80s Trash of the Week: An American Werewolf in London

Trash, my ass! I love this movie. I heard from Bloody Disgusting that it was going to be remade, so I dug up my Combo HD-DVD and popped it in. John Landis at his peak was one of the most naturalistic comedy directors and this is one of his best. He’d made three classics in a row- Kentucky Fried Movie, the king of the skit anthologies; Animal House, the king of college comedies; and The Blues Brothers, a blockbuster that practically defies genre. A year later he decided to write and direct a horror movie, and gave us one of the funniest and scariest horror movies of all time: An American Werewolf in London.
Landis got the idea in 1969 when he was in Yugoslavia working as a Production Assistant on Kelly’s Heroes, and witnessed a gypsy funeral where the body was being buried with its feet bound in garlic so the corpse wouldn’t rise from the grave. It so affected him that he came up with the script about a young man like himself confronting the mythological forces of the supernatural of Old World Europe, and shelved it for a decade before the aforementioned blockbuster films afforded him the cred to get $1o million in funding from producers for a horror comedy, something no one thought would fly. His first self-produced film, Schlock, about a giant monkey man who falls in love with a blind girl, was a more straightforward spoof; this was something altogether different, which like Animal House, influenced its genre ever since.

Landis began with two newcomers for his main characters: David Naughton had a youthful energy and appeared in other memorable 80’s films like Midnight Madness, the scavenger hunt flick with a young Michael J. Fox, and Hot Dog… The Movie (full review) a ski town boobie flick. Griffin Dunne would go on famously to Marty Scorsese’s absurd comedy After Hours, Johnny Dangerously (full review) and more. Jenny Agutter, who plays Alex the nurse, began acting at a young age, and not only played the sympathetic nurse Alex Price, but also the young girl in Walkabout, Equus and Logan’s Run. The film was also peopled with many stage and classically trained actors who lend an aura of authenticity. Alan “Brick Top” Ford plays a cab driver; Rik Mayall of “The Young Ones” is a furious chess player in the pub. London is portrayed as the multi-ethnic metropolis it is, with Indian actors in the hospital and theater scenes. But the film’s beginning sets the tone, and makes us unsure of what kind of story we’re watching; should we laugh or brace for a scare? Both.
It comes to a mastery of silence. When we meet David and Jack in Bumfuck England as they hop off a sheep farmer’s truck while backpacking across the country, they say barely a word. This convinces us that they’ve traveled alone together a good while. A less confident director would pepper us with needless small talk. It also sets the tone for the location deep in the featureless misty moors, where the driver drops them off and warns them to stay on the road. To avoid the moors. As the landscape darkens they come up a pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, which oddly enough has a sign with the skewered head of a wolf on it. Not a lamb.

The denizens seem oddly unfriendly and stare once again, silently as the boys enter. This builds an uncomfortable but comic energy that keeps us on edge throughout the film. The pub scene feels almost absurd, as the townfolk’s distaste for outsiders seems so bizarre; is it that hatred of Americans we’re told to expect when traveling? They ask about the arcane pentagram scrawled on the wall, interrupting an off-color joke, and get kicked out. It’s the kind of story you could imagine hearing from someone on a backpacking trip, except John and David won’t be coming back.
The barmaid protests, and tries to talk the men into letting them stay; for what we don’t know. I mean, we have a good idea, the movie has “werewolf” in the title. Out on the moors, they quickly learn what the townies are all freaked out about, and we’re shockingly introduced to the film’s bloody side as Jack is torn apart by a tusked monstrosity leaping out of the darkness. David is slashed, and passes out after the pub folks blast the beast with shotguns… the last thing he sees is a naked young man peppered with buckshot, his wounds steaming in the cold night air.
David wakes in the hospital, to the shock of his friend’s death. He’s been unconscious; his wounds are freshly healed. Frank Oz gets a funny cameo as an American embassy agent, who heads the agency in “Grover Square” and says “these dumbass kids don’t appreciate anything you do,” two in-jokes referring to his career with Sesame Street and the muppets. Landis keeps the humor level constant but low, taking the edge off the brutality of lycanthropy. David meets the beautiful nurse Alex Price, who gets attracted to his sad case from a desire to truly help her patients. There’s a cute scene where David refuses to eat, and she treats him like a child. The story works because we care about them, and don’t want David to have the werewolf curse, even if it’s pretty exciting watching this werewolf of London tear things up.

