Man Trouble (1992) (part 1 of 4)
[Note from the author: The last three names in the cast list were just put in to fill things out; They really don’t have much of a point or purpose to the film. Come to think of it, the first two entries aren’t really involved much, either. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the few films in history where none of the characters are integral to the plot.]
For your consideration, I present a film that does not improve on the experience of watching an analog TV signal one second after the switch over to digital. Few things are more disappointing and frustrating than seeing a film with an alarmingly muddled premise, along with some truly offensive moments, as well as no sense of timing and no chemistry between any of the characters. This feeling is compounded when the film in question manages to attract a lot of talented actors, just like Man Trouble did.
The movie was directed by Bob Rafelson, one of many directors to come out of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s boom in American filmmaking. He first gained notice with the very good Five Easy Pieces starring his friend Jack Nicholson, and since then he’s had a rather uneven, disappointing career.
Rafelson and Nicholson have collaborated on a few other films, such as The King of Marvin Gardens, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blood and Wine, not to mention our current subject, a thoroughly misbegotten would-be romantic comedy that has very little of either romance or comedy.
This particular project was first planned in the ‘70s, and was supposed to star Jack and French actress Jeanne Moreau. After that, Diane Keaton was a contender to play the female lead. Pairings of Al Pacino/Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro/Jessica Lange were also considered before our chemistry-free couple of Jack Nicholson and then-flavor of the month Ellen Barkin was decided upon.
Jack did this movie pretty much as a favor to Rafelson and Carole Eastman (who wrote the screenplay). It was produced independently and picked up by 20th Century Fox, who promptly dumped it in the middle of July 1992, where it was thoroughly panned and forgotten… at least until now. The only publicity it really got was an outcry from feminists regarding promotional photos that had Ellen Barkin wearing a dog collar while Nicholson held the leash, which should give you a pretty good idea of what we’re in for.
Now, I’m sure you’re asking how a movie with a cast like this gets dumped with no real advertising. Well, in short, the film is a dull, dreary slog with unlikable characters. It displays a real mean streak towards both genders, and a sense of taste that would be privileged to be called bad.
And now for the long version.
Our film begins unpromisingly with animated credits featuring a dog that has Jack Nicholson’s trademark leer and a pair of sunglasses. I firmly believe that with the exception of the Pink Panther films (the ones that Peter Sellers was actually alive for, anyway), an animated title sequence is never a good sign.
The credits continue with shakily animated pencil drawings of the lower half of a woman’s body, and I have to wonder why they didn’t at least give the animator something for his shakes. The woman is menaced by a shadow representing a prowler, and then the Jack-dog reappears and bites a chunk out of the shadow’s leg, scaring him off.
The lady reappears and the dog begins humping her leg. The realization after the fact that this is foreshadowing makes it even worse. The dog reappears, dragging the lower half of a man to the woman (by the pants leg, I mean—the guy is still standing upright) and tying them together with his leash. So, either he’s bringing a couple together, or Dick Dastardly’s old partner Muttley has gotten a makeover and gone into business for himself.
The credits finish with the dog just about to relieve himself on the producers’ credits, but then he does the canine equivalent of “Oh hi, didn’t see you there!” The dog runs off, only to return to scratch himself next to the director credit and drag it off screen. Hmm, I think the animator may have been expressing an opinion of the movie. Just a hunch.
Sadly, this will prove to be the best part of the movie, save for the part where it ends and you spend some quality time with the disc, the packaging, and a real big hammer. Take it from me; it’s a nice little catharsis. Just remember to wear some sort of eye protection. Safety first, I always say.
Why, yes, I am stalling.
The movie begins with a rehearsal session for an opera, specifically a number being performed by Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin). It’s broken up by the conductor, Lewis Duart (David Clennon), who gives Joan a dressing down for something or other.
Lewis is Joan’s ex-husband who is, like most exes in this type of movie, an unpleasant, arrogant, abusive jerk to the point where you wonder how exactly he managed to score with anybody, much less the female lead.
Joan complains to her friend Helen Dextra (played by Veronica Cartwright) that he’s just picking on her because they broke up. During this, Michael McKean rushes in to smile admiringly at Joan. The rehearsal continues.
Cut to a marriage counseling session where Adele (Lauren Tom, better known as the voice of Amy on Futurama) complains about her husband Harry (Jack himself, wearing a pretty ugly green jacket). It’s the usual “my needs aren’t being met” stuff, but here it seems pretty believable, because Harry is possibly the most unlikable guy Nicholson has ever played who hasn’t either tried to gas a city, had a marine cadet killed, or gone after his family with an axe.
Not to say Nicholson can’t make an asshole likable, but at least in As Good As It Gets, there was a good reason for him being that way. Here, he’s not playing an obsessive compulsive author embarrassed by his condition to the point where he intentionally alienates everyone around him. He’s just a sleazy jackass.
Harry complains that Adele never believes a word he says (cue Adele’s predictable reaction of disbelief), and the scene eventually becomes a rather unique blend of pointlessness and tastelessness when we find Harry’s pet name for Adele is “Iwo Jima”. Very classy. The (apparently sedated) marriage counselor says they’re doing good work, and the scene ends.
Cut to Joan leaving the rehearsal and going through your basic sinister underground parking garage, complete with generic suspense music. She’s startled (in theory at least, even though everyone in this movie has roughly the same energy level as Anij) by the barking of a German Shepherd in a van. She notices a flyer for a guard dog service and drives off. When she arrives at home, she finds it’s been thoroughly trashed, and there’s a musical sting right out of a 1940’s Boris Karloff film.
Cut back to the parking garage. Harry is placing flyers for his guard dog service on windshields, griping the whole time to Adele about the counseling session they just left. Adele calls him “daddy” at one point, which is just odd, and then they get in a van which bears the name of the company and drive off. The name of the company, in case you care, is “House of Bliss”. Now if that doesn’t say “guard dog service”, I don’t know what does. It’s an excellent name that sounds nothing like a cheap Vegas strip club.
The next day, Joan talks to the police. Well, if you can call the awkward reading of lines “talking”. Joan dismisses the possibility that Lewis could have been responsible, saying that he’s an artist. Actually, a better reason would be that unless he’s the Flash, there’s no way he could have gotten here before her and trashed the house this thoroughly before she got home. But Joan doesn’t think of that, because that would require some level of intelligence from this character.
They’re interrupted by Joan’s sister Andy, played by Beverly D’Angelo, and then the film suddenly decides it wants to be a screwball comedy. Andy is clad in a purple outfit that the department store probably had to give away because it was blinding all the customers. Andy is oblivious to Joan’s distress, talking instead about a book she wrote about some guy she’s been sleeping with. Joan rushes outside to talk with a detective, who suggests bars on the windows. He gives her his card and leaves, and then Joan heads back inside the house, where Andy is boring Joan’s friend Helen to death.
After a remarkably incoherent exchange, Joan gets Andy to let her stay at her place. Evidently, Andy is going to New York for a bit of rest at a stress clinic, though the blocking of the scene makes it completely impossible to focus on the dialogue.
The film doesn’t really make anything clear at this point, but we do learn that Andy has sent Joan a copy of her manuscript, which will come into play later. Not in a way you’ll give a crap about, but it does come into play nonetheless. The scene ends with a lame gag involving Joan plopping down in a chair, producing a cloud of feathers. And with that, we rush on to the next scene.