Friday, March 30, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Our Father, Who Art in Hyperspace
or
Wrapping it Up in the Third Tesseract

Gosh, I think it's been a half-century since I read Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," which won the Newberry Prize (and that was the reason I read it). The particulars of the book have long passed on, but I remember how well she captured childhood angst and alienation—for an adult, she knew a lot about the trials of being a kid—and the introduction to the mind-blowing concept of a tesseract (which she described simply as a fourth dimensional space—if a square is two dimensions, a cube is its progression in three, then a tesseract is the fourth configuration). When I read it, it made absolute sense that, given a fourth dimension, a tesseract would be the way to cross space to other places, other dimensions. It was a matter of not-simple geometry and will. L'Engle made you believe...because if she knew what made you tick, she probably had a good handle on the Universe, as well.

Well, it's been 65 years since the book was published (after being rejected by all the major publishers), has never NOT been in print (owing to its popularity) and, in that time, we've seen space-time, warp-speed (Star Trek), "folding space" (Dune), "hyper-space" (Star Wars) and the ever-handy "wormhole" feature as short-cuts in space.

Disney's second attempt at making an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (after a 2003 Canadian adaptation that, when L'Engle was asked if it lived up to her expectations, famously said "I expected it to be a disaster and it didn't disappoint me.") has less of an "Afterschool Special" vibe and certainly creates a bigger canvas (when representing the Universe, after all). The cast of kids is great—with an especially high fist-pump for Deric McCabe of making the toughest character work as both Purpose and Antagonist, rather than "that annoying kid" who just complicates things—and lead Storm Reid as the hero on the hero's journey.
Meg Murry (Reid) is miserable. School is boring and unbearable. She's the oldest kid who has to "grow up a little early" because Dad's gone in the family dynamic. That "Dad" (Chris Pine) is a theoretical physicist who has been absent for four years—and nobody has any explanation why—is a big heart-shaped keyhole in Meg's psyche. All of her issues seem to stem from that empty space—her relation to her Mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her reception at school (where his disappearance is a source of "Mean Girl" torture) and, basically, everything.
But, all that changes with the appearance of Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a being whom her little brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) has befriended and she mentions a way of traversing time and dimensions called utilizing a tesseract, which Whatsit hints is behind what the elder Murry was studying and might well have created the situation of his disappearance. She is an astro-traveller, who, with Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) help, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a tag-along sympathizer, Calvin (Levi Miller) on a quest to go and rescue Dad, and make the Universe and, thus, life better.
That's such a galaxy crunching scenario that it squeezes the story to white-dwarf proportions, but that is essentially that. It's Wizard of Oz, with cosmology replacing dream-states brought on by trauma, and Ava DuVernay's film of it basically takes the Oz scenario and expands on the "feel-good" aspects without dealing too much with the mechanics of how we got here in the first place. One gets the impression that everything is done by "wishing it were so" which is not exactly what L'Engle was going for (see, kids, don't get too carried away with your work wasn't exactly a theme of hers, but it seems essential to The Disney Version). The kids use Dad's work to essentially save him AND the work, validating it and him...and themselves in the process.
And that's what "gets" me about this Wrinkle in Time, as much as it struggles to "gee-whiz" me with color and imagination, pushing my buttons, but not engaging my mind, it fairly buries the world-expanding concepts it is supposed to celebrate. The movie makes the experience an internal one, not a possibilities-expanding one, and that's antithetical to the source-work. It's sure a spectacle, but it's one of those movies where (probably due to some studio dumbing-down, maybe?) things happen because you want them to happen with no limitations and no ground-rules, but is made glossy enough that it thinks it smears over the improbability and objections and resulting emptiness such processes invoke when there's nothing solid behind it.
Meg explains a tesseract—but it's not in the movie
The other thing about the movie that bugs me is that the kids are very down-to-Earth and respectable—they're deserving of something mind-blowing to happen to them—but the adults are not awe-inspiring, not in any sense, but merely curiously eccentric or (in the case of Oprah's Which) too deliberately "sagey," who do magic things that make everything work out better because that's what's to be expected. There's never a sense of real peril or real stakes, and with mentors who are less inspiring and more window-dressing.
I walked out underwhelmed, but secretly glad I'd read the book so many years ago because, frankly, the movie wouldn't have inspired me to read it.
One wants a Wrinkle in Time to invoke a sense of wonder, rather wondering what went wrong.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ninotchka