David’s nightmare sequences will stay with you for a long, long time. Who needs jump cuts? Landis pulls a few double whammies on us, and does a few quick, nice cuts, but most of the time they work in reverse. The wolf is about to attack, and he cuts to a lion roaring in the Zoo; he does a lot with a little gore. The infamous stormtrooper scene, where David imagines his family slaughtered before his eyes, scared the living crap out of me as a kid and it still gets a reaction, because it’s so bizarre. The nightmare soldiers wear crazy monster masks and German WW2 uniforms, looking like Star Wars-inspired grindhouse monsters. “Holy shit!” is right. According to an interview on the Special Edition DVD, he was inspired to use nested dreams by Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie. It does add to the surreal quality the film’s fantastic story has.
Jack returns without fanfare. He’s a horribly mangled corpse, with his throat torn out and larynx bared, flaps of shredded skin wiggling as he talks. He begs David to take his own life, to free him from the limbo of the walking dead. And each time he appears, he decomposes further, giving Rick Baker more chances to show off the effects that would garner the film an Award for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up, created specifically because this film so impressed the Academy. And it still holds up today, glistening and sloppy. Griffin Dunne’s indefatigable cheeriness makes it work, something Landis urged him to do, to keep the film from getting too melancholy. He leaves David with “Beware the moon,” a final warning before he disappears.

“You ever talk to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely.”

Landis knows that less is more; we never see the beauty Jenny Agutter naked for long in the love scenes, but it is highly charged and erotic. He saves the boobies for laughs later as David talks to Jack and his own gory murder victims in a porno theater. “Moondance” by Van Morrison plays our heartstrings soft and low. The love scene isn’t for gratuity, and helps us empathize with David, whose later “carnivorous lunar activities” will make him hard to like. And Landis knows how to build tension: We sit through the entirety of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” while David sits home alone in the apartment getting bored with television, and finally tears his shirt off out of nowhere, suddenly overcome from within by forces beyond his control.

I’m sorry I called you a meat loaf, Jack!

David’s inevitable transformation is the film’s centerpiece and the most memorable scene. It holds up very well today due to Rick Baker’s incredible make-up effects, Landis’s confident direction, and Naughton’s performance which teeters on the razor’s edge between comic and terrifying. Rather than the clever but quick transformation of The Wolf Man (full review) we get an agonizingly long and detailed take on it, unmatched in the genre as far as I know. It looks excruciating, and the film’s loud sound mix makes it all the more so, with noises of bones crunching and muscles tearing as David becomes the hulking werewolf of a like we’ve never seen. Naughton says the scene took 6 days to shoot, much of it with him covered in then groundbreaking latex appliances. In fact, both his and Dunne’s auditions were minimal, with Landis continually asking “are you claustrophobic?” because he knew Baker was going to need to make many molds of their faces.
Much of the bloodshed is quite gory, but also very brief and punctuated with the wolf’s ragged howls, which sound like nothing that’s ever stalked the Earth. The scenes are very natural and we empathize with the victims, whether they be hobos, partygoers or the famous victim in the Tottenham subway station, who painfully falls on the escalator and gets to watch his own death quietly creep up to him. Unlike a modern slasher, we aren’t given victims with a built-in moral judgement. They are just everyday people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Landis wisely follows the horror with the funniest sequence in the film, when David wakes up naked in the wolf cage at the London Zoo. He doesn’t let him off the hook easily, and makes him steal a kid’s balloons, a woman’s coat, and then get home on the bus while barefoot in a frilly overcoat. But the dry British humor is what cinches it.

“A naked American man stole my balloons.”

