Editor’s Note: With a relative lack of new film releases due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vanyaland is taking a look back at some notable films on the anniversary of their release. For the full archive of this series, click here.
Twenty years ago today, Mary Harron’s American Psycho hit cinemas and introduced a new generation to Bret Easton Ellis’ satire of ’80s excess, hollow capitalism, and serial murder. It was a revelatory moment for Christian Bale, who was best known at that point to mainstream audiences for his roles in Newsies, Little Women and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and thanks to his incredible and Tom Cruise-influenced work in the film, he’d be winning his first Oscar a decade later. There are a thousand individual bits from the film that one could quote and conjure up exact moments from in the process — “My God, it even has a watermark,” “Feed me a stray cat,” the Huey Lewis bit — and it’s very hard to remember when it wasn’t an oft-referenced relic of cult popular culture.
Yet, American Psycho never made it past eighth on the Weekend Box Office charts — its highest ranking coming April 14 to 16, the weekend of its release — and, while profitable, was by no means a smash hit. There were three other films that released that same day, two of which made a lot more money than Harron’s film, while the final one flopped and languished in obscurity for the decades since. To help understand why American Psycho endured, it’s essential to study the cultural environment that it was released in, and why it survived where other, more successful contemporary films didn’t.
So, turn your pages to April 14, 2000. President Clinton was dismissing the idea of getting a Presidential pardon from his successor, whomever that may be. The Elian Gonzalez saga controlled news reports and TV screens across the country. Yemen was pissed that Rules of Engagement, then the Box Office champion, showed them in a terrible light. It was a different, fascinating time, and into this landscape walked four films. Only one would survive.
This rehab dramedy, directed by Betty Thomas, was the weekend’s victor, at least among the new releases (Rules of Engagement still ruled the day), thanks in no small part to Sandra Bullock, whose career as a leading lady was on the upswing. After a few bad choices (Speed 2, Practical Magic), she’d chosen some solid projects to star in. Both Forest Whitaker’s Hope Floats and Bronwen Hughes’ Forces of Nature made surprisingly large amounts of money at the box office, and following this, she’d hit gold with Miss Congeniality, which would catapult her to a level of superstardom that had previously eluded her. She was, at last, a bankable star, and that pushed 28 Days over the edge here. Had a different actor starred in it, it probably wouldn’t have been made or nearly as successful. Why? Well, it sucks.
Bullock plays Gwen, a hard-partying newspaper columnist (remember when those existed?), who lives a life of debauchery and excess with her English boyfriend and semi-pro rake Jasper (Dominic West). They’re both alcoholics in the Arthur sense, as their drunken antics tend to be more charming than the squares that surround them at, say, her sister’s wedding. You can probably guess that she’s slamming shots and brews to run away from some sort of trauma in her past, and when she finally fucks up — in a fashion surprisingly similar to that Simpsons “Local Man Ruins Everything” gag — by both ruining her sister’s cake and crashing her limo, adorned with “Just Married” graphics, into someone’s porch, she’s mandated by a court to spend 28 days in a rehab facility instead of, you know, going to jail.
At first, Gwen hates the facility, thanks to its mixture of off-putting weirdos and odd therapies. They’re all the kind of kooky and goofy caricatures that you’d expect in a film like this from this era — there’s Gerhardt (Alan Tudyk), the foreign-born theater guy; Andrea (Azura Skye) a young heroin addict who Gwen bunks with; Oliver (Mike O’Malley, host of Nickelodeon’s Guts), a hypersexual coke addict; and too many others to list. They’re more the kind of patients who’d you see in a comedy about a mental institution more so than recovering addicts, and it’s easy to understand why Gwen would hate them because I did throughout the entire 108-minute runtime. But, of course, she comes around and begins the process of healing, which includes almost hooking up with Eddie (Viggo Mortensen), a major-league pitcher who wound up in the joint for his boozing ways and understanding that her mom, an alcoholic, gave her a bad example growing up.
