Remember (2015)

There is great comfort in self-deception.  Outward positivity masking a history of darkness.  Hugs and kisses replacing death and destruction.  Kindness and joy instead of systemic cruelty.

Imagine living this lie so convincingly.  You masquerade for so long you fool even yourself.  You maintain this charming illusion so well it becomes routine and disturbingly normal.  No one, not even the deceiver, is the wiser.

In Atom Egoyan’s Remember, the long buried sins of history are resurrected.  Punishment is coming.  Monstrous war crimes have not been forgotten.  Denial has its limits.

Christopher Plummer plays a frail old man who has just lost his wife, a heartbreak he will keep experiencing because of dementia.  It’s hard enough being a widow once.

Living in a home for seniors, he is befriended by Martin Landau, another old man in worst shape than him.  Confined to a wheelchair, his lungs weakened and his cough extra phlegmy, he is nevertheless far more lucid than Plummer.

During a week of mourning his dead wife, Plummer is reminded by Landau of an important promise he made, a mysterious mission that gradually becomes clearer over time.  Thanks to extremely lax security at the seniors home, now fully aware of what he must do, Plummer easily sneaks out of the facility one night.  This alarms his family, particularly his son Henry Czerny who rightly questions the competence of this place.  (When Plummer leaves, there is absolutely no one in sight.  How come no one is at the front desk?)

Plummer’s performance is exceptional.  He transitions from being a sweet, harmless grandfather, even to likeable young kids he doesn’t know, to a befuddled, bewildered mess.  Something seemingly innocuous will distract him for a moment and he will instantly lose his place in the world.  The clever Landau has prepared for this.  Before he leaves the seniors home, Plummer is handed a letter that will serve as an extremely helpful reminder of who he is, what he’s lost and what he must do.  As he goes through the listed itinerary, he has to cross off every item as he completes them.

When Plummer feels himself slipping, he will inevitably find that letter in his coat pocket (or someone else will remind him or retrieve it for him) and his mission resumes.  Plummer is so good at conveying helplessness that he finds an endless supply of kind strangers to guide him on his way.  (Even the gun store clerk takes pity on him.)  Because Landau has already booked his hotel rooms and his morning cab rides, all Plummer has to do is show up and only occasionally pay for them.  (Landau usually pays in advance on his behalf.)

Of course, that’s not all he must do.  He must confront the past head on.  Landau wants him to find someone, an elderly monster.  A Holocaust survivor, he wants revenge for what happened to his family at Auschwitz.  There are four possible suspects, each with the same assumed name.  When World War II ended, the Nazis who survived and avoided prosecution fled Germany, stealing the identities of their murdered victims in order to successfully emigrate elsewhere.

As it turns out, there are three such villains on Plummer’s list.  But Landau only cares about one.

Midway through the movie, Plummer arrives at the house of his third suspect.  No one is home except a scary German Shepherd who never stops barking.  A trigger.  In the distance, demolitions are happening and a warning siren sounds off continuously.  Another trigger.

The man Plummer is waiting hours for never arrives.  But his middle-aged son, a state trooper played sharply by Dean Norris, shows up after an uneventful work shift thrilled to have company.  Twice divorced and clearly lonely, he goes out of his way to be a good host, offering beverages and cheerfully showing off what remains of his dead father’s Nazi memorabilia including a rare first-printing of Mein Kampf in mint condition.

Plummer tolerates the son’s creepy exuberance until he realizes the man’s father never worked at Auschwitz.  He never even killed anybody.  (He was just a cook who committed vandalism.)  Norris is so relieved to have a guest he even offers Plummer a place to sleep for the night.  But his kindness evaporates when he sees the tattoo.

Remember is a gripping, slow-burning thriller.  Like The American, it understands the tediousness of meticulously planning an assassination.  It’s a lonely gig filled with long, dull lulls and endless travelling until that inevitable confrontation when your heart is racing and you know what you must do, what you promised to take care of.  Unless you’re a sociopath who never gets nervous.