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937) You don't often get to see a perfect movie—a movie of fine material: a great script, perfectly cast and executed, yet isn't calcified in pre-calculation, that lives and breathes and takes advantage of accidents. Something that feels like life, only written better. A movie that beguiles, while still acknowledging the real world, and that any interruption will just have to wait until "The End"...which comes far too soon. A movie that widens the eyes, expands the mind and tickles the funny bone. That's NinotchkaThree Russian emissaries (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) are in Paris on official business, hoping to get top dollar for some diamonds confiscated during the Russian Revolution. Out of the discriminating eye of the commissar, they decide to stay at Paris' most opulent hotel--the better to attract the interest of capitalist speculators, comrade. Of course. As luck would have it, it's also the domicile of the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), in exile, and shy a few diamonds due to the Revolution. When her "kept man," the Count Leon D'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) encounters them, he plies them with the finest life Paris has to offer, stringing them along while the gears of the authorities grind slowly to take back the diamonds before they can be sold.

The delays in retrieving money for the Soviet State puts the Reds on high alert, and a by-the-book-politburo-crat,
Nina Ivanova Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is dispatched to investigate. She does not like what she sees.

Her humorless buttinski attitude might put things on the right track, and that's the last thing Count D'Algout wants, but he finds his and Paris' charms are lost on "Ninotchka." She is so gray and humorless, with a suspicious look in her eye and expressionless of face, she is more than ideologically committed to the Socialist state, she is practically Vulcan (emphasis on "practical"). The Count must work overtime to beguile her, and overtime is something this representative of the Worker cannot abide. Like it matters. The Count becomes intrigued with her, and decides to make time on his own time.
Ninotchka is political satire as fairy-tale, complete with the converted princess and the pixieish subservients (all things being equal, comrade, but some are more equal than others—or is that "fairest of them all?"). The conceit is charming, and add the star-power of Greta Garbo as "Ninotchka" and the thing practically fizzes. Garbo has always been a legendary presence, somewhat unapproachable. But her work in this film, with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's words and buoyed in its interpretation by "The Lubitsch Touch," is the effervescence that pops the film's cork. Again, the structure of the story helps. Garbo's no-bolshevik attitude at the beginning sets up a magical transformation from mugly ducklink to beautiful swanna-be. That she is funny in both aspects and possessed of a comic timing with the accuracy of a Swiss watch, while still radiating the sex appeal that made her a box-office queen, is a bit of a miracle. It's my prejudice to think that such a lionized star couldn't possibly be such a fine actress. You learn something new every day.

Which is exactly the point.
You might as well enjoy it. One can't help it when the lesson is so delightful.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Despicable Me

Written at the time of the film's release and before I developed my distaste for Minions. 

 
"Assemble the Minions!"

You can't swing a pixelated bug-eyed cat in a multi-plex these days without hitting a new digi-toon, being ground out like so many linked sausages, but with different degrees of quality.  The technology is now such that the makers no longer have to worry about working around the complexities of the images; such strides have been made in the field over the last 15 years that the work approaches photo-realism, if that is the intention of the pixel-wranglers. What is exciting now, with the constraints no longer a factor, is seeing what the various creators around the world DO with it, and the visions that they create, whether their source be in the world or the mind. Now that reality is no longer a problem, the makers of these visions can effectively throw it away.

So, here's Despicable Me.  You've been seeing the trailers for months, and for me, the impression has been a little "meh." Oh, the comic timing has been crack and the sensibility behind them a little twisted. But, whether that translated to a 90 minute feature is always the $20 million dollar question.

