Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Slugger’s Wife (1985)

Coming off a spoof comedy (The Lonely Guy) and three angsty “dramadies” in a row dealing with estranged parent/child relationships, Neil Simon must’ve figured it was time to return to his roots - good old-fashioned romantic comedy - and the result was 1995’s The Slugger’s Wife. Only it wasn’t exactly Sleepless in the Seattle; the titular lovebirds spend most of the film broken up, and stay broken up even as the end titles roll. But no matter; Simon reunited with his late-70s producer, Ray Stark, and production company, Rastar, and even coaxed acclaimed director Hal Ashby to lens the picture. Talk about a dream team!

The film opens as Atlanta Braves player Darryl Palmer (Michael O Keefe) makes a bet with local club singer Debby Huston (Rebecca De Mornay) that he’ll hit two home runs in the next day’s game or she’ll have to go out with him. She, of course, loses, and the date turns to courtship which leads to marriage, and his love for her is a sort of good-luck-charm that affords him a winning streak that no one dares mess with. Alas, all things must pass: when she feels unfulfilled for having to put her music career on hold, she leaves him, and Darryl mopes his way through despair and loneliness, not to mention a succession of strikeouts that has his manager and teammates deeply concerned. They hatch a series of plots to get Debby back, or at least make Darryl think she’s coming back. Nothing works, so it’s up to Darryl himself to step up to the plate, literally, and make the magic happen sans the girl. He does, and though Debby makes a final, still-Platonic appearance, she vows to “keep the door open” for their mutual love to again become realized some day in the future.

Neil Simon’s waterloo. This is the complete box office and critical disaster that damaged all careers involved and forced Simon to regroup before he could work again in the movies. What happened? Well, despite some clever scenes, mostly near the beginning, this is just not a fun movie to watch. The public seemed to agree, as the film’s 19 million dollar budget was completely sunk to its appalling 1.3 million gross. Daryl spends the bulk of the movie pining for a girl who, despite a few scattered unconvincing lines to the contrary, doesn’t seem to love him. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced he digs her too much either, as her appeal for him is tangled up in the whole good-luck charm thing. The plot contrivances along the way feel like just that, just time-killing mechanisms that commit errors in logic and inconsistencies in human behavior. This 104-minute flick feels like it runs about twice that.

Not them, BTW
And if you’d never told me Simon wrote this script I wouldn’t have guessed it. There are absolutely none of the playwright’s trademark quips, jokes, phrases or routines to be found here (if you listen closely enough you might be able to detect something in the first-date dinner conversation). How did the man get such a tin ear within such a short amount of time? I can only guess that there were uncredited rewrites going on here – leading to or perhaps caused by production problems. Or perhaps he tried to tone down the thickness of his dialogue, misinformed by others that the new wave of young, 80s comedies were more image driven. What he failed to realize was that by now, youth comedies were smarter than ever, having found their voice in writer/director John Hughes – his The Breakfast Club was released earlier that year, as was the smart Rob Reiner film The Sure Thing. 

Is anything salvageable here? Yes – the musical numbers, delightfully dated, help to propel the sluggish plot, and Ashby incorporates them effectively, often as montage sequences which underlie the baseball scenes (helping make good on the advertising tagline, “A love story about two of America’s favorite pastimes.” Yes, I know the other is probably love, but I interpret it to mean pop music). Ashby also puts his 70s indie film skills to good use with a sold yet subtly ragged look; the bedroom scenes are softly ethereal, a la his Shampoo, and the neon-lit barroom scenes have a chummy, brotherly feel, reminiscient of his The Last Detail. Sad that this would be his penultimate work, closing a career cut all too short by a system too myopic to recognize the breadth of his underrated talent.

And then there’s Rebecca De Mornay, whom I’ve always loved, in a role that would, under different circumstances, be tailor-made for her: the cool sexpot who needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle – most of the time. She’s got a smart, sly attitude, often masking deep insecurities, that helps to elevate the material she’s given. One scene in particular reminded me of the elevated train scene in Risky Business: Darryl goes down on her (under the sheets), pretending to explain baseball maneuvers (probably the only reason this otherwise innocuous film was slapped with a PG-13 rating). De Mornay smolders in this scene, despite being fully clad; it’s another sad reminder of a career that’s could’ve gone further. Thank god for DVD!

The fact that this was pretty much an unqualified disaster makes it a pretty good marker for the end of Simon’s “first act” (he’d love the metaphor); hereafter he would focus almost entirely on television (from whence he came) and his Brighton Beach trilogy for stage and screen (the first part of which would be his next movie). 

Part of Simon’s life: None, to which he, I’m sure, would attest. However, given his paltry output at the time, perhaps he feared that his breakup with Marsha Mason would lead to a writer’s block, not unlike the protagonist of this ill-fated work.

Rating: **

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