Plummer has a number of close calls before pulling out that purchased Glock one last time.  When he leaves the discount store and the alarm goes off, a security guard not only inspects the bag of clothes he bought, he also finds the gun in his little carry-all.  Nostalgia is not the expected reaction.  Or when we learn Plummer’s passport is expired and he might not be allowed into Canada.  Good thing the authorities don’t inspect the bus.

Because the way the screenplay is structured, we know it will be the fourth suspect who will turn out to be the guy Landau has been searching for.  But then the movie pulls out a whopper of a twist, worthy of an M. Night Shyamalan.  When you think about it, it’s not like the movie didn’t give us some subtle hints.  Honestly, the ending is so impactful, it actually strengthens the story.  It doesn’t feel like a belated add-on to undermine our investment.

As a rule, I’m generally not a big fan of revenge thrillers because they are usually so predictable and obvious.  Innocent person gets wronged, innocent person gets even.  Unless we care about the characters, who gives a shit?  Far more interesting are the revenge thrillers with a deeper purpose, like The Limey (about a grieving father who really wants closure not vengeance) or the original Death Wish (about another grieving father and husband who takes out his frustrations on other heels in questionable ways).

Remember is about a collision course between the power of suggestion and the loose ends of history, how when the “right” path towards justice is closed, you pursue another through duplicitous means.  Martin Landau knows something Christopher Plummer does not.  And he has the benefit of Plummer being too out of it to question what he’s told, a revelation we don’t see coming.

There are moments where Plummer stares at something like that shower head in the bathtub or that fire escape sign on the back of his hotel room door.  He becomes transfixed.  Is he remembering something he’s long forgotten?  Do those objects suddenly jolt him back to a darker time?

Delusion only affords you so many protections.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, August 24, 2019
4:17 a.m.

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Published in: on August 25, 2019 at 4:17 am  Leave a Comment  

The Curse Of La Llorona

Don’t unlock that door!  Stay in the car!  Don’t cross that line!

In The Curse Of La Llorona, ignoring perfectly reasonable commands routinely results in completely preventable calamities.  It’s hard to warrant much sympathy for such stupid people.

Who the hell is La Llorona?  In the late 1600s, she was a married woman from Mexico so pissed off at her philandering husband she drowns their two sons.  Belatedly realizing that’s the ultimate self-own, she drowns herself.

300 years later, she’s now in Los Angeles to look for replacement children as a vengeful, not-so-scary-looking spirit.  (Why did she decide to relocate?)  La Llorona means The Weeping Woman which is how she attracts the attention of her vulnerable victims.  She has this perplexing ability to appear and disappear at will.  Sometimes only one person can see her.  Other times, she is visible to everyone.  Chew on that for a while, Sheldon Cooper.

After drowning more kids, the process is endlessly repeated, I presume, because to keep the curse going, her dead victims can’t become spirits like her, they just die.  So, it’s back to more weeping and killing, the very definition of insanity.

Lovely Linda Cardellini, who deserves so much better than this, plays a widowed social worker with two young kids of her own, a son and a daughter.  (Her husband was a cop.  We have no idea how he died although it’s a good bet it happened while he was on duty.)

She’s concerned about another single mom with two sons, a case she’s been closely overseeing for four years.  When she goes to visit her Mexican-American client, she’s acting peculiarly.  Their small apartment is surrounded with lit candles.  More importantly, what’s with all the handdrawn eyes on the closet door?

Clearly spooked by La Llorona, she warns Cardellini not to open it.  She does anyway.  Her equally scared sons urge Cardellini to back off. The social worker doesn’t understand what’s going on and makes a repeated promise she can’t keep.

Later, after La Llorona strikes, Cardellini is woken up in the middle of the night to visit a crime scene.  Question: how do you drown someone in the LA river when there’s barely any water?

