Sunday, May 13, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.6: Ridley Scott's Someone to Watch Over Me

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 38 (C)

“Well that wasn’t very good”. That was more or less my reaction to Ridley Scott’s fifth film, Someone to Watch Over Me. Scott’s career has always been a series of ups and downs, and his first six films best typify more or less how he works. He starts with career highlights The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner, but that gives way to disappointments like Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me, and Black Rain. He’d repeat this later on: he had a big comeback with Thelma and Louise before stumbling big with 1492. The early 2000s saw him at his commercial peak with populist favorite Gladiator, the viscerally punishing Black Hawk Down, and the smart con film Matchstick Men before the late-2000s saw him at his least inspired with A Good Year and Robin Hood. With Ridley Scott, it’s not a matter of finding which run of films to watch and which to avoid like it is with Woody Allen. It’s a matter of never knowing whether you’re going to get gold or crap. Someone to Watch Over Me is pretty much the latter.

Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a tough New York cop happily married to the brassy Ellie (Lorraine Bracco). Keegan has just been made a detective, and his first assignment is to watch and protect Claire (Mimi Rogers), a New York socialite who witnessed the murder of her art collector friend (Mark Moses) by sociopathic former partner Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas). Keegan loves his wife, but when he falls head over heels for Claire, things get complicated. Venza, meanwhile, tries everything he can to avoid taking the rap, from menacing Claire to threatening Keegan’s family.

That’s more or less the gist of the film’s laughably weak plot. There’s so little to power this film in terms of story that it grows tiresome by the end of the first act. The story is wholly predictable: cop is loose and scruffy. Socialite is prim and proper. They have nothing in common, but they fall in love. Cop’s wife finds out and threatens to leave him. Cop’s superior (an admittedly funny Jerry Orbach) blows a gasket over their actions. Cop’s kid is adorable, wife is tough. Cop’s barely introduced friend gets shot. Murderous psychopath does stupid things that required by the script to get him killed. Murderous psychopath takes cop’s family hostage for an unbelievable climax. Cop reunites with family. Movie ends. It’s perfectly alright to play with formula in the movies, but there’s no new spin or fresh character here. It’s just the same formula all over again.

Howard Franklin’s script is so thin it’s practically translucent. None of the character relationships breathe or feel like anything more than time-filler before a set-piece comes along. Hell, the characters themselves don’t feel like people, but rather very weak types. Tom Berenger is a likable enough actor, but there’s really no way to describe his character other than “cop”, “New Yorker”, and “Tom Berenger”. His clashes with high society are feeble (Major League does a better job with the “Tom Berenger is an Average Joe clashing with snobs” bit). Mimi Rogers doesn’t have much of a personality, so she fares even worse with her cardboard cutout; when you’re best known for introducing your then-husband Tom Cruise to Scientology, you’re probably not going to amount to much. Katsulas is menacing enough as the villain, but he played the same part in The Fugitive. Only Lorraine Bracco comes up with anything even vaguely interesting in her character. She’s playing a type (cop’s brassy wife), but damn it, she’s the only character in the film with anything resembling a pulse.

So paltry is this script that it doesn’t even manage to go the interesting predictable route for the film. A halfway decent film noir might make the socialite a vamping temptress and play with the allure money might have over a struggling cop. She’d be the femme fatale to a brassy but likable wife (Bracco), and by the end his return to her would be more passionate. Even if the film had to go the route it did, at least it might provide Berenger and Rogers with some fun screwball banter. The leads don’t have any chemistry, so it likely wouldn’t have worked, but if the film had any sense of fun or the love scenes any sense of passion the film might have not been a total wash. As it is, it’s mostly a bore.

This is Director Spotlight, though, so it’d probably be best to cover Scott’s contribution to the film. He directs it as best as he can. The romantic shots of New York brim with a swooning romanticism. Scott brings all of his favorite tricks of the trade: shafts of light on smoke and fog, dark shadows for the hellish underworld. Rogers’ mansion is so overwhelming in its extravagance that it’s easy to get lost in its beauty for just a little while. Scott uses the 80s nightclubs and New York architecture to his best advantage. His use of close-ups on faces shows that he’s not as inattentive to actors as some have charged- he’s directing them as if they had a real script in their hands. It all looks great- like a combination of the best romantic New York movies, a stylish 80s genre film, and the great noirs in the style of Welles, Huston, and Wilder. Whenever the script shuts up and gives Scott a change to direct an action sequence, it’s about as engaging as a film with characters you don’t care about can be (the hit on Mark Moses’ character is pretty terrific). He even brings his favorite theme- fear of mortality- to the forefront: the stakes are at their highest when Berenger is forced to protect Rogers or his family from certain death. It’s no use, though: the film is all dressed up in moody lighting and gorgeous style, but it has nowhere to go.

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