And Despicable Me is terrific. Frequently laugh out-loud funny, with breathless timing and a constant willingness to push the envelope in technology and story-telling. Sure, it has the obvious arc of a children's story, and you know how things will turn out, but the journey is the fun thing.
Gru (Steve Carell) is a "Fester-ish" super-villain on hard times. Oh, sure, he's not exactly hiding out in some super-secret headquarters somewherehe only drives vehicles that pollute outrageously with a maximum of sparks and smoke, his is the only house in the neighborhood painted in dark, dingy colors and furnitured with Bondian uber-tech and stuffed animal corpses. Underneath is a vast gleaming complex linked by pneumatic tubes and what look like habi-trails, kept running by what appear to be thousands of animated twinkies.*He may seem like a villain who has everything (and what he doesn't have, he can obtain by ice-shackling the person who does with his "freeze-ray"), but there's a new villain named Vector (Jason Segel, voicing a character who's equal parts Bill Gates and Phil Silvers) who's just topped everybody by stealing one of the Pyramids. Good score. And the Bank of Evil ("formerly Lehman Brothers") likes the reaching entrepreneur with enough gall to think big when it comes to crime (call it "professional courtesy"), so they'll only dispense loans to those baddies with outlandish schemes. There's no greater "out-land" than The Moon, and so Gru sets his sights on it—a dream he's held since it was first pa-shawed by his crank of a Mum (Julie Andrews, wickedly unrecognizable).
But, you need a plan.  And his involves orphans ("We got adopted by a bald guy...I thought it would be more like Annie"), a "Spy vs. Spy"-style industrial espionage plot, and...cookie-robots.
The thing is witty in look and happenstance: the people are bulbously malleable as in The Incredibles, and the sets have a Burtonesque retro-engineering feel to them, but because the animation is done in France, the flow and pace, and attention to detail, is quite unlike things state-side, making it intriguing and refreshing. The voice-actors are spot-on by being nearly impenetrably unidentifiable...you won't recognize Will Arnett, or Kristen Wiig (two of my favorite comic actors of the moment) or Russell Brand, and Steve Carell's Gru is an amazing comic performance featuring crack timing, muttered asides and a nicely Slavic accent that tortures its way through idioms. 
And I love the buried movie references, little echoes of the past that tweak the unconscious, be they from It's a Wonderful Life, The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather (the last is so wickedly placed, I couldn't believe the writers were so sick to think of it). But, it's all done with its heart in the right place and a warmth of spirit tough to find in movies these days. It'll yank your heart strings to a ridiculously cartoonish length and never let them go.  This is one for the whole family, even though the parents will need to do a bit of explaining along the way (some of the jokes will just sail past the heads of kids, which is always a sign of a good cartoon).
I saw Despicable Me in 2-D, but it might actually benefit a 3-D screening, especially for the end-title sequence where the Minions attempt to bridge the gap between the screen and the audience—a hilarious concept that's a bit mind-blowing when you think of it (and evidently there's a phone app that allows you to translate what they're saying during it—will wonders never cease?).




* Called "Minions," they have all sorts of uses and are voiced by the co-directors and "Flight of the Conchords" Jemaine Clement.  Yee-es.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Face in the Crowd