Knowing she can’t leave her sleeping kids behind, she drives to the site with them in the back seat.  She tells her son to stay inside and not wake her sister.  He does not obey.  As he quietly observes the police in action from a high perch, here comes the weeping.

After being branded on his right arm, he flees in terror and heads back to the car.  The spirit tortures him by turning door handle after door handle.  La Llorona could easily snatch both kids but apparently would rather do an invisible audition for the CIA than get the job done.  By the time Cardellini returns, she’s long gone.  Shortly thereafter, Cardellini’s daughter will have a similiar experience. 

A helpful priest gives us the back story on the demon spirit.  But instead of getting further help, the family continues to needlessly suffer in silence.  Cardellini’s fellow social workers, including close friend Sean Patrick Thomas (Save The Last Dance), start investigating her children’s injuries, the same markings found on the Latino’s woman’s kids.  When asked directly what caused them, perhaps fearing ridicule and disbelief, they don’t mention the psycho spirit haunting their asses.

Unlike the Mexican-American mom, Cardellini isn’t taken into custody or separated from her kids.  But she does visit her temporarily jailed client who absurdly blames her, not La Llorona for her double tragedy.  (Did she really think those markered eyeballs would stop the spirit from opening that closet door?  You’re not much of a villain if you’re outmatched by a Sharpie.)  That ultimately leads to an unwelcome visit in the film’s finale where she attempts her own Llorona-style kidnapping for reasons that don’t make sense. Then, shortly thereafter, she suddenly and unconvincingly becomes an ally.  Make up your mind, bitch!

Raymond Cruz plays an ex-priest recruited in a fit of desperation once Cardellini learns that the Catholic Church won’t even rule on her case for weeks.  (Fucking bureaucracy.)  He’s part of a long cinematic tradition of colourful shamen whose hocus pocus shenangans don’t pass the smell test.

In a scene that at least contains a couple of genuine laughs, he uses eggs to determine how powerfully evil La Llorona truly is.  After using one like a Geiger counter around the house, he cracks it open and out oozes black yolk.  After spinning around on their own, three more table eggs pop open revealing the same contents.  “Ta-da!”, indeed.  Was this really necessary?

Having already collected the spirit’s tears that somehow when flicked directly onto the villain result in a burning sensation not unlike holy water or in this case, “antivenom”, as Cruz puts it, the family can’t make a run for it.  La Llorona is attached to the family, he asserts, not their house.

So, why the spreading of the seeds from the fire tree around the bottom of their front door?  If the spirit is haunting these three people themselves and not their residence, how would this prevent further hauntings that are already happening on the inside?  (Yes, he gets her out of the house before placing the seeds but still.)  Why would it even need to leave the house in the first place?  Why wouldn’t it just hang around until finally going through with its abduction and murder scheme?  Also, how could you forget about the back door?

Cardellini is not exactly great at protecting her kids, either.  She constantly lets them out of her sight.  (Forget about that stupid doll, young lady.)  When they’re hidden in a closet, instead of staying in that room to keep an eye on things, she goes downstairs with Cruz.  Meanwhile, two threats slip past them both undetected.

I’ve never accepted a supernatural villain that hesitates and delays a surefire evil plan against defenseless human beings.  Consider the moment where Cardellini’s daughter is in the bath tub.  She thinks her mom is behind her.  (Why is Cardellini not there with her as usual?)  Once submerged in the water, she knows better.  But why doesn’t La Llorona finish the job?  What’s with the cowering behind the tub?  I mean, what’s Cardellini gonna do to her?  The spirit always flings her hard against a wall.

By the time we reach the climax in the attic, we’ve climbed the heights of impossibility.  (Yes, I know this is a ludicrous fantasy, but still.)  You’re telling me a gunshot victim can somehow manage to get up there, hand off a weapon in plenty of time to another character while a hard charging ghost forgets to disappear at the moment of impact?