The doctor, played with classic actor authenticity by Jim Woodvine, takes a ride to the country in his MGB-GT to have a look at the pub David mentioned. It’s perhaps unnecessary, but helps take some of the focus off David briefly and take us outside his perspective, so we can believe what’s going on. Other scenes that solidify the story in reality for us are simple ones, such as when Alex and David buy food at a market, or Alex has to deal with an adorable child patient who only shouts “No!” Landis has always used scenes like this to bring us to earth, like the local color in Coming to America (full review), and it’s part of what made his films so enjoyable.
Back to the silence. The soundtrack is memorably full of “moon” songs used ironically, but also has music cues and interludes by Elmer Bernstein. They only total up to 7 minutes, and there is a surprising amount of time with no music at all, especially during the dialogue and various scenes of quiet intensity as Landis builds up to a scare. The lack of music also helps ground the story and make us feel at home with the characters, because it feels more natural. It’s odd that a movie so famous for its use of music actually has quite a lack of it, and it’s this instinct, of when to use it and when not to, that makes things work.
He also knows that the beloved classic The Wolf Man was a mere 75 minutes long with credits, so he doesn’t make this movie drag at all. When David realizes that his late night escapism has led to the murder of six people, he tries to get himself arrested. It’s a brilliant little scene in the park where he shouts things like “Queen Elizabeth is a man! Prince Charles is a faggot!” (The film apologizes by congratulation the Prince and Diana Spencer on their recent marriage) and expletives in front of a London bobby, who is more interested in keeping the peace than clubbing him and dragging him in. Absurdity once again rears its head, and David runs across traffic to get away from Alex, who he is afraid he’ll kill when he becomes a wolf once more. In one of London’s iconic and now historic red phone booths, he calls home and gets his younger sister; if we didn’t sympathize with David before, his emotional plea to his sister, to know that he loves her, and his family, definitely does it. But when he puts a knife to his wrist, he can’t cut the wolf’s bloodline. He just can’t do it.

So Jack tries one last time to confront him with the horror he’s been wreaking, dragging him into a porn show- one of Landis’s ubiquitous “See You Next Wednesday” references- and introduces him to last night’s victims. By now Jack’s face is skeletal and he’s actually a puppet that Baker built, and Dunne operated. It’s a simple trick but works very well. David’s victims are bloody and fresh, and cheerfully suggest ways he can commit suicide, to free them from the curse of the living dead. But all’s for nought; the moon has risen, and David changes once more.
The final transformation of the beast is much quicker and gives us something we’ve never seen before, a werewolf let loose in a crowded area: Piccadilly Circus, the London equivalent of Times Square. Landis’s experience working with the Chicago police to film the insane car chases of The Blues Brothers helped here, as he planned every shot in minute detail using a scale model of the area, to minimize traffic disruption. Watching closely, you can tell that the mayhem the beast causes is not filmed on location; a massive car wreck that includes the director in a cameo as a pedestrian thrown through a plate glass window, as double decker buses and Mini Coopers dodge the hulking hairing creature as it chomps at passersby.

Landis immediately switches to an almost documentary mode reminiscent of Z and The Battle of Algiers, cutting between bystanders fleeing the snarling jaws of the beast, Alex running to see what her lover has become, and a police lorry full of riflemen calmly loading their magazines. The ending, where the gasp of Alex’s heartfelt agony cuts immediately to the credits and the silliest moon song of the soundtrack- “Blue Moon” by the doo-wop revival group the Marcels- got derided by critics such as James Berardinelli as unsatisfying. I disagree, and think Landis took the proper route here. No maudlin tears, ending where it began, much like the classic The Wolf Man, the direct inspiration.

My favorite shot; Mickey reacts to David’s lycanthropy

I think the film’s cult classic status and lasting success comes simply because of how close the sensations of being on the edge of terror and about to laugh really are. That moment of anticipation, as we lean forward to hear a good joke, or to listen carefully to a campfire ghost tale. Critical reviews of the film had issues with the mix of horror and comedy, especially coming from an established comic director. Audiences loved it, and it cemented its cult status when it came out on video. The ironic use of the soundtrack, all songs with “moon” in the title, helped things along. I was young enough to think it was brilliant on first viewing, but it’s been done before in movies like Harold & Maude. It still helps keep the perfect tone, and Landis’s filming style for the slaughter scenes reminded me most of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, particularly in the brutal escalator scene, which shows nothing but makes our skin crawl with impending doom. Rather like Hitch’s infamous second killing in that serial killer film, he doesn’t need to show us twice. By withholding the gore, the suspense is amplified considerably.
Pauline Kael might not have considered this great trash, but I do. Certainly it plays lots of jokes on us and nudges us conspiratorily in the ribs in the telling; it relishes the scenes where Meatloaf Jack cheerfully tells us of the horrors of Limbo, or when demonic stormtroopers barge in for mayhem in David’s dreams. But that’s part of the point; Landis has digested so many old horror films that he plays with our expectations, and if we’ve seen the same corny films we’re in on the joke. The film’s impact on the culture isn’t as large as its predecessor’s, but there is a Slaughtered Lamb pub in New York’s Greenwich Village, where you can have your shepherd’s pie and a pint, and be assured that there’s no shepherd in it. As expected, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Horror mavens can argue better than I which film first successfully melded comedy and horror, but this one made it mainstream; like the first Nightmare on Elm Street, it knew not to go too far in either direction. A remake is apparently in the works, and I can’t imagine any reason to see it. This one holds up incredibly well 28 years later.