A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957) The cyclical rise and fall of media pundits makes this prescient movie diatribe against the dangers of television consistently fresh and relevant. Sure, it might have been talking about Arthur Godfrey (at the time), but it fits the bill for "The Glenn Beck Story," too. A rube gets built up as a "voice of the people," and then, given money, power and a platform turns into a little  cathode-ray god, his TV-face just being make-up over a manipulative withered soul drunk for power...or love...or advantage over his neighbor. It's why Keith Olbermann always referred to Beck as "Lonesome Rhodes" on his old MSNBC show—that's the "aw-shucks" nom-de-tube of the character in the movie—but it could be any of the flash-in-the-pan sensations over the years, like Morton Downey, Jr. (Remember him? Good, if you don't), briefly, Jerry Springer, or any of the kiss-and-televangelists who've grabbed the spot-light, only to have scandal take it back, shine it on them, and see them scurry back, cockroach-like into the wood-work ...until they think people have forgotten. Alex Jones is merely the latest example and, showing that life reflects art, spends a goodly amount of time during his meltdowns huckstering "health" formulas and other shiny objects.
So, in celebration of the latest "Lonesome" Rhodes, let's take a look back at A Face in the Crowd...even though the story is still being played out ad nauseum by Jones and his inevitable future issue in an endless cycle of hucksterism and snake-oil.
It's the dark side of a Frank Capra "every-man" movie.  Capra always flirted with fascism in those films, but Budd Schulberg's screenplay tackles it head-on: Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) discovers an Arkansas drunk, Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith, never more brilliant than he is here) in a small-town jail, and coerces him to sing on a local radio station. He develops a following, and soon wins a sponsored television gig in Memphis, then moves up to New York. His folksy homilies and willingness to make fun of his sponsors endears him to the public at large, and soon his influence begins to spread, attracting political machines who want to attach their candidates to "a man of the people." In a time before "red states" and "blue states" divided rural and urban political boundaries, it was still a goal to reach the "real" America in the heartland. While Rhodes gains his following, he also starts to spend his capital in his sequestered private life: he begins an affair with Jeffries, then throws her under the tour bus for a cheerleader. At this point, Rhodes thinks he's Teflon, and nothing can besmirch his reputation. 
But, he who lives by the sword, dies by it. A microphone deliberately unmuted shows his true colors to a public fed only the rouged mask, and "Lonesome" Rhodes begins the quicker descent down the hill of notoriety. No homily can save him. No tears. No hysterics. No more. Hopefully, he has some gold stashed away.
It's a cautionary tale...for everybody. Edward R. Murrow not only suggested television could be "merely wires and lights in a box," but that it could also be a weapon. And in a world where to exploit can lead to success, it's primed and cocked. It's just an instrument, at the beck and call of those who would use it to reach into our homes and our hearts. The message of A Face in the Crowd, although a might heavy-handed in presentation at times, still applies today, just as it did in the past, and just as surely as it will in the future. 


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Taxi Driver

The Story:  This is one of my favorite shots in all of film, and it's so, so simple. But, it shows just how instinctive a film-maker Martin Scorsese is. It's from Taxi Driver, his nihilistic study in loneliness, pathology, and violence (written by Paul Schrader, who formed a troika of mutual muses with the actor and director). It's one shot, one take, one camera move. But, it says a lot.

I remember seeing this at a preview house (with my brother) and this moment connecting with me. Hack driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is talking to a girl on the phone, whom he only knows as Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), and there first date did not go well. How could it? He took her to a porno film. For Betsy, Travis was an enigma that she wanted to understand. But, now that she knows he's a creep, she'd rather not have anything to do with him. Good choice.

But, Travis is smitten. Here, he calls her to try to apologize and attempt a "do-over" but she's having none of it, and, for Travis, the call ends without success.

One shot, one take, one camera move. We start out on the pay-phone (remember those?), with Travis hunkered over to give himself some semblance of privacy. But, once another date has been rejected, the camera moves laterally away, smoothly settling on an empty hallway—the hallway that Travis will be travelling in a few moments to exit. I've read a couple analyses that say that the hallway "represents" the void that is Travis' life or soul or whatever. Yeah, maybe that'll work if you're "reaching" in a term-paper. Sometimes, it is what is is.

But, the reality is—Travis is getting rejected. Once Betsy says "no" to coffee, the call is over except for the useless, obligatory attempts at prolongation and a hasty, frustrated exit. And it is at that point that Scorsese's camera moves, reflecting Travis' thoughts—he wants to get out of there—"this isn't going well and I want to be somewhere else (ANYWHERE else)." At that point a clean getaway is on his mind, and so the camera moves, quite generously, to show the way. One more way that Scorsese's camera work gets inside the mind of Travis (not a very good place to be), revealing his thoughts, emotions and reactions—without the need of the first-person voice-over narration Schrader provided throughout the film.

One shot, one take, one move. But, intuitive, insightful, and elegantly simple. And it speaks volumes. Scorsese at his directorial best. 

The Set-Up:  Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is sick and tired. He drives an all-night taxi, gliding through the darkened mean streets of New York, circa mid 1970's, among the night-hawks. "A loner, he kinda keeps to himself," he has attempted a relationship with blonde goddess campaign worker Betsy and failed. But, hope springs eternal. Until it is smashed, bashed, bludgeoned, left for dead, cremated, doused, and the ashes stirred.  