When I was a kid, I was warned about Black Peter.  If I misbehaved, this mythical figure would take away my Christmas gifts.  If Latino kids acted like dicks, they were told they would be kidnapped by La Llorona.

I can think of a worse punishment.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
11:55 p.m.

Published in: on August 13, 2019 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wedding Crashers

How do they do it?  How are Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson able to attend so many weddings and receptions without someone realizing the obvious?  They weren’t invited, no one knows who the fuck they are and they’re not charming enough to pull off this shameless charade.

In Wedding Crashers, there’s a quick montage where we see them offer up fake identities to get inside multiple events.  (It seems highly unlikely these very white men would easily get into that Indian wedding with Indian names.)  Once they’re in, they’re the life of the party.  Making toasts, dancing with flower girls, posing for photo-ops with newlyweds, cracking up old men, doing magic tricks and making balloon animals for the rest of the kids.

But their real intention is more nefarious.  They just want to hook up with hot single women and never call them again.  Honestly, they’re not charming enough to pull this off.

Instead of just being themselves, they offer sad sack cover stories meant to make them look more sensitive and sympathetic.  It always works.  But they’re only getting action through manipulation.  They’re no better than those internet pick-up artists.

Wedding Crashers is a combination of two rather tired comedy formulas:  1. the confirmed, self-absorbed bachelor who denounces marriage as “unrealistic” but will reverse himself upon meeting the one.  2. the charming imposter who proves more “real” than anybody else despite maintaining a major fraud through much of the movie.

It opens with Vaughn & Wilson mediating a bitter divorce between Rebecca De Mornay and Dwight Yoakum.  By constantly yammering on about the con of matrimonial monogamy and the joy of empty hook-ups, they manage to defuse all the tension and force an agreement.  (The resigned Yoakum is the only character in Wedding Crashers who acknowledges how irritating they are.)

It is abundantly clear that despite what he believes in that first scene Vaughn will indeed find someone to marry.  That someone turns out to be Isla Fisher, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury and potential Presidential candidate Christopher Walken.  They have sex on the beach away from yet another reception.  Vaughn is shocked to learn she’s a virgin (she’s not) and that she is already completely obsessed with him.

Determined to get as far away from her as possible, he pleads with Wilson to cut their losses and leave early.  But Wilson has developed an attraction to Rachel McAdams, Fisher’s sister.  Unfortunately, she’s dating philandering douche Bradley Cooper who seems way more interested in his own loveless sexcapades and environmental causes.

How many times have we seen this set-up?  One of our heroes crushes hard on an unavailable woman stuck in a a dead-end relationship she seems too powerless to end.  She clearly likes Wilson and yet makes no effort to free herself to pursue him.  There’s a terrible scene where Cooper, clearly feeling threatened by Wilson, suddenly stands up and declares he’s engaged without actually popping the question to her.

Bizarrely, McAdams goes along with this.  (Did she ever truly like this asshole?)  Now feeling guilty about using a fake name and pretending to be a venture capitalist, Wilson is ready to confess the truth and declare his love.  But before he gets the chance, Cooper outs him.  (Through a friend, he hires a private investigator.)

Vaughn’s cover is blown as well.  After a series of questionable sexual encounters where he clearly does not give his consent, he confides in minister Henry Gibson that that’s no longer a problem.  She lied to him, he lied to her.  She’s a freak.  It’s all good.  What?

Meanwhile, Walken’s wife, Jane Seymour, makes repeated overtures to Wilson, how she hasn’t been faithful in decades and would’ve loved to have seen him play touch football in his undies.  He doesn’t bite.  So, she corners him in a bedroom demanding he inspect her implants.  He isn’t given a choice to leave and that’s a problem.  Seymour’s reaction to his forced groping of her is ridiculous.  Is she really that fussy about how she’s touched?  He doesn’t even want her.

