Friday, February 24, 2012

Overlooked Gems #23: The Big Easy

Grade: 83 (A-)
After twenty-five years worth of brilliant work, Gary Oldman was finally nominated for an Oscar for his great performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For the longest time, Oldman was routinely held up by many (myself included) as the greatest living actor without a single Oscar nomination. Now the unofficial, arbitrary, completely subjective title is open, and we need a new title holder. My nomination: Dennis Quaid. Quaid is one of those few actors who has never told a lie on screen in his entire life; he’s believable in every role. Too often he’s called upon to play the “Dad” role, but to give him credit, he excels at that role (see: In Good Company, The Parent Trap). I’ve often said that these days, Dennis Quaid looks like everyone’s dad. He may not look like your dad, specifically, but everyone wants to throw the ball around with Quaid. He even subverted that “Dad” image brilliantly in his role as a closeted gay patriarch/husband in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (a role that by all accounts was predicted for an Oscar nomination, only to be inexplicably shut out).
What’s easy to miss is that Quaid has always been brilliant, even before he was the proper age for “Dad” roles. The actor impressed in early supporting roles in Breaking Away and The Long Riders and nearly stole Philip Kaufman’s 1983 masterpiece The Right Stuff away from the rest of the impressive cast (Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Kim Stanley…). His comedic performance in Joe Dante’s 1987’s Innerspace is a delight, but the same year gave an even greater, overlooked performance in a well-regarded but overlooked film: Jim McBride’s The Big Easy. Quaid won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor for his performance, but how often does anyone pay attention to those? It’s time to shine some light on this forgotten classic.
Remy McSwain (Quaid) is a police lieutenant in New Orleans investigating a mob drug war. He doesn’t take the investigation very seriously- these are bad guys killing each other, and that’s that. Remy meets district attorney Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) and instantly takes a liking to her, despite the fact that Osborne is investigating police corruption that might implicate his friends, particularly his mentor Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty). Anne follows the law very rigidly, but Remy believes she needs to relax. “This is the ‘Big Easy’. Folks have a certain way o’ doin’ things down here”. The two begin a passionate relationship, but when Remy is set-up in an internal affairs sting operation, Anne is forced to prosecute. Remy and his police friends use dishonest methods to clear his name, but when Remy realizes the extent of the police corruption, he finds that he can no longer look the other way.
The Big Easy is directed by Jim McBride, most famous for the influential mockumentary David Holzman’s Diary. His career since then has been non-prolific and uneven- he’s also known for the polarizing (but fervently loved by some) 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless starring Richard Gere, the uneven but interesting Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! (also starring Quaid), and a series of poorly received TV movies (including a Meat Loaf biopic, To Hell and Back). McBride’s most well-liked films have a great sense of time and place (late ‘60s New York in Diary, for example), and as great as the film’s neo-noir plot and seriously sexy love scenes are, the film gets the most mileage for its focus on the details of late-80s New Orleans. Great food and Cajun music abound, and the film makes great use of real New Orleans locations and set-pieces (parades, Mardi Gras floats, restaurants, bayou country). The plot ultimately heads to a too-rushed conclusion in the final minutes, but the film’s style and liveliness wins out.
The film captures the laid-back New Orleans feel, helped by a cast of great character actors that feel right at home (Beatty, Grace Zabriskie, John Goodman) and a great contrast from Barkin as the no-nonsense attorney who’s definitely not from around there. Ultimately, though, it’s Quaid’s movie. The actor’s laid-back charm and million-dollar grin fit right in with the New Orleans location, and his Cajun accent is a wonderfully musical drawl that’s always a delight. Quaid’s character is intelligent, charming, confident, and (it must be said) oozes sex-appeal; it’s easy to see how Barkin’s character might ignore her scruples and qualms about dating such a questionable character. Much of the film’s humor is dependent on Quaid’s delivery (on his multiple alleged crimes: “don’t forget I ran a red light too”), and he nails it at every turn.  Quaid is too often ignored on lists of best actors of his generation. The Big Easy is evidence that at his best, he’s right up there with the best of them.

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