The transformation scene

Beers Required to Enjoy: None! but why not?
Could it be remade today? Yeah, but it shouldn’t be!
Quotability Rating: a few good ones
Cheese Factor: mild English cheddar
High Points: Stunning effects and a great story
Low Point: Too much doctor, not enough Jenny? if any.
Gratuitous Boobies: Ms. Agutter’s beauty, and a fake, funny porno


Jenny Agutter’s brief nude scene and the silly porno follow.

The Whole Wide World

The road I walk, I walk alone.

Robert E. Howard created some of the most memorable characters in fiction; most famously Conan the Cimmerian, a barbarian unsoiled by the weaknesses of civilization. I wrote in dept about Conan here, and when I’d heard there was a biographical film based on Howard’s life, a romance of all things, I had to watch it. It helped that Vincent D’Onofrio, that intense actor who gave us Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket, played Howard himself. And Renée Zellweger plays Novalyne Price Ellis, a schoolteacher who had a brief friendship and romance with the author, and was perhaps the only person who walked alongside him, on the road he professed to walk alone.

A morose, ungainly misfit among men”

Based upon Ellis’s memoir, “One Who Walked Alone,” it captures small town Texas life in 1933
when Novalyne, a new schoolteacher, arrives in town. She lives at a boarding house for single women, but is rather plucky for a woman of the time. When she hears that a published writer, a bachelor of her age, lives in town she finds a way to meet him. And he’s quite unlike any man she’s met before. The pulp writer is a boisterous dreamer, a big handsome poet of strong convictions and little care of who thinks what about him.
At first, this appeals to Novalyne and they have a sort of courtship; but as he opens up to her, she seems the deeply pained man inside. Howard was an incredible prolific writer and filled volumes with his tales of Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn hammering away at his typewriter long into the night; at pennies a word, he made thousands… to pay for his mother’s medical bills. She had tuberculosis, and Howard was writing for her life. Early on in the film, we see the spell that mother holds over son, and how inside Howard is still a vulnerable little boy whose had a sickly mom since childhood, and will do anything to save her.
When Novalyne calls the house, since Howard doesn’t seek her out for a second date, his mother just says he’s too busy, and never gives him messages. Finally Novalyne goes to the house, and hears him reciting to himself as he types away. It’s a fine role for Zellweger, famous for later becoming Bridget Jones, and she’s utterly believable as a fiery Texas woman who refuses the fetters society places on her. She sees a kindred spirit in Bob, who has no use for civilization; Conan is constantly described as more animal than man, lean and hungry, not made lazy, dull and weak by civilized conveniences. Howard often forwent a fedora for a sombrero, finding it more practical; but we get the feeling he’s goading people on, wanting them to laugh, so he can give them a piece of his mind.

All men can go to hell!
We are, every damn one of us!

He admires her seeking him out, and while he is as unsocialized as his hero, showing up for a date under-dressed, and taking her to see films like Captain Blood, they manage a courtship of kindred spirits. He’s trapped by his mother’s rigid hold on him, her sickness making her impossble to deny, and Novalyne by her sex. But while Howard demands loyalty, he doesn’t expect her to behave any preconceived way. They quarrel and test each other; he lends her a risque book, to see how inhibited she is, and she refuses to be bullied by his facade, and shows him that he can’t scare her off.
oward’s life is a sad story, and Dan Ireland’s film manages to make a difficult man engrossing to watch. When he describes his tales to Novalyne, the background darkens and sounds of swordplay echo all around. He could come off as ridiculous, but he doesn’t. That’s to D’Onofrio’s credit as well, making him more than an overgrown boy with escapist fantasies, but a writer capable of building entire mythologies in his head and putting them to paper in a shorter time than it took Tolkien to sharpen his pencil. Howard’s worlds were more raw, and hardly as detailed, but just as alive. And while “troubled” puts it lightly, D’Onofrio’s Howard is certainly appealing enough to make the passionate kisses he and Novalyne share believable.
In the end, Novalyne was able to shake off the fetters of society and went to LSU where she taught for many years. Howard was never able to break the bonds his mother had on him, and when he learned that her disease was terminal, he took his own life. But for a short time he created some of the most memorable “yarns,” as he called them, ever written, and got to share some time with a woman who could stand up to his Conan-size temper. Perhaps she influenced his character of Valeria, the fiery swordswoman with an even sharper tongue.