Like a lot of modern comedies, Wedding Crashers feels more desperate than truly outrageous.  Consider Ellen Albertini Dow (the rappin’ Granny from The Wedding Singer).  She plays Walken’s unfiltered mother.  Her grandson Keir O’Donnell is an overly aggressive gay painter (he has a crush on Vaughn) who Dow refers to more than once as a “homo”.  Nope.

Now banished from Walken’s family summer house, Vaughn and Wilson inevitably have a split of their own.  An increasingly depressed Wilson acts even creepier as he becomes a solo act at more weddings and receptions while Vaughn deepens his relationship with Fisher.

Things are so bad for Wilson we briefly see him reading a self-help book called Don’t Jump.  Two years after the release of this movie, the real Owen Wilson attempted suicide.  It’s an uncomfortable moment now, to say the least.

It’s been said that romantic comedies give men bad ideas about how to conduct their own love lives.  Let’s examine what Wilson does to try to get McAdams back.  He calls her multiple times, writes her multiple letters.  No response.  Learning she’ll be at another reception, he conspires with Walken’s Jamaican butler Ron Canada to sneak in as a waiter.  But before he can get to McAdams, he gets pummeled by a threatening Cooper who is clearly only marrying into protection and prestige.

When Vaughn and Fisher decide to get married, with the surprising approval of her family, Wilson reluctantly agrees to be his best man.  He shows up late and once Vaughn vouches for him he starts whispering to McAdams, one of the bridesmaids, who eventually gets fed up and starts to walk out of the church.

Then comes that moment you always expect in a movie like this:  the big “heartfelt” speech, where the undeterred “reformed” guy somehow makes everything alright again and the woman who repeatedly ignored his previous attempts at reconciliation suddenly is all in again.  Not a good message for boys.  This never happens in real life.  You don’t want submission and resignation.  It’s not healthy.

Wedding Crashers was a monster hit fourteen years ago.  Considering how much the culture around sex and consent has evolved since then, it might as well have been released in the seventies.  It is extraordinarily outdated.  It clearly doesn’t like women very much.  And it doesn’t give us appealing male leads to root for.

Vince Vaughn has continually radiated insincerity in the few onscreen performances of his that I’ve seen.  When he’s not being humourlessly sarcastic, he’s falsely vulnerable and an unapologetic sleaze.  His rapid fire delivery grates.  Switch to decaf, bitch.  It’s as though he’s always in a rush to get through this shit so he can go on to the next terrible movie he’s signed up for so he can steamroll through that one, too.

I liked Owen Wilson in The Haunting but he too has become an unwelcome presence in the movies.  Like Vaughn, he offers up the same stock performance over and over again.  I can’t take his nasally delivery any longer.  When he goes for sweetness, it feels dishonest and smarmy.  And like his co-star, I find him completely unfunny in this movie.  Then again, the screenplay is like one big giant bomb factory.  It’s shockingly mediocre.

Thank God for Will Ferrell.  Although so much more could’ve been done with his “inspirational” character, he’s the only funny thing in Wedding Crashers.  He’s not doing anything particularly special, either.  But he breaks the comedic dry spell, albeit far too briefly.

Something is seriously wrong with the current state of American film comedies if this is considered a high point.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 8, 2019
12:50 a.m.

Published in: on August 8, 2019 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  

That Darn Cat! (1965)

Movies about animals that are smarter than human beings are usually not very good.  The original That Darn Cat! proves the point once again.

Released in 1965 and based on the novel Undercover Cat (the screenplay was co-written by the book’s authors), it asks us to accept that the FBI’s best lead in a robbery/kidnapping case is a bitchy, insatiable Siamese house pet with an odd taste for dog food.

Literally named “Darn Cat”, or DC for short (a sanitized version of his real name which I suspect is “Damn”), every night at the stroke of nine, he awakens from his deep slumber, trots down the family stairwell, walks out the cat door in the kitchen and makes his usual rounds in his neighbourhood.

