***/**** Image A- Sound B
starring Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Luis Guzman
written and directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the novel by Edwin Torres
I'LL DO ANYTHING
***/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Nick Nolte, Albert Brooks, Julie Kavner, Joely Richardson
written and directed by James L. Brooks
by Bill Chambers When news of Nick Nolte's arrest for driving under the influence of the date-rape drug hit the Toronto International Film Festival last year, just days after he'd made a strong showing there with Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, I immediately flashed back to the time I met Nolte--"met," alas, a figure of speech in this case: We crossed paths in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel. His beanstalk frame sheathed in an emasculating banana-yellow housecoat, Nolte wore a pair of bookish specs that offset his craggy mug, and his snow-coloured hair stood unnaturally on end, as though he'd just seen a ghost. On his way to record interviews for Breakfast of Champions (and looking a lot more like that film's Kilgore Trout than like the erstwhile Tom Wingo), Nolte growled this to a gawping me in passing:
Nolte is singularly menacing in Q&A, a ramshackle police drama that resides in the upper-tier of Lumet's oeuvre. It takes chutzpah--and a self-congratulatory streak--to have a character declare after Nolte's first big scene, "In the words of Jimmy Durante, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet'" (Lumet wrote the picture in addition to directing it), but the prophecy is nothing less than self-fulfilling. Nolte plays Mike Brennan, an NYPD detective who inflicts a sense of street justice upon the denizens of pre-Giuliani Manhattan. In our introduction to him, Brennan executes a man outside a Hispanic nightclub, then hauls out its patrons one-by-one, threatening them to take notice of the gun Brennan has planted near his victim. He owns the room (and ours) as he tells his side of the story later that evening to Assistant D.A. Reilly (Timothy Hutton), a wet-behind-the-ears cop's son with no particular axe to grind until the routine inquiry into the incident is soiled by the damning testimony of Miami druglord Bobby Texador (Armand Assante, doing a second-rate Scarface in a way that seems intentional).
So sprawling it's messy, so bargain-counter in its production values that it suggests an underdog in and of itself, Q&A reaffirms the idiosyncrasies that define Lumet's auteurism. For one, a personal style is not reflected in his shot choices, which are utilititarian at best, but rather in his casting: The bit players in Lumet's movies always look authentic, like he found them in a bar--men with storied faces in perpetually-rumpled shirts and ties. Verisimilitude is how he coasts on a low budget, and it helps that he has the cachet, as the director of a few fondly-remembered Seventies flicks, to score such top-drawer talent as Nolte for the show-pony parts. Lumet is also a gifted commentator on racism and homophobia in the workplace, mostly because he's not shy about shining a flashlight at it. Which is not to say that all films should be as baldly insensitive as Q&A (epithets targeted at minorities are practically every third word spoken by the cast), but Lumet's candour, as well as his irreverence for the happy ending, are in too-short supply these days.
Nolte as Brennan, in some respects, transfigures a derelict film into a harrowing and documentary-like one, or at least cements its reputation as such. You start to pity Nolte's co-stars, for they're not given the same wide berth to nosh the scenery, and many are otherwise out of his league. Hutton, stiff here but innately likable, is eaten alive in Reilly's Big Moment with Brennan, even though Nolte appears to have toned it down a notch for Hutton. "I wish you were dead," Brennan tells Reilly; that he says this inconvenienced and a little sad, as though he's had to take out a second mortgage, is one of countless interesting choices Nolte makes along the way in a performance whose subtleties are sure to be overlooked on initial viewing.
Although writer-producer-director James L. Brooks fully intended to revive the musical with I'll Do Anything, a melancholy satire set partially in the world of preview screenings and tracking services, the Prince-penned song numbers were removed, ironically, after testing poorly, and the amputations were cauterized through rewrites (purportedly by Elaine May) and reshoots. I know this much is true: If the releasing studio, TriStar, hoped to sidestep a flop (recall that in the year of I'll Do Anything, 1994, musicals were still the butt of jokes thanks to the half-life of the quickly-cancelled television series "Cop Rock"), they sure as shit failed. With Hollywood politics being limited-appeal subject matter at best, I'll Do Anything topped out at $10M in box-office receipts.
Overlooked, then, I'll Do Anything is a delight in that shaggy-dog Jim Brooks way. Like Broadcast News before it and As Good As It Gets after, you get the feeling that Brooks is reaching for something that exceeds his grasp by the narrowest margin--yet because I'll Do Anything is emotionally intelligent, you forgive the film its nagging elusiveness. Nolte stars as struggling Hollywood actor Matt Hobbs, who violates a very specific taboo in putting his career ahead of his children. But when ex-wife Beth (Tracey Ullman) is sentenced to three years in prison, Matt becomes the sole caretaker of his preteen daughter, Jeannie (Whittini Wright), thus forcing him to juggle Jeannie's high-maintenance demands with not only a new day job as a driver for a neurotic producer (Albert Brooks), but also a budding relationship with one of the producer's D-girls (development executives), played by Joely Richardson. Nolte generates a lofty amount of sympathy, despite his backwards priorities, as Life repeatedly two-faces Matt's Dreams.
The Daddy's Little Girl heart-to-hearts in I'll Do Anything are bracingly unsentimental--Wright's wicked transformation from sad princess to raging harpy, never to turn back, is a shock to the system after so much suburban-sitcom pap. In Matt's patience for her creepy antics, we glean an extension of his professionalism: He yearns to understand this obnoxious creature of whim and master the role of her father. And for once, the movies-within-the-movie are competently, earnestly portrayed, because Nolte knows no alternative. He embraces the Capra-esque qualities of Matt, too salt of the earth, really, to pitch at the level of Brooks's cynicism, embodied here in a subplot involving a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town remake. Nolte compensates for the lack of rich complications that usually identify Brooks's protagonists by romanticizing his own craft, in other words. If, in so doing, he's being insincere about it, then it's a hell of a put-on.
Fox presents Q&A on DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with a DD 2.0 stereo soundtrack--disappointing, since the film was mixed for four-track Dolby. The image is clear as glass, unquestionably superior to that of all previous video versions; please address complaints of deficiencies to Andrzej Bartkowiak's low-key cinematography. The sound is unmemorable but adequate, and while there are no advertised or linked extras, if you let the film run through past the closing credits, a trailer for Q&A starts up. (Ergo, players will misreport the movie's running time.)
Columbia TriStar's DVD release of I'll Do Anything, too, boasts of nice 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and unmatted transfers on the same side of a dual-layer platter, with the accompanying Dolby 2.0 Surround track sounding at times like a 5.1 mix, particularly in scenes containing crowds and highway traffic. The disc represents a giant missed opportunity in its failure to include the deleted musical numbers in any supplementary capacity. (Don't hold your breath for a Special Edition, either--the film is simply too unpopular to warrant the effort, current musical resurgence or not.) Trailers for The Prince of Tides and As Good As It Gets round out the DVD. February 1, 2003.