Action. 



BICKLE: Hello, Betsy. Hi, it's Travis. How you doin'? Listen, I'm—I'm sorry about the other—the other night. I didn't know that was the way you felt about it. Well, I—I didn't know that was the way you felt. I—I—I would've taken you somewhere else. Uh. Are you feeling better or--
BICKLE: Well, maybe you had a virus or something, a 24 hour virus, you know. It can happen. Yeah. Uh. You, uh—You been working hard, huh? Well, it's—yeah...Can-uh. Would you like to have—uh—some dinner—uh—with me—um—in the next, you know, few days or sumpthin'?
BICKLE: Well, how about jus' a cup of coffee? I could come by the—the headquarters or something. We could--Oh, okay, okay, okay....Oh, okay. 
BICKLE: Did you get my flowers in the-- You didn't get them?
BICKLE: I sent—uh—some flowers—uh...
BICKLE: ..uh..well, okay, okay. Can I call you again—uh—tomorrow or the next day?
BICKLE: Okay. Uh, no, I'm gonna-- Yeah, sure, okay. So long.
(Hangs up)
VOICE-OVER: I tried several times to call her, but after the first call, she wouldn't come to the phone any longer. I also sent flowers, but with no luck.


Taxi Driver

Words by Paul Schrader (and Robert De Niro)

Pictures by Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese

Taxi Driver is available on DVD from Sony Home Video






Friday, March 23, 2018

The Great Moment

 The Great Moment (Preston Sturges, 1943) I'm sure there were many dust-ups in the relationship between movie-maker Preston Sturges and the studio financing his films, Paramount Pictures, but this is the one that soured the deal. Not really a comedy (but not a straight historical film, either) The Great Moment tells the story of Dr. W.T.G. Morton (Joel McCrea) the dentist who is credited (amongst a great many dis-creditors) of perfecting painless surgery, or what we now refer to as the practice of anesthesiology, at the time an accomplishment as fanciful as breaking the sound barrier, much less powered flight.

It provided another exercise for Sturges to explore non-linear story-telling, and, indeed, Sturges jumps all over the place in the story, starting first* with Morton in triumph over the Main Titles, then moving to the end of the story with the doctor dead, unheralded and even vilified, and his widow recalling the struggles that the dentist went through, after the discovery and the challenges to his claims, including an ill-advised patent pursuit (done at the urging of President Franklin Pierce who passed the matter onto Morton to create a federal test-case). Only after an explanation of the down-fall, does Sturges then tell the tale of the days before the discovery, with the dentist's work and struggles, the comedic failures and the life-threatening ones, ending with the acknowledgement of the scientific community of his discovery and methods. "Here, everything changes" are the last words of the movie.
They might just as well have been "No good deed goes unpunished."

Seeking a patent for the method, Morton is forced to reveal his secret in order to save a life and it is then appropriated by the military during the Civil War. With the cat out of the medicine bag, Morton pursues the unresolved patent question, and is castigated in the Press for his selfishness and anti-humanitarianism. It would hardly be an inspiring story in chronological order, and would influence anybody to walk out of a theater muttering "Guess I'd better stop messing around with that cold fusion idea."

For Sturges, it was a challenge to make a popular entertainment out of what is a downer story in a straight chronological timeline and, instead, taking the audience to a more satisfying conclusion, going from tragedy to triumph (even if he has to bend time to do it). But, its flashback structure irked the Paramount brass, and they withheld the film for two years (during which Sturges would make The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero to much acclaim), finally releasing it after Sturges' contract had run out and he'd moved on to potentially sunnier pastures. In those two years, the film had been re-edited, re-titled, and comedic elements added—I detect a clumsily inserted women's scream (and the same one) inserted three times in the film for use in both horrific and comedy situations.
How much of what we now know as The Great Moment is actually part of Sturges' plan and how much is studio interference is readily apparent from a reading of Sturges' original screenplay.** It was Sturges' intention to tell the story in an intricate flashback structure, while, simultaneously making Morton's work relatable to modern audiences.  It still resonates to this day, with the privatization of medical breakthroughs through the study of cell and DNA research; should an entity, corporate or individual, profit from work that could benefit mankind, or even save a life?
In the meantime, there is this film, slightly disjointed by design or by malice,*** the last of Sturges' Paramount films to be released, and the only film Sturges made for the studio that did not make a profit (although it was brought in ahead of schedule and below its budget). Its reputation, like the Morton patent lawsuit, would hang over its extraordinary creator for the rest of his career, which never achieved the same heights as it once had. 

