Sunday, December 18, 2005

Norman Mailer

As a dyed-in-the-wool Norman Mailer fan, it’s hard for me to be objective about the truly odd experience that is Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Part of me wants to take the easy route and write it off as a failed experiment (i.e., Great Writers Don’t Direct). The other part of me, the one that’s to be less trusted, wants to throw aside my normal critical faculties and admit just how much fun this pulp mishmash of pretense and perversion really is (i.e., Tough Guys Don’t Critique). So I’ll toe the middle line.
I mean that primarily in reference to this movie’s tone. It’s wildly all-over the place. It starts off more or less a film-noir (or neo-noir, if you prefer) with Ryan O’Neal waking up from a bad hangover and coming downstairs in his Provincetown beach house to find Lawrence Tierney sitting in his kitchen. Not a good way to start the day, but a great way to start a movie…especially if you think you may have just killed someone the night before.
O’Neal starts to recount the last couple days to Tierney, who happens to be his father and who happens to be dying of cancer. It seems O’Neal’s “incredible Southern bitch” of a wife left him a few days before sending him into a tailspin of booze, misplaced pot stashes, pending cocaine deals, and one very strange encounter with a married couple that results in some disturbingly frank sex in front of the husband and, quite possibly, a double murder. Throw in Wings Hauser as a deeply corrupt and deeply loony local police chief and John Bedford Lloyd as the ex-wife’s rich husband who’s basically channeling Foghorn Leghorn and you’ve got yourself a doozy of a whodunnit, or whodonewhat, or whatwasdone or whatever you want to call it. And I didn’t even mention Isabella Rossellini yet.
No need. Here the movie goes into a tonal and narrative tailspin, veering from film noir to farce to melodrama to horror and back again. It’s a tall order for a first time director (excluding two very experimental films Mailer did with Rip Torn), even if that director happens to be a literary giant. And, frankly, Mailer’s only partially up to the task.
Of course, there are some gems in the dialogue, the screenplay being Mailer-penned and based on his novel and, more than that, this being Mailer in pulp noir mode. And the Provincetown location shooting is suitably ominous and oddly serene thanks to the “visual consulting” by John Bailey. But it’s that all-over-the-place tone that truly puts Mailer to the test (along with the audience).
As a Coen Brothers fan, I’m down with the mixed genres. As a Paul Verhoeven fan, I can deal with ludicrously in-your-face sexuality (here represented by an orgy, rampant chauvinism, an “I’ll screw your wife while you watch” scene). As a De Palma fan, I can deal with a spinning camera swirling around Ryan O’Neal perched atop an ocean rock and shouting “Oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god!” repeatedly as a very Bernard Hermann-esque score hits the shrill notes on the soundtrack. What I’m saying is that I’m the target audience for this movie. And, believe me, that target is VERY NARROW. But, by the end of the film, even I found myself parroting Ryan O’Neal: “Oh man, oh god, oh man, oh god…Mr. Mailer, what in the f&*@ have you done?!!!”

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