Over Her Dead Body

Eva Fangoria Parker should stick to Desperate Housewives. In Over Her Dead Body, she plays a shrill, control freak bride blessedly killed by an ice sculpture on her wedding day. If the movie ended there, it would be an Oscar winning short subject, but it goes on for another hour and a half, with only the snappy wit and charm of Paul Rudd to save it. Stephen Root also has a thankless part as a scruffy sculptor, and Lake Bell is decent as Rudd’s romantic interest, but there’s not much else to like.
Paul Rudd’s a guy’s guy. In Role Models (full review) he showed he can carry his own film, but unfortunately here he’s playing second fiddle to a ghostly bridezilla. Normally, I enjoy Hollywood fantasies about the afterlife. For a guy to watch Ghost, it says something. So I sat through this one with the Firecracker, since she has a crush on Paul Rudd, and I needed to make sure she wouldn’t pack her bags and stalk him after seeing this. He’s pretty much the only redeeming quality of the film, which suffers from some of the same malaise Ghost Town (full review) had- it’s tough to make us care about a couple of funny jerks and then believe when they change like Scrooge on Christmas Day.
Eva Longhorn Parker tries really hard, but she’s a bitch (the film’s original title was Ghost Bitch) from scene one, and we wonder why Paul Rudd would tolerate her for even a moment. The script plays off of stuff from Ghost, but could have used a few rewrites- I began to wonder if Rudd’s dialogue was improvised, but even that is only barely memorable. All I can recall right now is when he gets her a sandwich, and says “I hope you like it, I was going to get pumpernickel, but didn’t want you to think I was imposing my weird bread fetish on you.” There’s also a lot of slapstick involving his new love interest and her Great Dane that makes you wonder.

So boys, if you are forced to watch this, negotiate oral sex in advance. And that may not be enough to make this tolerable. Gals- it might be worth throwing on in the background if you like Rudd. And yeah, her name’s Longoria, I know. Durrrr.

Rating: Stinky

Happy New Year – When Harry Met Sally…

In which the age-old accusation of whether When Harry Met Sally rips off Annie Hall is discussed

Last night, I asked Firecracker what a good New Year’s movie was, and using her encyclopedic knowledge of rom-coms, she recalled that When Harry Met Sally… (the second movie I review this week to incorporate an ellipsis in the title) had integral scenes set on New Year’s Eve. So I fired up the Netflix instant-o-rama and we watched it. And amazingly, it’s held up really well.
I hadn’t seen it in ages; it’s one of those scripts that were peddled as a model for The Perfect Script to aspiring screenwriters in its day, and it does follow Ebert’s mantra of having 3 good scenes and no bad ones. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan meet in 1977, as they road trip from Chicago to NYC after college; they abhor each other, but over the years they keep meeting, eventually become friends- something Harry says men and women can’t really do- and of course, fall in love. Despite the serendipity of the plot it manages to be very believable, and the strong personalities of its leads are tempered by the excellent character acting of their best friends Marie and Jess (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby).
For a long time I fell under the spell of a raging wanna-be screenwriter pal of mine who said that this movie was a mainstream ripoff of Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, and there are certainly some similarities. Woody has his own adages about relationships, the infamous “why do we put up with it? We need the juice” analogy to the joke about the woman who’s husband thinks he’s an orange. In this movie, Harry says women and men can’t be friends, because even if there’s no attraction, the guy wants to sleep with the gal. He’s quite the one-night stand cad, so it’s one of those self-fulfilling prophecies. Now, you might say it strains credibility that Billy Crystal can bag a date in NYC at will, but remember this was the late ’80s when professional women were first performing the schizoid juggling act of balancing career and family, with hormones and ambition at loggerheads. Once the clock ticked past 30, Cosmo was telling them they’d better fall back spreadeagled in Bryant Park and take the first breathing male that conjoined with her. Woody was also unlikely, but he must be a charming S.O.B. if you see his hit list. So it’s believable, but being a rich director helps.