No good deed goes unpunished.


Dr. Morton and Preston Sturges



* Well, not so much.  You can't trust anything in the Paramount botched version of Sturges' film, which he intended to call "Triumph Over Pain."  Sturges' screenplay starts in modern times as a young boy is about to go into surgery.



** The screenplay has been published and can be found here. 

*** Paramount can be counted on to completely botch a film from time to time.  I remember going to the Seattle International Film Festival, specifically, to see Sergio Leone's long-in-the-preparation gangster film Once Upon a Time in America and was horrified to find a disjointed, flawed film that seemed to go on forever.  What was presented there was a re-edited Paramount Pictures version, cut in chronological order, completely destroying Leone's intentions to present it in a complicated flashback structure—that managed to give away a central mystery, and robbed the film, which would prove to be Leone's last, of almost all of its resonance and power.  Years later, I went to see it at a repertory theater—mostly because the show-times indicated a longer cut—and was amazed to see a version that retained the flashback structure, and, although it was an hour longer than the SIFF presentation, seemed to be a much shorter film experience. OUATIA is still a flawed film, but Leone's amazing work as a film-maker was never more apparent.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Play It Again, Sam

Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) Woody Allen was well into his directing career in 1972, but when Paramount Pictures brought his play, "Play it Again, Sam" to the movies, he was relegated to adapting the script and starring in it (despite the fact that his agents Charles H. Joffee and Jack Rollins—who would be the long time producers on his films—were also part of the production team). The directing duties were given to Herbert Ross, who'd done the musical numbers for Funny Girl, and had directed the musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (for MGM), The Owl and the Pussycat (again with Streisand for Columbia) and a drama T.R. Baskin (for Paramount), possibly because one of the producers was Arthur P. Jacobs—who'd produced the musical of Mr. Chips. It might have been that Allen's films up to that point—Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and a couple of short satire films for PBS—had a rough, low-budget feel to them and Ross could give them the necessary big-screen gloss. 

