray’s fellow ghostbuster, Ottawaborn Dan Aykroyd, costars with Kim Basinger in a family comedy, My Stepmother Is an Alien. Toronto-raised film-maker Ivan Reitman, who directed Ghostbusters, has created Twins, a buddy movie featuring Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as unlikely siblings. And in a gag-riddled romp titled The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, the makers of Airplane! bring back veteran Canadian-born actor Leslie Nielsen. Meanwhile, Steve Martin and Michael Caine join the lineup of well-known wise guys with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Sublime: But one comedy breaks the trend. Working Girl, which opens on Dec. 21, is about women, not men. It is designed for an adult audience. And its star, Melanie Griffith, who won critical acclaim in 1986’s Something Wild, is not very famous, especially compared with the actors supporting her—Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver (page 52). But she is the sweet surprise of the Christmas season, a sparkling talent who manages to act naive and confident, smart and sexy, ordinary and sophisticated, all in the same movie. Working Girl is also a sublime showcase for the directing talents of veteran Mike Nichols. Having earned an Oscar, an Emmy and seven Tony Awards in his 30-year career, Nichols has demonstrated a knack for defining the times with his movies, which range from 1967’s The Graduate to 1977’s Silkwood. He fell below par with his last two films, Heartburn and the Neil Simon comedy Biloxi Blues. But with Working Girl, Nichols has regained his form. Fusing vintage white-collar feminism with the latest Wall Street trends in corporate raiding, it touches a familiar chord.
THE COMIC FARE RUNS THE GAMUT FROM BUNGLING POLICE TO ALIENS
Set in New York City, the movie is a Cinderella story about an ambitious secretary who takes over the boss’s office. Commuting to Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, Tess (Griffith) is one of an army of women who troop to work in tennis shoes while carrying high heels to wear at their desks. More enterprising than most, Tess dreams of rising into the upper echelons of the brokerage industry. But she has trouble just staying employed. She loses one job after sexual harassment prompts her to put a message on the office’s electronic billboard describing her employer as “a sleazoid pimp with a tiny little dick.”
Delicious: Tess finds a new job in the mergers-and-aquisitions business as secretary to a viperish executive named Katharine (Weaver). When Tess suggests an ingenious business deal, Katharine pretends to reject the idea, then secretly adopts it as her own. Discovering the deceit while her boss is away on a ski vacation, Tess plays sorcerer’s apprentice. She takes over Katharine’s office, mimics her voice, wears her clothes and strikes both a deal and a romance with her boss’s friend, an investment broker named Jack (Ford).
Working Girl combines a clever script with excellent performances. Equally at home on both sides of the class barrier, Griffith takes a delicious amount of time with her dialogue. Projecting a breathy, childlike vulnerability, she combines a glimmer of Marilyn Monroe with a practical streak of punk. And her body, which lacks the aerobic muscle tone of a 1980s movie star, looks refreshingly lived-in.
Zany: It is Ford who plays the bimbo. Working against the grain of his Indiana Jones persona, he brings a gawky charm to his portrayal of Jack, a nervous businessman who has as much to lose as Tess has to gain. In one hilarious scene, while secretaries ogle him through the glass wall of his office, he strips off his shirt (getting his arms stuck in the cuff links), then washes his underarms with a pitcher of water before putting on a fresh one. Meanwhile Weaver, who is offscreen for most of the movie, completes the picture with her caricature of a spoiled executive. Rounding out the cast, Joan Cusack, who played the nervous TV producer in Broadcast News, adds a zany touch as Tess’s best friend, a borough-bred girl with rainbow shades of eye shadow.
Drawing out the talents of a well-balanced cast, Nichols guides the camera with a virtuoso touch. Working Girl is a treat to watch. From the opening sequence—an aerial shot that loops full circle around the Statue of Liberty, then swoops across the Hudson River to intercept the Staten Island ferry—his direction is caramel smooth, almost to the point of being cloying. But in the end, Nichols keeps the comedy light, adding enough feminist realism to make it credible.
Like Working Girl, My Stepmother Is an Alien is a comedy about a female impostor, but instead of being from a different class, she is from another galaxy. In the tradition of E. T. the Extraterrestrial, which has become a popular stocking-stuffer on video cassette, Stepmother is a fable of family harmony—a savior from the stars brings comfort and joy down to earth. The alien, portrayed by Kim Basinger of the sultry pout and the Barbie-doll body, claims to be 1,296 years old. But as she steps from her flying saucer in a diabolical red dress, she looks light-years younger—and more alluring—than the wizened creature of E. T.