She sure dresses like Annie…

Another similarity is the breaking of the fourth wall to interview old couples and ask how they met and how they stay together. In Annie Hall, it was always played for laughs- “We use a large vibrating egg.” In Sally… it is played for sentiment, and before IMDb we thought that these were real couples and not actors, that’s how sweet it was. Last night I noticed that one of the old wives was the #1 fan from The Running Man who says Arnie is a bad motherfucker, so there goes that. The interludes are quite successful, and break up the episodic nature of the movie very well.

Marshall McLuhan breaking the fourth wall.

Both movies are very funny, with Annie being the pinnacle of Woody melding his brand of absurd comedy from Take the Money and Run and his clever relationship commentary from fare such as Manhattan, and Sally is what catapulted Reiner from that guy who did Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride to a comic director superstar. It was also Nora Ephron’s first dip into the rom-com well, having written the solid drama Silkwood previously; now it seems like all she does is update classics, which is unfortunate. The IMDb trivia tells me that Harry and Sally are loosely based on Reiner and Ephron themselves, and that’s probably why this is one of the best “unlikely couples get together” rom-coms, because the characters are built on so solid a foundation.

Two great character actors.

It also takes two actors I can take or leave- Billy Crystal post-Comic Relief, when he, Whoopi and Robin Williams decided that being funny wasn’t enough, and they had to educate people about issues in their films- and Meg Ryan, who I can barely stand except in Joe Versus the Volcano. Personally, I think this is her best role. She plays it very naturally, just as Crystal tones his schtick down to a minimum, except for the “please partake of my pecan pie” ad-lib in the museum. Maybe seeing real actors like Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher- who can take any line and make it work- rubbed off on these two stars. Whatever it was, it worked. They’re the perfect foils for happy-go-lucky, I know-what-I-want Sally and the talkative, self-assured but easily depressed Harry.

Oops spoilerz

You can’t discuss this movie without mentioning its most famous line- “You made a woman meow?” Just kidding. Of course, it’s “I’ll have what she’s having,” after Sally fakes a very loud orgasm in Katz’s Deli. Having eaten there, I thought she was just exalting their incredible hot pastrami sandwich, but she’s proving to Harry that he probably can’t tell when a woman is faking. After hearing his relationship mantras for half the film, it’s refreshing to see him put in his place. Meg Ryan suggested that she act it out; the line however, was Crystal’s idea, so they can share the credit.

Go to Katz’s, you’ll make noises like this.

This is one of those movies that’s played endlessly on basic cable in cut form, so if you haven’t seen it on DVD I highly suggest you do so. There are a few minor cuts that make a big difference. So, is it a ripoff? I don’t think so. More a homage; they meet in ’77, the year Annie Hall came out; Sally dresses like Annie in one scene. I don’t think it was coincidence. It doesn’t take anything away from Annie Hall, which is still a groundbreaking comedy, and most rom-coms since do stand on its shoulders. Watch it next New Year’s Eve, if you’ve got someone to kiss.

Rob Reiner would go on to make North, one of the worst movies Roger Ebert ever reviewed and one of his most entertaining reviews. Go read it. Woody Allen would go on to make How to Sleep with Your Adopted Daughter and Be a Creepy Old Bastard Making the Same Kind of Movies Over and Over with the Occasional British Suspense Film. Katz’s would continue to make the best pastrami and corned beef in the city, by a longshot.

The Tao of Steve

Although it came out in 2000, The Tao of Steve is a ’90s movie at heart, and I imagine the director and screenwriters tried to make it for a long time, without updating anything. We meet Dex (Donal Logue, Zodiac), a chubby bearded guy in a Hawaiian shirt at his 10th college reunion. He’s a fat stoner slacker, predating the current run of stoner comedies, and an unlikely Lothario. How does Dex get laid so much? By using his philosophy of getting chicks, the Tao of Steve. We’ll explain that later. It doesn’t help the story that we’re introduced to him being shot down by Syd (Greer Goodman, who co-wrote), making his seductive powers seem like wishful thinking.
The movie rides on whaleback, on the character of Dex, played naturally by Logue. He’s a kindergarten teacher when he’s not toking, or playing frisbee golf, pool or poker with his slacker buddies. He’s got an endearing loser quality, and captures that laid back fat guy who wants to be liked archetype perfectly. He teaches the kids how to play poker. He’s about as believable a teacher as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Kindergarten Cop, but he’s fun to watch. And that saves the film, because the rest of the characters aren’t great company, really.