After outsmarting a bulldog, ogling his girlfriend from outside her window and sneaking a slice of leftover pizza, he follows Frank Gorshin out of the butcher shop.  He wants the salmon steak he just bought.

Gorshin has a secret.  Him and his partner, Neville Brand, have just pulled off a daring daylight bank heist.  (It’s the top story on all the daily broadsheets, much to their delight.)  Misleading the cops into thinking they’re moving around a lot, they’re actually cooped up in a cheap-ass apartment complex with their hostage, a bank teller (Grayson Hall).

Now why have they made their lives more complicated by committing this clearly unnecessary kidnapping?  Let’s be clear.  They’re not bright.  This becomes evident when DC climbs the stairs to their back door and when Brand opens it up he darts right for the salmon steak.  (Also, they look guilty.  Look at those faces.  Would you believe they’re good citizens?)

Originally blowing him off in the street, Gorshin is now all too happy to see the hungry puss (he suddenly reminds him of his own beloved cat from childhood), much to Brand’s annoyance.  Grayson Hall is just happy she can let someone know what happened to her.  Her concerns about her uncertain future are well-founded.

Left alone to cook for the insistent robbers (they’re that lazy), she removes her watch and tries to carve “HELP” on the back but only gets halfway through due to an interruption by Gorshin who otherwise doesn’t suspect anything.  Removing DC’s collar and replacing it with the watch and its incomplete plea, in a panic she opens the back door and lets him out.

When DC comes back home, Hayley Mills (at the height of her charming, lovely teen period) comes to the absolute correct conclusion once she notices the watch and the unusual marking on the back.  Despite being told not to go to the police by her crabby older sister Dorothy Provine, she heads right to the FBI where she encounters likeable agent Dean Jones who she clearly fancies.  (He ends up preferring Provine.)

Despite being initially skeptical about her claims, he is ultimately authorized to set up shop in DC’s family home.  The plan is to have several agents secretly follow the cat on his nightly journey hoping he’ll lead them right to the bandits.  Can’t imagine Hoover would’ve signed off on this.

And it almost works.  Once again, the cat with the striking blue eyes is spotted right outside that same apartment complex.  But he isn’t allowed inside this time.  This leads to a very dumb moment where the FBI agents make an easily avoidable mistake.

At no time do they, or the police for that matter, pursue other leads, beyond finding deliberately deceiving clues left behind by Gorshin which starts to arouse their suspicion.  No.  It’s the cat or nothing at all.  As a result, That Darn Cat! takes way too long to get to the expected finale.  This damn movie runs nearly two hours.  (Even the godawful 1997 remake wrapped things up in under 90 minutes.)

Because there’s so much time to kill, a couple of strange, romantic subplots are thrown our way.  Mills is semi-involved with some guy named Canoe (Tom Lowell), a surf-obsessed foodie who clearly wants more of a commitment than she does.  They don’t even kiss.  She seems to tolerate him more than desire him.  He’s always over at her house raiding the refrigerator.  She’s not digging his taste in film.  Why are they together?

Meanwhile, older sister Provine is using the much missed Roddy McDowell for car rides to work.  Why doesn’t she have a license?  There’s a very awkward scene where he tries to invite her to meet his unseen mom for duck dinner.  (It never happens because DC apparently understands perfect English and gets to the hanging meat first (don’t ask).)  He gets so close to her she gets pressed against the front door.  But when he kisses her on the forehead, she puts her lips out wrongly expecting reciprocation.  Her disapproval is baffling.  She doesn’t even like the guy.

Elsa Manchester (The Bride Of Frankenstein) plays their slut-shaming nosy neighbour.  Her deaf husband, William Demarest, who can only hear through a device placed in his ear, continually admonishes her for being such a hopeless busy body.  In one of only two funny moments in the entire film, when she decides to conduct her own impromptu investigation, he calls the cops claiming she’s a guy in drag.