It’s incredibly easy to see why this one got crushed by the mechanical press-like forces of history: We were relatively safe, being in between major drug epidemics (note the moment when Margo Martindale’s receptionist mispronounces a now-unmistakable word, Vicodin, when emptying Bullock’s purse and bags upon entry to the clinic), and it felt somewhat ok to make a human interest dramedy given how exotic it all felt. It’s glib and sanctimonious in the way that so many films of its era were, and it’s often worth reminding those that wish the middlebrow studio “movies for adults” would return that this, not any Robert Evans production, is what they’d get on the regular. There are hundreds of things wrong with this film’s portrayal of rehab centers, and, as such, they’re too numerous to list here, but it unmistakably has the feel of pure fantasy.
Thomas does a few interesting things here, including shooting the flashbacks and heavy-drinking scenes on video, which has a weird and wild grain to it when contrasted with the rest of the film, but her faux-documentary style has been co-opted by comedies through no fault of her own. That makes it pretty damn difficult to tell what one is supposed to laugh at throughout the whole runtime, and I wouldn’t be stunned if I didn’t chuckle at things that would have gotten me pelted with dimes by old ladies in the back rows if I’d seen this in theaters. Her career has gone to some interesting places in the intervening years: after a bizarre decade of making movies such as John Tucker Must Die and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, she has mostly worked in TV since 2010.
Keeping the Faith
A lot of folks assumed that last year’s Motherless Brooklyn was Edward Norton’s directorial debut, but that wasn’t the case — if anything, the only question was why Norton waited so long to make another movie. His first film, Keeping the Faith, is a bit of an overlong mess, but it’s definitely not bad, and there was a real reason why audiences went for it. It’s light and affable, for the most part; it has a relatively novel premise, even if it’s not really explored in depth; and it features three charming leads at a strong point in their careers.
We begin our film as many pre-9/11 films did: Sweeping helicopter shots of New York’s skyline, until we finally get to street level, where Father Brian (Norton) is on a bender. He’s falling down into piles of trash while sucking down a handle of bourbon in between bouncing from bar to bar, obviously upset. A barkeep finally asks him what’s troubling him, and he lets loose and regales the man with his sorrowful tale: he and his best friend, a Rabbi named Jake (Ben Stiller), are in love with the same girl, Anna (Jenna Elfman). They have been since childhood, in fact, but she moved away from the city before either of them could ever tell her so. In the decades since, the two men have gone down very similar paths in their respective faiths, but have still maintained a very, very close connection. In fact, they’re opening up an inter-faith senior center and karaoke bar together, presumably having gotten a deal from the same landlords that leased huge LES apartments to coffeeshop workers on sitcoms.
That all changes when Anna, now a high-powered corporate executive, arrives back in the city for a long-term assignment with her company. She reconnects with the pair and rekindles their relationships, though she eventually winds up falling for Jake. This, of course, causes some friction between the group, though the couple is hiding their relationship from the world — obviously for Brian’s sake, so as to not to upset him. but also for Jake’s congregation, who wants him to marry a Jewish girl. You can probably figure out how this turns out if you’ve ever seen one of these movies before, but that’s part of the fun, I guess. The satisfaction of seeing things work out, almost exactly as planned, as it so rarely does in real life.
Stiller and Norton are a fun pair together, and their antics as hip men of the cloth have aged reasonably well, though they’re endowed with a sense of goofy dad-like charm, so far removed from their contemporary setting. These range from Fugees jokes made from the pulpit to the Sister Act-like gag of having the Harlem Gospel Choir surprise synagogue-goers during a Shabbat service, and most are reasonably amusing. The romance isn’t particularly interesting — Elfman’s character is very clearly given the short end of the stick here, as she’s by design not nearly as interesting as the male leads — and it just takes too long to develop. Add a series of wonderful actors in supporting roles, including Anne Bancroft and Eli Wallach, and you might be surprised by how amused you are.