Envy: Named Celeste, she is on a mission to save her planet. And Steve (Dan Aykroyd), a scientist searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, is the only one who can help her. She needs his “radiating Klystron tube,” although no one (including Steve) seems to understand how it works. Having taken a crash course in human behavior, Celeste seduces Steve in a heavy-handed fashion and marries him the next day. A widower, Steve is overwhelmed by his sudden good fortune, which arouses salacious envy in his playboy brother (John Lovitz). And Steve’s 13-year-old daughter is thrilled to have a stepmother, even if she acts strangely for someone who claims to be from the Netherlands.
Directed by Richard Benjamin, Stepmother is a thinly scripted story inflated with special effects. But there are some funny moments as Celeste bluffs her way through her first-time experiences at kissing, dressing, cooking and driving a car. Meanwhile, Aykroyd, comfortably in character as an earnest eccentric, gives his best performance in years. Newcomer Alyson Hannigan, who performs the movie’s most emotional scene, almost steals the show as the teenage daughter. And Basinger, after looking so miserable as a submissive victim in such dramas as 9 1/2 Weeks, finally seems to be enjoying herself.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is another actor who has built a career on physical endowment. And like Basinger, in Twins he portrays a virginal visitor from another world. Last year, Ivan Reitman asked two screenwriters to come up with an idea for a movie costarring Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Two days later, the writers proposed making them twins. After the writers fleshed out the idea in a script, all that remained was for Reitman to buy the rights to the title Twins from his friend, Toronto director David Cronenberg, who gladly renamed his own movie about twins Dead Ringers. As the executive producer of Twins, Canadian Joe Medjuk pointed out, “When you see a film that is lighthearted, it is easy to forget that sometimes it took years of struggle and anguish to bring it to the screen; this is not one of those films.”
Virgin: Despite its contrived origins, Twins is a surprisingly sweet, gentle comedy that sustains its humor long after the novelty of the premise wears off. Separated at birth, Julius (Schwarzenegger) and Vince (DeVito) are the progeny of a failed laboratory experiment to create a genetically superior human. With one mother and six fathers, the twins came from an unevenly split embryo. All the good qualities went to Julius, and the bad ones to Vince. An altruistic superman who has spent his life being pampered on a South Pacific island, Julius tracks down Vince, a selfish runt who steals cars in Los Angeles. Together they drive to Texas in search of their mother. Along for the ride are Vince’s girlfriend (Chlöe Webb) and her sister (Kelly Preston), who seems determined to alter Julius’s status as a 230-lb. virgin.
The muscle-bound Schwarzenegger demon-
strates a remarkably delicate comedic touch. Suddenly the brute from The Terminator and Red Heat does not seem to have a vengeful bone in his body. Almost beatifically innocent, Julius encounters the sex and violence of American culture for the first time. In one scene, he stops to admire Sylvester Stallone’s biceps in a movie poster for Rambo.
Lunacy: The season’s other exotic twinning of male actors is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, an elegant comedy filmed on the French Riviera. Starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as competing con men, it blends American and British styles of humor in posh European surroundings. The rubber-faced Martin displays his unique genius for physical comedy. By contrast, Caine creates an immaculate portrayal of a refined English gentleman. From the pencil-thin moustache on his stiff upper lip to the dry delivery of his lines, Caine is so strikingly reminiscent of British actor David Niven that his performance amounts to a homage. In fact, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story, which starred Niven. And before Niven died in 1983, Caine used to visit him at his house in Beaulieu, a Riviera town that served as a location for the remake.
Scoundrels moves at a patient, civilized tempo. Martin portrays Freddy, a small-time operator who manipulates women into giving him money with sob stories about his sick grandmother. Caine plays Lawrence, who lives in a luxurious villa and defrauds upper-class women by masquerading as a deposed prince, raising funds in exile for his people. When Freddy threatens to expose the other man’s lucrative game, Lawrence reluctantly teams up with him. Finally, they decide to settle their rivalry with a wager involving a new female victim (Glenne Headley). Scoundrels is slow to start, and there are relatively few jokes for a Hollywood comedy. Still, the movie’s momentum quietly builds toward an inspired double-twist ending.
It would be difficult to find a more severe contrast to the measured pace and astringent wit of Scoundrels than the relentless lunacy of The Naked Gun. A fast and dirty slapstick farce, The Naked Gun runs for only 85 minutes, but for every minute there seem to be at least a dozen silly jokes. Saturday morning TV cartoons seem turgid by contrast. The movie is directed by David Zucker, a member of a Hollywood writing-producing trio with Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who seem to specialize in movies with exclamation marks in the titles. Aside from Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984), they also created the television series Police Squad!, a cop-show parody starring Leslie Nielsen. Reversing the usual Hollywood formula, the TV series became the inspiration for The Naked Gun.
Boycott: Nielsen portrays Frank, a bungling Los Angeles cop with delusions of heroism. In the opening scene, he bursts in on a cabal-like meeting of conspirators, including the Soviets’ Mikhail Gorbachev, the Palestinians’ Yasser Arafat and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi—all played by look-alikes—plotting to destroy the West. The scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. But it launches a rapidfire volley of gags, during which Frank wipes the birthmark off Gorbachev’s forehead.