Like Mr. Roper and Frank Barone, Demarest frequently roasts his wife but in his case without the cutting wit.  Like the dicky, naive cops who pick her up, he keeps mocking her looks which feels needlessly cruel and cheap.  He’s not exactly a heartthrob himself.

As the movie drags on, Jones decides to place a bug in DC’s new collar.  That leads to certain secondary characters embarrassing themselves multiple times en route to the final showdown.

Considering how much I loathed the laughless 1997 remake, I was slightly surprised that this 1965 original isn’t as bad, which truly isn’t saying much.  Jones and Mills are the standout performers even though the movie wisely doesn’t force them to couple.  And even though the jazzy theme song, sung by Bobby Darin, isn’t terribly catchy, it does have very clever lyrics.

That said, what bothered me most about That Darn Cat! is its crime plot which, unlike everything else, is taken very seriously.  When we first meet the robbers, poor Grayson Hall has her neck rubbed suggestively and Gorshin nearly punches her in the face.  To go from that to cornball physical gags and unlanded one-liners is awkward, to say the least.

Looking back, I wonder what J. Edgar Hoover thought of this film.  The FBI has long pushed for softer on-screen portrayals to make them more palatable in the eyes of the public.  In That Darn Cat!, they’re not cold operatives harassing communities of colour and leftist activists.  Rather, they’re inept bumblers completely incapable of apprehending unsophisticated thieves, let alone clever ones, on their own.  This isn’t good propaganda at all.

Early on, we learn that agent Dick Jones has a severe allergy to cats.  Any time he comes in contact with DC, one or two things happen:  he starts sneezing and/or the unfriendly feline lashes out.

It’s never a good sign when an animal is the only one openly opposing fascism.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, August 8, 2019
12:10 a.m.

Published in: on August 8, 2019 at 12:11 am  Leave a Comment  

The Out Of Towners (1970)

They could’ve stayed in the manager’s office.  Why wouldn’t they stay in the manager’s office?  They’d have privacy, a couch, hell, they may have even received free food for their troubles.

But no.  They had to listen to a con man and now they’re fucked.

Jack Lemmon is a businessman from Ohio, Sandy Dennis plays his wife.  They’re bound for New York City for one important reason:  Lemmon could be getting an important executive position with some plastics company.  Leaving their two kids behind, they decide to fly in for one last interview.  Lemmon thinks he already has the gig.  The in-person meeting is just a formality, he asserts.  Time to make plans to relocate the entire family, he advises.

But he’s not really that persuaded.  You see, he’s the nervous, projecting type, always second guessing himself and worrying that he’s forgotten something.  She’s the sedative, always called upon to reassure and settle him down.  Dennis has to convince him in the car on the way to the airport that yes, he should take this job.  She doesn’t express any ambitions of her own.

Once in the air, Lemmon insists on no food or drink.  That’s because he’s already made a reservation at a swanky restaurant in the city for later in the evening.  No “stale chicken” for him, no airline coffee for her.  (Why does she need his permission to order a beverage?)

But of course, they’re not going to make it in time.  That’s the whole point.  Released in 1970, The Out Of Towners is a Neil Simon comedy that clearly paved the way for Planes, Trains & Automobiles nearly 20 years later.  Whereas the brilliant John Hughes classic has one big laugh after another and a surprising poignancy, The Out Of Towners is an annoying mess.  I laughed at two sight gags and nothing else.  (I also liked portions of Quincy Jones’ musical score, for what it’s worth.)

The couple’s plan, as Lemmon excitedly reminds his wife, involves them taking this flight from Ohio to New York City where they’ll stay at the Waldorf-Astoria and partake in multiple activities.  But then the captain informs the passengers that they can’t land right away, they have to circle the city for at least a half hour.  Too much air traffic ahead of them.

Of course, it’ll be longer than a half hour, as Lemmon’s jumpy enthusiasm soon turns to powerless aggravation.  When Dennis pleads with him to let her have something to drink, he finally relents only to be informed that it’s against airline regulations to serve anything when they could be landing at any time.

