Saturday, August 28, 2010

Foul Play

What the hell happened to Chevy Chase? And by that question, I don’t mean “Why isn’t he making movies anymore?” I mean “What the fuck is physically and/or psychologically wrong with him?” This is a man who had it all. He was tall, good-looking, charming, and equally adept at verbal and physical humor. He was the only Saturday Night Live cast member who could be considered a full-fledged romantic leading man, sans irony. If he’d played his cards right, he could have segued into latter-day Alec Baldwin roles: condescending, smarmy, but just sexy and sensitive enough to make you love him.

So what happened? He went from being one of the funniest people alive to being not only not funny, but the opposite of funny. Plenty of older comedians lose their mojo (Dan Aykroyd, I’m looking at you), but Chevy is actually anti-funny. Funny implodes upon contact with him. When funny spots Chevy Chase at the bar, it pretends to be looking real intently at the jukebox until he passes by.

Here’s my theory, and like most of my theories, it involves either the devil, time travel, or a warehouse full of monkeys. I think Satan approached Chevy when he was just a rich kid who occasionally played drums with an early incarnation of Steely Dan. At the time, Chevy had everything a young layabout could want: money, looks, perfect pitch. The only thing he didn’t have was a sense of humor. So the devil made him an offer: His soul for 20 years of hilarity. So Chevy took the deal, not realizing that those 20 years would pass so fast and that, at the end of it, he would be forced to do on-camera interviews for the DVDs of his old movies where people would expect him to still be funny. So he figures, how hard could it be? And so he tries to be funny, even though Beelzebub long ago repossessed his sense of humor. And we, the DVD-viewing public, soon learn what happens when unfunny people attempt comedy without a license. Don’t let this happen to you. If you’re not funny, folks, just stick to the facts. Leave the wisecracks to the pros.

It’s a shame, because Chevy used to be my kind of comic actor: the kind who was funny because he was smarter than everybody else. I can’t help it, man. I’m a cocky little fucker, so I relate to comedians who use humor as a way to feel superior. That’s why I’m not a huge fan of contemporary comedies. They’re all about idiots, losers, and oafs, people I would never want to hang out with, let alone emulate. Back when I was a kid, performers like Chevy, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, and even John Candy made funny look cool. For a little dude like me who couldn’t fight, I admired the hell out of these guys who could take control of any situation with just their quick wit and unflappable confidence. I dare say that these men had more influence over me than any of the people who are actually in my life. I patterned my personality after their teachings, but who the hell would want to be like Will Farrell? Sure, he might make you laugh, but his entire schtick is “Look at me! I’m wearing a stupid outfit! I’m making a stupid face! Laugh at my shame!” I can’t stand desperate comedians like Jim Carrey or Mike Myers who look like they’re gonna shoot themselves in the fucking face if you don’t laugh at their tired antics. I prefer old school Chevy Chase, who was so busy amusing himself that he didn’t even give a shit if you thought he was funny or not. And that’s why he was funny. It’s like how the guy who looks like he doesn’t even need it gets all the chicks.

Anyway, that’s a long way to go to get back to Foul Play, a comedy-thriller in which Chevy plays second fiddle to Goldie Hawn. It was his first major film role, but he was already a star. He held a closeup well, he looked good in a suit, and you believed him when he spoke. It didn’t hurt that late-70s Goldie Hawn was so fucking adorable that you could have put Jim Belushi up against her and she’d make him seem like Cary Grant.

The movie is a corny but agreeable good time. It’s from a period when comedies looked like actual movies, not slickly edited blooper reels. The camerawork is as sly and sinister as lightweight Hitchcock, with lots of silent shots that let you see the location and all of the players in it. Every director wants to make a Hitchcockian thriller at some point in their career, because it's the purest form of cinema and a showcase for directorial talent. The story must be told visually to build suspense and lead (and mislead) the audience and the characters (though often not at the same time) through the plot. A good thriller’s major set-piece can be something as simple as two people walking down the sidewalk. A good director will make that an exciting cat-and-mouse game, while a bad director will make it just what it is: two people walking down the sidewalk.

Anyway, I think the Foul Play guy does a good job. As for the script, the plot is twisty but not particularly crucial, in the best Hitchcock tradition. Goldie plays a mousy but hot as fuck librarian who picks up a hitchhiker one day after driving through an interminable credits sequence in which a Barry Manilow song plays in its entirety. There isn’t enough irony in the world to make me like Barry Manilow, so this sequence is best watched on mute so you can enjoy the beautiful Bay Area scenery without any flugelhorn solos intruding. The hitchhiker slips Goldie a pack of Marlboro Reds with a roll of film in it ("Beware of the dwarf," he whispers ominously in her ear as he bleeds out), and then the rest of the movie is about all these wacky goons (an albino, a guy with a scar down his face, the archbishop of California's mustachioed chauffeur, etc.) trying to get the cigarettes away from her. They might as well have been called MacGuffin Lights.

Along the way, she gets hooked up with Chevy, who plays a detective with a partner played by Brian Dennehy. This flick has a great cast. At one point, Chevy, Goldie, Dennehy, and Burgess Meredith are all in the same scene together. That’s a roomful of awesome people right there. Also showing up is world-class midget actor Billy Barty, who gets hung out a window, beat with a broom, and rolled down the street in a barrel but survives with his dignity intact.

Personally, I don’t find midgets as funny as I used to. I’d rather see them treated with respect and given full-fledged characters to play. I much prefer mocking just regular old short guys, which is why I was so glad to see Dudley Moore show up as a wee pervert with a closet full of blowup dolls and a hideaway bed that makes a trumpet fanfare when it folds out. The man’s a natural born hobbit who comes up to about doorknob height, and for some reason, it makes me laugh to see him walk around in his little suits.

But the highlight of the movie is the part where Burgess Meredith (Goldie’s snake-owning anthropologist landlord) suddenly reveals that he’s a blackbelt and starts karate-chopping motherfuckers. Goldie and Chevy have been captured, so Burgess sneaks into the villain’s lair like a ninja and gets into a five-minute no-holds-barred fight with this big dominatrix-looking bitch. Before I saw that, I never realized how spiritually impoverished my life was.

Then Chevy and Goldie race downtown to the opera house where the Pope is about to be assassinated while watching Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, which has got to be the single gayest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Man, the Pope must have to sit through shit like that all the time. “Welcome to our country, here is our national children’s choir singing three hours of tribal folk songs.” Heaven better be pretty fucking sweet for His Popeness to put up with that shit.

Anyway, here’s where the movie becomes a game of Grand Theft Auto for a while. Chevy steals a car and drives like a maniac until he crashes into a pizzeria, at which point he steals another car. Then he does it again. Granted, he doesn’t beat an old lady to death with a dildo, but I bet they'll totally do that if they ever remake it.

In conclusion, Foul Play is a fun movie from a time when comedians were the coolest guys in the room and comedies were treated with a little respect, even when they featured pratfalling, dwarf-rolling, and karate-chopping. It’s also a sad reminder of what happens to funny people when they fuck around with the devil. Satan is no laughing matter, kids. Remember that.

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