Blurbie Nights

(Originally published in 1994 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Guarding Tess
**1/2

A by-the-book security man is run ragged guarding a cantankerous, unwilling guardee. Have we seen this scenario before? How about Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992)? Same plot, except that the guardee is not a prima donna singer but a cantankerous, manipulative former First Lady. And the security guy isn’t played by Kevin; this time we’ve got Nicholas Cage in the Secret Service. And Whitney doesn’t even show up; in her place we have the effervescent Shirley Maclaine, her past lives in tow.

Other than those little inequities, trust me, this is the same film. And where that movie may have succeeded (at least commerically), this little copycat movie fails on some fronts.
Now, at this point, some of you might be thinking (to yourself, perhaps even out loud), “Well, gee, Dan, why should I, a valued consumer, pay good money to rent this obvious ripoff of a movie? What can it offer me? What’s in it for me?” As well you should. And I would reply to you that the biggest reason for watching this film is to see a bravura performance by Maclaine as the former First Lady. Here’s a woman who’s gone from sprightly sexpot (see The Trouble with Harry, 1955), to mysterious beauty (see The Apartment, 1960), to off-kilter candidate for the funny farm (see her own autobiography, Out on a Limb). Here she plays the prime role of the widowed First Lady perfectly, allowing us to laugh at and with her in turn, to empathize with her problems, to gawk disdainfully at her manipulations. It’s a fine role for a gracefully aging silver screen star, and Maclaine elicits just the right amount of pathos from her audience.

The main problem, though, lies in the casting of Nicholas Cage as the reserved agent in charge of protecting the recalcitrant Maclaine. Cage, like fellow thespians Sean Penn and James Woods, is at his best when his character is unhinged, mentally unstable, with fire in his eye and in his heart. Here, however, he’s too staid, too downright neat for the role to work for him. He needs more roles like Raising Arizona (1987), where he can play the little psycho-with-a-heart-of-gold in all of us. In this film, he comes off as annoying, the sort of guy who needs a mute button. It’s a one-note performance that does its damnedest to sink the film.

Guarding Tess is enjoyable but uneven film, veering from sentimental drama to comedy several times during its 98-minute run. It is aided immeasurably by the sterling work turned in by Shirley Maclaine and a solid (if somewhat derivative) script. It is impeded by the boring performance of Nicholas Cage and a faceless direction by Hugh Wilson.

The Hudsucker Proxy
***

Joel and Ethan Coen, who brought you such classics as the aforementioned Raising Arizona, Barton Fink (1991), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Blood Simple (1984), specialize in the weird and goofy when it comes to writing, producing and directing their own films. Hudsucker is no exception. Starring Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman, the movie captures the look and feel of business in the old days (you know, before cable TV) with an atmosphere and characters that recall Damon Runyon’s literary exploits in the twenties and thirties.

Hudsucker’s plot goes something like this: the president of Hudsucker, Inc. (Charles Durning), even after hearing how well his company is doing, suddenly leaps to his death. After a moment or two of sensitive reflection, his board members, led by right-hand-man Paul Newman, decide to hire a puppet to be the new president. Enter Tim Robbins, newly hired in the mail department of Hudsucker. While Robbins is presenting a product idea (he’s on a trip to deliver a dreaded “blue letter” to Newman), the right-hand-man takes one look at the product, another at Robbins, and promptly hires him as the new president. And when the proposed product, the Hula-Hoop, catches on, all hell breaks loose, as the public reveres Robbins and the Board loathes him.

Finally, Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a talky wiseacre of a reporter who attempts to expose but who (surprise!) falls for the good-hearted Robbins. Herein lies the major Achilles’ heel of Hudsucker. Jason Leigh’s portrayal is a blatant ripoff of Katherine Hepburn, with a generous amount of Rosalind Russell’s character from Her Girl Friday (1940). It’s obtrusive, obnoxious, and very, very unfunny. Moreover, the character is not terribly appealing, either; we cannot sympathize with her plight. This may be the fault of the Coen’s, or maybe the actress herself. Who’s to say? It’s a pure garbage role, nevertheless.

This is not a feel-good comedy. This is not a slapstick comedy. It’s…well, it doesn’t fit two well into any comedic category. It’s just a Coen movie. Not as good as Raising Arizona, but far superior to the muddled mess that was Barton Fink. Good rollicking entertainment, provided you don’t exercise too many brain cells while watching it.

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