But they won’t be landing any time soon because of an evolving fog issue.  They end up being in the air for so long, night has fallen.  Then, a final announcement.  They can only land in Boston.

But then their luggage goes missing.  In a tired running gag, the supposedly litigious Lemmon starts a list of all the people who’ve made what should’ve been a routine business trip deeply unpleasant for him.  (Richard Nixon, Sheldon Cooper & Chris Jericho must’ve taken notes.)  Blink and you’ll miss some famous faces like a young Billy Dee Williams who eventually tracks down their two bags, Sandy Baron (Seinfeld’s Jack Klampus) who kicks the desperate couple out of church and Philip Bruns (the original Morty Seinfeld), an ineffectual cop.

Starving, thirsty, fatigued and increasingly cranky, the miserable bickering couple can’t catch another flight in time.  They’ve all been grounded until the morning.  Rather than stay in a different hotel in Boston, they decide to cab it to the train station fifteen minutes away.  But they miss their ride by going on the wrong train.  A helpful employee points them in the direction of another station about a half hour away.  Once they eventually board, there’s no room to sit and there’s a two-hour wait for limited food options.

Finally arriving in New York more than six hours late, by the time they get to the Waldorf-Astoria, more bad news awaits.  Their reservation has already expired.  Their room isn’t available any more.

With three strikes going on (sanitation, milk delivery and transit) and the lobby already filled with sleeping, stranded people, no amount of threatening or yelling on Lemmon’s part is going to fix this.  But then, a lifeline.  The couple is offered the manager’s office.

No response.  Huge fucking mistake.

Instead, Lemmon is convinced by a very suspicious stranger to leave the comforts of the hotel to go to a less fancy one.  Having already pocketed his ten bucks, the stranger informs the couple that rooms are a mere twenty smackers.  He’ll even walk them to the building.

Lemmon should’ve accepted his ten-spot back.  A short distance away from the Waldorf-Astoria, where they could’ve stayed in the manager’s office, the man pulls out a gun and mugs them.  With just four cents to their name, it’s off to the police station where they encounter Anne Meara who may be another of the stranger’s victims.

The police offer Lemmon & Dennis a ride to a nearby armory.  But of course they don’t make it.  A trio of thieves have broken into a liquor store so that takes priority.  While the cops are able to chase one of them down, the other crooks commandeer the abandoned police vehicle with the frustrated couple still sitting barely alert in the back seat.

There are more contrived calamities.  A broken heel, a chipped tooth, a missing ring, a stolen watch, a crying kid, a large dog, a man in a black cape, a recovered suitcase that can’t be opened, a political protest, a flying manhole cover, a set of missing false eyelashes, almost none of it funny.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for Lemmon’s privileged character when he lacks basic common sense.  Sure, airline food doesn’t get Michelin stars but consuming a subpar light snack thousands of feet above the air is preferable to running close to empty on solid ground for almost an entire day.  Yes, the manager’s office in a first class hotel is not the equivalent of a luxury suite but it sure beats taking unnecessary risks in the middle of the night.  After all the time it took to finally get here, why would you suddenly leave for the unknown?

The Out Of Towners wants to be a cautionary tale, a cinematic warning for small-town Midwest suburbanites thinking they can hack it in a vast, unforgiving metropolis.  Although the film predates Death Wish by four years, it too sees 70s New York, particularly in the dark, as one big criminal playground where scammers and muggers are more in charge than the hapless police.  Even asking for help leads to more unforeseen problems.

Unsafe at every turn as almost nothing goes right, Lemmon & Dennis come to the same conclusion.  But the movie is deeply unfair.  It can’t help but torture them one last time.  It turns out Neil Simon hates his characters as much as we do.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 7, 2019
11:40 p.m.

Published in: on August 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm  Leave a Comment