“After Hours”

 

Every time Martin Scorsese blows my mind anew, I feel inclined to write about it. So it would be remiss of me not to mention when he disappoints. “After Hours,” a 1985 comedy, did just that. It’s possible I started it at the wrong time, during a groggy morning or a fading eve when I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I can’t quite remember what mood I was in when I watched it. But regardless, it disappointed me. And I’m not that person who falls in love with an artist, and then sits around waiting for him or her to do something wrong so that I can thumb my nose. When I find an artist I love, I defend that someone fiercely, although without delusion. I was fully prepared to love “After Hours,” but for once, Scorsese let me down.

The first disappointment is the actors. Scorsese always has worked with marquee actors, whether De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Keitel, or DiCaprio. As such, I am perplexed by his choice of Griffin Dunne in the title role. At first sight, the film’s premise supports his decision to select an actor of little to no glamorous power. The plot concerns an ordinary man whom fate keeps feeding curveballs throughout a random night in New York. There isn’t much characterization; instead, the caprices of fate pounce on him, spinning the tale in unforeseen directions. Theoretically, a bland actor could execute such a role, because it requires so little in the way of magnetism as a leading man. A cipher would suffice. But that doesn’t mean that the film wouldn’t benefit from an actor of more esteem. Griffin Dunne is sort of a lame duck – even as an ordinary fellow, he can’t be extraordinary. Any of a dozen A-list 80’s actors could have played this role far better than he did.

I hesitate to blame this on Griffin Dunne, however. Despite the film’s madcap premise, it is rigid. It bounces from place to place as increasingly crazy things transpire. But within each vignette, there is none of that energy that, on the storyboard, keeps he plot moving. Scorsese hasn’t brought the proper attitude to the film, I fear. He controls it too tightly: concerned with maintaining the trappings of the type of film he wants to make, he doesn’t actually make the film with the same silliness that he wants it to possess. The actors, therefore, are acting out muted dreams, which don’t contain the panache of surreality that the film should have.

Near the beginning of the film, Scosese goes on a brief tangent with the camera, chasing a wandering twenty-dollar bill as it exits a cab window in melancholy swoops. Set to striking music, the interlude is ostensibly a grand departure, and a flight from the structure of the film. It is a dreamy shot, in the same way that the film is also detached and sleepy. It is also the first free, loose moment in “After Hours.” In a rare Scorsese film that contains so few exuberant departures, the floating dollar bill stands out, and calls to attention the dearth of liveliness in the rest of the movie.

When there is an unexpected shot which breaks the rhythm of the film, that shot’s success relies on the rest of the film to support and enhance its power. To use an obvious example in Scorsese’s oeuvre, the abrupt and brutal fight scenes in “Raging Bull” might not have held such dramatic potency if their mates, the domestic scenes of the commonplace, hadn’t been so emotionally charged. They would have fallen awkwardly into the film, beautifully filmed but out of place in the context of the movie.

These touches in “After Hours” aren’t springing organically from the plot. When inspired, Scorsese’s flourishes emerge exuberantly from his films. The examples are abundant: every grandiose shot in “Goodfellas,” every brash soundtrack selection, feels like it was meant to be there. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is so lively that each strange choice that Scorsese makes adds to the liveliness. “Raging Bull” is so damn kinetic that every intrusion (the fence between De Niro and Moriarty when they first meet; De Niro’s uncomfortable transition to the world of entertainment) merely adds to the feast. But the weird things in “After Hours” are incongruous. The things that happen to the protagonist, and the people he meets, push the trippiness further, but not deeper. Linda Fiorentino’s aloof sculptor, for example, is somewhat of a puzzle, but a sterile one. She’s not something to decipher; she’s merely an oddity, part of the parade.

Some performances, such as Teri Garr as a simultaneously flighty and clingy waitress, bring a certain spark. But this spark only serves to illuminate the dullness all around. It quickly becomes clear that Scorsese isn’t capable of generating comedy organically on a large scale. He needs world-class players to pull that off. I can’t help but compare “After Hours” to “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” In “Alice,” he had the personnel to make a great film and, being the supremely talented director that he is, he let things fall into place. He littered the film with conversations that didn’t pertain to the plot, and so the film resembled real life, only with luminous actors portraying you and me. In “After Hours,” manufacturing comedy from scratch, with a lame leading man and supporting players like Tommy Chong, proves too difficult for Scorsese.

I worry that I’m being too harsh. I suspect, after all, that if this movie hadn’t borne the “Scorsese” tag when I popped it into the DVD player, I might have enjoyed it more. The fact is, however, that I will never again watch a Martin Scorsese movie without being extremely aware of the fact that he directed it. This is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I can be more perceptive to spotting the myriad subtleties he slides into his films. The technical proficiency will always be top-notch. (Even “After Hours,” obviously one of my least faves, is edited tightly and smartly.) It is a curse, however, because I cannot enjoy “After Hours” for what it may be: a good, but not great film. The reason I cannot enjoy it in such a manner is this: I’ve seen “Raging Bull.” Etcetera. I’ve even been adventurous enough to see “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which is a comparable outlier in his catalogue. But “Alice” was spontaneously poetic, and jazzy throughout. “After Hours” is proficient, and not much more. Something tells me that if Scorsese had handed his protagonist a handgun, the film would have sprung to life.

 

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