The makeshift story revolves around a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II during a royal visit to Los Angeles. The corporate villain who masterminds the assassination plot is portrayed by Ricardo Montalban, best known as the maître d’ of TV’s Fantasy Island. And Priscilla Presley (Elvis’s widow) decorates the package as his dim-witted secretary, who is irresistibly drawn to Frank. With gleeful disregard for good taste, the film-makers again use a look-alike—a dumpy facsimile of the Queen. Especially offended by a scene showing Nielsen landing on top of her and sliding along a banquet table, some Canadian monarchists last week called for a boycott of the film.
U.S. COMEDY HAS GROWN UP, WITH MORE JOKES AND FEWER CAR CRASHES
Much of The Naked Gun’s appeal depends on the conceit that the poker-faced, uncharismatic Nielsen is somehow a macho cop with a devastating effect on women. The joke wears thin, but with a torrent of great gags there is barely time to notice. The movie features some of the most inventive toilet humor to be found anywhere. There is also a priceless love scene, in which Nielsen and Presley go to bed sheathed in giant, head-to-toe condoms.
Terrorists: Scrooged is another exercise in irreverence. But unlike The Naked Gun, where nothing is sacred, it attempts a tricky compromise between cynicism and sentiment. The movie features Bill Murray as Frank Cross, the youngest, meanest and stingiest network president in the history of television. His program lineup for the holiday season includes such sadistic specials as The Night the Reindeer Died, in which Santa and the elves ward off terrorists armed with machine-guns. But his biggest project is a $40-million production of Scrooge, a musical featuring gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, the Solid Gold dancers and live mice with miniature antlers stapled to their heads.
Meanwhile, Cross is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, a leering New York City cab driver (David Johansen) who takes him on a hell-bent ride back to childhood. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) is a sugar plum fairy with a wicked right hook. And the Ghost of Christmas Future appears to him in the elevator as a hideous special-effects robot with a video heart. Cross gives it an admiring glance and asks, “Did our people do that?”
Magic: Murray’s deadpan style can be very funny. But the story sags under the weight of a maudlin romantic subplot involving Cross and an exgirlfriend (Karen Allen), who works at a shelter for the homeless. And the movie fails in its attempt to duplicate the emotional magic of the Dickens legend. Cross’s secretary (Alfre Woodard) serves as a black, female Bob Cratchet with a mute six-year-old son (another Tiny Tim). Scrooged is a mixed blessing, as satire surrenders to sincerity. The story climaxes with a long emotional pitch about Christmas that Murray delivers straight to the camera, as if he is challenging the audience to take him seriously—for once. As the actor told Maclean’s: “Cynical is very easy for me. The hard part is being sincere.”
Venom: In the end, Scrooged settles in the memory like a Christmas trifle—layers of sponge-cake sentiment unevenly spiked with satire. But the early scenes parody television with the venom of the original Saturday Night Live TV show, where the co-writers of Scrooged, Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, once worked with Murray. In one scene, Cross screens an outrageous promotional spot for his network’s Christmas Day broadcast of Scrooge. Advertising the show as a refuge from a frightening world, the commercial bombards viewers with images of drug addicts, terrorists and freeway killers.
But the commercial in the movie originally contained much stronger footage, showing a teenager putting a gun in his mouth and blowing his brains out. Despite objections from Murray and the writers, Scrooge director Richard Donner cut that scene from the movie. “It was pretty rough,” admitted Murray. “But it wasn’t beyond anything anybody in sweeps week would do,” he added, referring to the fall period of intensive network ratings. “I mean, I saw someone get an axe through their head on TV the other night.”
Surprises: Murray represents a generation of comic actors who launched their careers on the late-night fringe of network television. Four of the six new Christmas comedies feature performers who first received wide exposure on Saturday Night Live: Aykroyd, Lovitz, Martin, Murray—and recent SNL regular Rosemary Dunn, who makes a cameo appearance in Working Girl. Reitman has been a major talent broker helping TV comedy stars make the transition to the big screen. His Ghostbusters earned more than $300 million at the box office, and now, as Christmas approaches, he is shooting what could be one of next summer’s biggest hits—a sequel costarring Murray and Aykroyd.
Since the wave of late-1970s youth movies featuring the SNL crew, from Animal House to The Blues Brothers, American comedy has grown up—there are more jokes and fewer car crashes. The holiday season’s six new comedies are remarkably consistent in quality. Some of them fail to live up to their gift-wrapped glitter, and the scripts can be as glib as greeting cards. But between the lines, the performers come up with some wonderful surprises.This year there is something for everyone under Tinseltown’s tree.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON