Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Trouble with Big Trouble

A product of my time in Richard Porton's class, here's a piece on a "bad" film -- John Cassavetes' Big Trouble (1986).


John Cassavetes ends his career as a filmmaker with an embarrassment that’s best left unsaid. That snap assessment is what most critics and cinephiles believe. Even Cassavetes believes it; he hated the film. Many would like to consider Love Streams (1984) as the proper conclusion to his oeuvre, one that features tender and emotionally raw works. Like the studio that released the film, Columbia, they would like to bury Cassavetes’ final work, Big Trouble (1986), so that no one would ever know that he directed this oddball picture.

Mild-mannered insurance salesman Leonard Hoffman (Alan Arkin) is having a bad day. He did not get the scholarship that would’ve financed the tuition for his triplet sons—all of them gifted musical prodigies—to attend Yale. At the behest of his anxious wife (Valerie Curtin), he meets the head of the insurance firm (Robert Stack), a Yale man himself, to see if he can pull some strings. Alas, strings are not pulled. Business calls, however, and Leonard goes to the home of a housewife (Beverly D’Angelo). He tries to sell her car insurance, but she informs him that her husband (Peter Falk), with a wink and a nudge and a sly suggestion, is sick and could die any day now. “His heart is surrounded by fat,” she says. Leonard sells her life insurance instead.

“If this sounds familiar, it's supposed to,” remarked Vincent Canby in his New York Times review. Big Trouble pastiches Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with a dash of The Big Sleep, and—for the curious part—pitches the brew as a screwball comedy. The film isn’t really that funny though. That racist joke about a truck full of hungry undocumented Chinese migrant workers pulling faces at the suggestion of eating McDonalds sure hasn’t aged well.  To name more boils besmirching the film, Big Trouble has a soundtrack that’s even more odious than your average studio film from the Eighties. It manages to merge Wang Chung-esque Muzak synths with recognizable pieces such as excerpts from “La Bohème,” and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Leonard’s triplets must’ve made the score.

 Despite its blemishes, Big Trouble is still a Cassavetes film, and traces of his touch are apparent. Although the studio tinkered with Cassavetes’ edits, molding the film to fit conventional continuity editing, his use of close-ups remains intact, capturing a variety of, often fleeting, facial expressions in shot reverse shot volleys. As one would expect from the filmmaker, the performances by all the main players (the odd man out, however, is terse and one-note Stack) are sturdy, able, and—for the material warrants it—broad. Although they’re doing nothing to stretch themselves, something Cassavetes did in his previous work, they’re competent. They seem comfortable in this romp. Poor D’Angelo though—Arkin and Falk’s dynamism overshadows her daffy, un-seductive seductress. Falk plays a blissed out fool, a “salt of the earth” type (who just so happens to live in a palatial estate) always trying out a get-rich-quick scheme. Arkin is the straight man who’s periodically stunned, catatonic, even apoplectic when rushed along on these hijinks with Falk.

If Big Trouble’s only flaws are its score and being an unfunny comedy (a deal breaker for some), why is the film forgotten, swept into the dustbin of history? Part of the reason has to do with its troubled production history and initial theatrical release. Andrew Bergman, who penned the earlier bloodless Arkin-Falk film, The In-Laws, wrote the script for Big Trouble and intended to direct it. Columbia fired him and Bergman removed his name from the credits, replacing it with Warren Bogle, a pseudonym derived from a W.H. Fields character. In 1984, the studio hired Cassavetes to direct. Skittish about the poor test previews, Columbia put the film on the shelf. Only later, in 1986, did Big Trouble get a small run, limited to New York initially and then eventually playing at other major cities, conveniently coinciding with its VHS release. Critics at the time gave Big Trouble lukewarm reviews, which did virtually nothing to extend the film’s theatrical life.

Although slight, Big Trouble doesn’t deserve complete neglect. It has qualities of legitimate merit. For the auteurists who abandoned this film during its release, they should give Big Trouble a look because the film bares his signature—it may be smudgy, but it’s there—especially when comparing the director’s aesthetic with Arthur Hiller’s hackwork in The In-Laws. Finally, Big Trouble mutates canonical noir films in surprising ways, which is something that cannot be said for the sleazy, blunt, literal-minded neo-noirs, Body Heat and Bob Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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