Monday, January 16, 2012

If This Wasn't Streaming On Netflix, Would Anyone Remember It Existed? Vol 4: THE MEN'S CLUB (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by Peter Medak.  Written by Leonard Michaels.  Cast: David Dukes, Richard Jordan, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella, Roy Scheider, Craig Wasson, Treat Williams, Stockard Channing, Cindy Pickett,  Ann Dusenberry, Marilyn Jones, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ann Wedgeworth, Helen Shaver. (R, 101 mins)

It has to be difficult to take an ensemble cast of seven good-to-great actors under the direction of the guy who made THE RULING CLASS (1972) and THE CHANGELING (1980) and have it turn into a total grease fire, but that's exactly what happened with the atrocious 1986 bomb THE MEN'S CLUB.  Leonard Michaels wrote the screenplay, and it's based on his own novel, so you can't say the filmmakers disregarded the source.  I haven't read the book, but judging from what plays out over the course of the film, it's clearly a case of "what worked on the page doesn't translate to the screen."  There's lots of long-winded, meandering speeches that probably read fine, even in the script, but just come off as mannered and "acting class"-y in the film.  It starts off bad and gets worse, and at some points you can almost see the looks of resigned defeat on the faces of the cast.  Looks that say, "Look, we're here, we're in this, let's just get it done and move on."  And when actors as good as the guys here are put in situations like this, it often brings out the worst in them.  That's exactly what happens throughout THE MEN'S CLUB.

Therapist Kramer (Richard Jordan) is hosting a guys' discussion group, ostensibly to talk "man to man" about women, careers, etc. but it quickly devolves into an excuse for puerile, adolescent shenanigans, which is the whole point of Michaels' novel.  But on the screen, none of this behavior comes off as plausible at all.  It starts with Kramer himself.  As played by Jordan, he's eccentric at best, and deranged at worst.  I don't know if Jordan came up with these tics on his own or if Michaels or director Peter Medak told him to act this way, but the guy's a completely creepy weirdo.  The rest of the guys range from shallow to mostly repugnant:  there's sex-addict ex-baseball star Cavanaugh (Roy Scheider), college prof Phillip (David Dukes), milquetoast lawyer Harold (Frank Langella), stressed-out businessman Solly (Harvey Keitel), doctor Terry (Treat Williams), and auto parts store manager Paul (Craig Wasson).  Williams and particularly Wasson seem to be relegated to the background early on and neither actor embarrasses himself.  Nor does Dukes, who gives the best performance of the bunch.  But man, are Scheider, Keitel, Langella, and Jordan awful!  It's not entirely their fault.  These characters and these scenarios are unplayable for any actor.  The characters are loathsome to begin with, which is fine.  I don't subscribe to the belief that characters have to be likable.  But in films like this, they have to be plausible.  They're not playing "real" people.  When they take a break in the conversation to destroy the inside of Kramer's house, you have to wonder what planet any of them are living on.  And that's before they gather in a circle and howl like dogs.  That particular scene is actually embarrassing to watch, but it at least leads to a really good, show-stealing, one-scene performance by Stockard Channing as Kramer's wife, who walks in on the wreckage and lets Kramer have it.  Channing is terrific in her five minutes of screen time, which seems to come from another, much better film.  But after that brief high point, things immediately get even worse than before.

While Kramer stays behind, Harold takes the others to the House of Affections, a high-class brothel run by a madame (Ann Wedgeworth) with a creepy ventriloquist doll, which leads to a bunch of bad smooth jazz and horrible acting.  The guys get turns with ladies of their choosing, and Solly immediately falls for Allison (Marilyn Jones), which leads to a mock "wedding" officiated by Harold, who's decked out in what can best be described as Joker makeup.  Don't ask.

In Marshall Fine's 1998 biography Harvey Keitel: The Art of Darkness, the late Dukes, who died in 2000, is interviewed and explains that the actors got together for two weeks prior to the start of filming and talked, improvised, worked out scenes, and generally got a feel for one another and how they would work that into the film.  Dukes goes on to say that shortly into filming, it became apparent that what they were doing wasn't working.  I'm sure there's more to the story (Fine also writes about how Keitel and Langella disliked one another, and how the shot where Langella cuts eyes and a mouth into a paper plate and puts it over his face, was improvised by a frustrated Langella as a response to Keitel needing endless takes for a monologue about how all he wants is a woman to stick her tongue in his mouth), and it's entirely possible that the bad acting by such reliable pros was just a defense mechanism or maybe just a valiant effort to salvage something.  Whatever the reason, Scheider, Langella, and Keitel have rarely been worse, and I suppose it worked for Jordan that his character exits halfway through the film.

Other films have explored men's issues and male bonding and the whole "boys being boys" thing with the unabashed raunchiness on display here and have worked (the films of Neil LaBute come to mind, though they're markedly more misanthropic).  But THE MEN'S CLUB just doesn't, and it's almost tragic because of the talent involved.  How do you get these guys together and have it derail so badly?  It's been said that no one sets out to make a bad movie, but sometimes they just turn out that way.  I believe everyone approached THE MEN'S CLUB with noble intentions, but it just got away.  From everyone.  Maybe Williams and Wasson stayed in the background by choice.  During the wedding scene, I swear you can see Williams trying to get out of some shots.

THE MEN'S CLUB was given a small release in the fall of 1986, and to the surprise of no one, tanked at the box office.  It was in regular rotation on cable for a while, which is where I saw it as a teenager, and probably gave it a pass because there were a lot of naked women in the second half.   It's not on DVD, has just one external review and seven user reviews on IMDb, but it's streaming on Netflix (in a 1.78 widescreen print) if you're so inclined.  If anyone is even aware of this film today, it's because of a YouTube clip that made the rounds a while back, which is hilarious when taken out of context.  Plus, in retrospect, it provides a look at things to come for future nudity enthusiast Keitel.

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