Take Dave for example (played by now-unemployed Kimo Williams, Buffalo Soldiers). He’s the new dog in Dex’s slacker pack, and serves only to give him someone to explain his foolproof seductive philosophy to. So, what’s the Tao of Steve? First of all, a “Steve” is that cool guy who gets the girls without seemingly even trying. Like Steve McQueen, or Steve Austin, or Steve McGarrett. In case you forgot that Steve Austin was “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the slackers re-enact the opening credits of the show, and dumbo Dave says “oh yeah, the 6 million dollar man!” in case you still don’t get it. And if you don’t remember Steve McGarrett was Jack Lord’s character in “Hawaii Five-O,” they helpfully play the theme on the soundtrack while the guys drum it out on the poker table. Yeah, it’s one of those movies, like Reality Bites, which revels in its writers nostalgic glee and tries to force it down our throats. So how do you get to be a Steve?

1. Eliminate your desires. Very Buddhist. In other words, don’t be a horndog; duh.
2. Be excellent in their presence (and not like Bill & Ted). Show off effortlessly in some manner. Dex shows how good he is with kids, mostly.
3. Withdraw. Play hard to get.

#3 is further illustrated by the mantra that men & women both want sex, but gals want it 15 minutes after men, so “if you hold out for 20 she’ll be chasing you for 5.”

The closest thing resembling another character is Syd, who has been with Dex but he doesn’t remember it, being a stoner and all. He gets blindsided by her, probably because she’s from his past before he came up with his philosophy. He loses his cool around her. She begins unraveling the weakness behind his conquest mentality, the Casanova archetype. Every narcissist is hiding a core of self-loathing, and as the film succinctly puts it: “Don Juan slept with 1,000 women because he was afraid of being unloved by one.”

The revelations come on a very funny camping trip where Dex destroys his tent in a flailing attempt to kill a spider, and has to share tents with Syd, who warns him that if any part of him touches her, she has a knife. By the end of their trip, he’s lost his cool and finds that he doesn’t need the Tao to get with Syd, once she starts seeing the real him beneath the Steve. Being a rom-com, they have to have a break-up of sorts when dumbass Dave blurts out Dex’s seductive schemes, but you know they’ll get back together. The story handles this well, without being too cute.

The episodic romance is the weak point in between amusing bits where Logue builds the Dex character, based on co-writer Duncan North, a fat kindergarten teacher who banged a few of Jenniphr (spell your name right, for fuck’s sake) Goodman’s pals and related his game plan to her. Dex owes a lot to The Big Lebowski, another stoner slacker who liked to live in a bathrobe and would probably feed a dog whipped cream out of the spray can, too. There’s a lot of clever dialogue that doesn’t seem unnatural, and keeps a mild comedic energy throughout the film, but the movie is carried by this Falstaffian fatboy stoner character, spouting Taoist epiphanies and teaching young children to play poker.
As far as rom-coms go, it’s above average and has more to interest guys than most films of the genre, but it’s horribly dated by trying to jumpstart ’70s nostalgia, and has the same ’90s slacker feel of forgettable films like Reality Bites. After a little research, I found that the idea for the film came in the mid-90s and they began writing it in 1996, so that’s why it feels like a ’90s film. I think the only film of this type that is still watchable is Swingers, because while it does play into the short-lived swing dancing revival of the ’90s, its cultural references are less obnoxious and are done on a filmmaking level, as the director mimics the characters favorite film scenes instead of just throwing stuff on the soundtrack. The Tao of Steve is decent rom-com fare and like The Baxter, About a Boy and the ultimate male-oriented romantic comedy The Apartment, a guy can watch it with his girlfriend without wanting to claw his eyes out.

Unseen DVD Blogathon: Steel Magnolias

I hate family comedy-dramas. I’d rather put my balls in a waffle iron than watch stuff like Dan in Real Life and The Family Stone again. So when I was invited to partake in this blogathon where I would have to watch something I’d normally pass on, I went to Firecracker for advice. We’d already conquered the Romantic Comedy; there are plenty of good rom-coms out there. I’ll even admit to liking Bridget Jones’ Diary enough to watch it twice. (Maybe I’m a little gay for Hugh Grant; note to self: never dress like a transvestite prostitute around Hugh Grant) So that left the family comedy-drama, where laughter and tears meld into a melange of happy misery.