You can definitely feel Woody Allen’s influence on Norton here, and it’s understandable that he’d imitate a director he’d worked closely with on Everybody Says I Love You a few years earlier. The solid wit, the New York fetishism, the awkward romance — the only thing he didn’t inherit is Allen’s economy, which is Norton’s Achilles’ heel. The film is far, far too long — remember when romantic comedies stretched over two hours back in the ’90s? — but it’s not worthy of ire or frustration on my part and should be sought out by people in need of a break from reality. In fact, there’s probably a 90-minute cut of this sitting on a producer’s desk that kills, but Norton has always favored excess. It’s just not the kind of movie that you’re going to remember years and years after you saw it, given how firmly it sits in the middle of the pack and how little it distinguishes itself from the numerous similar RomComs of its era.
Where the Money Is
It’s kind of odd that nobody gave Marek Kanievska’s Where the Money Is an analysis in the wake of David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun, as, on the surface, the pair share a number of similarities. Lowery’s film is very obviously the better film, as Kanievska’s sense of style is practically non-existent here apart from a few interesting retro-hip set designs and nearly impossible distinguish from the pack of faux-Coen crime indies that popped up in Fargo‘s wake, but they work on the same premise. Both hinge on the legacies of their respective stars — Paul Newman in the former, Robert Redford in the latter — and their plots both see them return to puckish lives of crime as surprisingly spry bank robbers, and, ultimately, both films are elevated by their work. How could they not be?
Newman plays Henry Manning, an old school bank robber who’s taken out of prison after he suffers a debilitating stroke and placed in a retirement home. He can’t move more than a few fingers on one hand, and can’t speak, but his past draws the eye of Carol Ann (Linda Fiorentino), a nurse at the home who is bored with her shitty life in a shitty small town and Wayne (Dermot Mulroney), her husband, who peaked in high school and married her soon after. After a few odd occurrences around the place, she begins to suspect that the whole thing might be a con job pulled by the old man to get him out of the clink before he croaks and tries to see if she can get a rise out of him in whatever way that she can. Ultimately, this leads her to push the wheelchair-bound Manning into a river, and he gives up the ghost: she was right, the whole thing was a con.
Later on that night, at a local bar, Manning tells Carol Ann and Wayne about his plan: he learned through prison-library stocked books about yoga and meditation how to sit truly still, and how to not show a single emotion even if he’s being poked and prodded with needles by doctors. To prove his point, he takes one of Carol Ann’s cigarettes and burns his hand with it, stone-faced as the embers fall off his palm. Carol Ann’s excited and thrilled by this news — the appearance of this man in her life has finally given her some sort of purpose — and she begs him to do a job with her. He reluctantly agrees, and the trio jacks an armored car and robs the whole town of its nightly income. But soon, the cops begin to close in on them, and Manning and Carol Ann will have to find their way out of the trouble they’ve found themselves in.
Up until Newman wakes up, Where the Money Is doesn’t really come together. It’s just sort of slow and lifeless in the way that so many films that drew from the indie scene were back in the day, and it takes its time getting going. But when he drops the act and rises out of the water, the movie comes alive. He’s charming, as always, and is given plenty of great lines to feast upon, from describing a conflict he had with a cockroach that planted itself on his face when he was pretending to be immobile, to seeing how his character gets out of a situation with some cops by proselytizing to them about the good lord. It’s not a great film, and Road to Perdition will probably be remembered as Newman’s best work from this period, but it just goes to show you how essential actors like him really were. Even in these moderately-budgeted semi-indies that never had a chance in hell of making back their budgets, he could still make these roles feel worthwhile. It’s on Netflix right now, which is the only way you can watch it, and it’s a fun 89 minutes for one to sit through after Tiger King.
One could make a case that anything that survived from that particular time period endured because of its timelessness: Each of the above films is very much part and parcel of its era, and American Psycho wasn’t. A zoomer could watch that film and not feel that it’s aged a day, while I imagine making a Fortnite-playing, TikTok kid sit through 28 Days is some sort of violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. But, then again, no one could have predicted at the time that we’d be having the same conversations about upper-class sociopathy or that the ’80s would make such a huge comeback in the popular consciousness, and those factors, alongside Bale’s fearless performance and Harron’s fantastic direction, undoubtedly played a factor in keeping American Psycho relevant. But, perhaps like a pair of crafted leather boots against the stuff you’d get from a Payless rack, sometimes, the good stuff just keeps longer.