Allen explained that his impetus was three-fold: he had no interest in directing one of his plays for the screen (a rule he forgot when he directed 1994's TV movie of Don't Drink the Water); he was tied up with trying to get his farce of the best-seller Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex*; and he thought that if someone could make something charming of the film, it could only help build an audience for his own films.
Good choices, those; He was right on all counts. Play it Again, Sam reached a wider audience than Allen's previous movies and set up an audience attracted to his comedy (and his nebbish persona) for his subsequent films. He also must have gotten some pointers from observing Ross on this film as his following films exhibited a better directorial panache, while still keeping the autonomy he enjoyed as a talented independent film-maker outside the studio system.
In the film, Woody plays Allan Felix, the recently-divorced editor of of a fringe film magazine ("Film Weekly") and "one of the life's great watchers" (as his ex describes him). She's left him because he's no fun, risk-averse ("I'm red-haired and fair-skinned—I don't tan, I STROKE!"), and just watches movies, while she wants to have a happy, active life. He worries that will give him a heart attack. When we first see him, he's watching Casablanca, (probably for the umpteenth time), rapt. He's much more comfortable in a movie theater, where he can passively absorb and not act, or engage, or "be" in the world (the movie is set in San Francisco, rather than New York). He's a bit adrift, but that might be less a result of his divorce, than a symptom of his own, which probably contributed to it.
He begins to ruminate over his situation, going over his split in his mind, and having imaginary conversations with Humphrey Bogart (Jerry Lacy) whom he idolizes and wants to emulate. But, Bogart's advice isn't very realistic: "Dames are simple, kid," Bogart's spirit tells him early on. "I never met one who hasn't understood a slap in the mouth or a slug from a 45." Bogart is much more comfortable in his own skin (if he had skin), and he basically advises Allan to "man up" (or the 1972 equivalent as  filtered through the '40's). And as far as being dumped is concerned? "Nothing a little bourbon and soda can't fix."
Alcohol, however, makes Allan nauseous. He pours his heart out to his best friends, Dick Christie (Tony Roberts), a preoccupied stock-broker and his model-wife Linda (Diane Keaton). Dick tells Allan his divorce is an opportunity to be free, "to sow wild oats", to go and meet women, but when they set Allan up with some of their friends, he is beset with insecurities and a false brio that make every date a disaster—even their friend, a nymphomaniac, rejects him. Barely able to sustain anything more than half-a-date, Allan starts to become a third wheel in the life of Dick and Linda.
Allan: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
Museum Girl: Yes, it is.
Allan: What does it say to you?
Museum Girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness
of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren,
Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste,
horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?
Museum Girl: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night?
Allan wants a relationship ("Where'd you learn THAT word, a shrink?" scoffs Bogart) like they have, but even that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. With every change of venue, Dick has to check in with "the office" to make sure they know where he can be reached (this is in 1972—the pre-history of cell-phones) and his frequent absences make the neurotic Linda feel abandoned and needy and she ends up spending more time commiserating with the equally needy Allan. With so much in common, pretty soon, their friendship turns to affection and Allan starts envisioning having an affair with her, but struggles with his conscience about cheating with his best-friend's wife.
Egged on by Bogart, Allan pursues Linda, even as he has visions of the result such an indiscretion will have—Dick dramatically walks into the sea in one, and in another he's a vengeful Italian (eh?) seeking to filet Allan for making him a cuckold. But, the Bogartian prodding, like a gat in the lower spine, has him pursuing the low hanging fruit with self-esteem issues that bothers to give him the time of day...if only she'd give him a night.
What's interesting about Play it Again, Sam is what it gets wrong. In the same way, that the lead male of (500) Days of Summer achieves his idea of romance from "a mis-reading of The Graduate," Allan's Bogart-familiar is a mis-reading of the Bogart persona, emphasizing all the things that Allan lacks with not much else. Lacy's Bogart is ostensibly in the guise of the early 1940's Bogart in the era of his Sam Spade-Richard Blaine-Philip Marlowe personas. But, as hard-bitten as Bogart's character would appear in their respective films, there was always a sensibility of decency deeply rooted in the character, less interested in scoring with the ladies than in doing the right thing and living to a code of ethics that this Bogart would probably mock. It's an over-simplification to say that Allan's Bogart manifestation is Bogart—or any amalgam of his screen persona's (unless you throw in a couple of his gangster parts), so much as a projection of what Allan thinks he lacks. He ultimately has to abandon Bogart's advice and look to himself to do the noble thing, for which he's awarded with a boost in his self-esteem, a chance to re-enact one of his favorite movie scenes, and a salute of sorts from his errant bad angel.
Looking at the film today with 21st Century sensibilities, there are some cringe-inducing lines and a general sensibility—insensitivity, more accurately—that the world of women is a bit like a buffet for an indiscriminate diner...at least from a man's perspective (which is the only perspective this film has). "Playboy" for nerds. It's funny, sure. Funny and churlish. And one imagines the real Bogart, head bowed, sadly contemplating the glowing end of his cigarette, over being misused and misrepresented in the name of a misogyny he'd probably have curled his lip at. Woody Allen's Bogart is not the one I remember—tearing his guts out while confessing "I won't because all of me wants to..."**
It makes me recall that when I watched Play it Again, Sam all those years ago, my loyalties shifted subtly and radically away from Allan Felix to Linda Christie and her predicament (in much the same way that Allan Felix's character must also shift to...finally...do what's right by her). A lot of that has to do with Keaton's winsome playing of the character. But, a lot of it has to do with the realization that heroes...even projected ones...have to be heroic, if they have to win our trust and admiration. And you don't do that by looking around for heroes, but by looking for it within.

Here's looking at yourself, kid.



* but were afraid to ask. 

**