Where women go to curl up and dye.

I like me a good sad film. Like any boy raised in the 70’s, one of the first times I cried was at the end of Brian’s Song; but show me a Hollywood family, who all seem to be Kennedy-fetish New Englanders in big sweaters with huge summer houses on lakes, and so much money that they need to invent their own misery by falling in love with married people, or boating in bad weather, or playing Krokeno, and I just can’t be bothered to care about them. I thought Steel Magnolias was the same sort of story transplanted to the South; boy was I wrong. It is certainly tailored to be a laugh-a-minute, down-home comedy tempered with tragedy, but it fits so comfily you don’t seem to mind.

Gen-u-ine Cajun Dancing

The story centers on ladies who meet at through Truvy, the town beautician. You’ve got insanely crabby ‘Ouise (Shirley MacLaine); gossipy and demure Clairee (Olympia Dukakis); straitlaced mom M’Lynn (Sally Field) and her soon-to-be-wed daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts); Dolly Parton as Truvy, and Daryl Hannah as Anelle, her jittery new employee. The movie begins on Shelby’s wedding day and traverses the seasons as we slowly learn that she has a dangerous form of diabetes; Daryl Hannah’s husband is on the lam and has left her penniless; and Dolly’s hubbie Spud (Sam Shepherd) is a depressed lump who barely talks when he’s not away on the oil rigs. Sally Field’s husband, Tom Skerrit, is a bit wacky- shooting fireworks into the trees to rid the yard of pigeons, for a birdshit-free wedding day- but he’s an okay guy, when he’s not tormenting Ouise’s dog. The men aren’t bad, just… slight. You know, like the women in most male-centric movies. Shelby’s new husband Jackson (Dylan McDermott) is a smart-ass, but decent enough; he wants kids, and marries her pledging they’ll adopt- since the docs say it’s too dangerous for her to have kids; but of course, she decides to anyway.

The gals

So you can see where this is going; the movie picks up a year later when little Jackson Jr. turns one, and the fiery and funny ladies’ personalities collide like pinballs, with witty lines aflutter. It’s based on a stage play but only the device of measuring time by the seasons in the set decoration really carries over, and perhaps the preponderance of sharp dialogue, which can hardly be held against it. If the film has one flaw, it’s that when the inevitable tragedy finally occurs, and M’Lynn gives a heartfelt and painful speech, asking God the always unanswered, single-word question, “Why?,” we are given too little time for the ache to sink in before the laughs resume. The characters are eternal, well-written and well-played; we see each woman’s life move on; a grandson here, a crabby lady finding that her dog isn’t company enough, there; Truvy coming to terms with her husband, and Anelle finding someone who’s not perfect, but will at least be there for her. In the end, it’s a satisfying movie, and the predictably painful ending is deftly shrouded so we forget that we know it must occur.

M’Lynn’s speech

There’s plenty of humor throughout the film- we get to see Shirley MacLaine bluster through scenes like a force of nature, and insert herself into a football locker room scene so she can peer in her compact; watching her spar with M’Lynn’s husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) never gets dull. What they lack in wit they make up for with sharp tongues. The witticisms fly plenty, and we know Anelle is fully inducted into the group when she finally makes a smart-ass comment.

Shirl eyeing the boudin

The film was based on the playwright’s sister’s life, and set in the small town of Natchitoches in Louisiana. They try to keep things authentic, and include a local Christmas festival, Cajun dancing at the wedding, without overdoing the accents or heaping on too much lagniappe as is Hollywood tradition. I’ve heard it compared to Fried Green Tomatoes, and while it doesn’t have the same story structure, it does have the same homespun feel, like The Shawshank Redemption; we know what will happen, we know it will be satisfying, but the storytelling and characters are good enough to distract us along the way. There’s not a lot for guys to relate to her, but it’s a good story; and it had me wanting to scare birds out of trees by shooting fireworks into them with a crossbow, which is a definite plus.

Something I must try.

P.S. I cried, and only found my balls later, under the couch, where the cat had been playing with them. I had to watch Scent of a Woman and a few 70’s crime films to reattach them.