Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Late Show

Sometimes it only takes one thing to ruin a great movie.

The Late Show has a great concept behind it one of those ideas annoying in their why didn’t I think of that perfection. “What if Phillip Marlowe survived to old age?” Art Carney plays Ira Wells, a Marlowe like Private Investigator who has had to misfortune to survive to the seventies. Out of place in the modern age, spending most of his time shuffling around an old rooming house until he is drawn to one last case. The film plays like the flipside to Altman’s The Long Goodbye (which had an in his prime Marlowe navigating 70’s LA with even less success) which isn’t coicendental given that it was produced by Altman and written and directed by Altman’s disciple Robert Benson, who brings his mentor’s easy intimacy to the film (though he unfortunately also brings further proof that no one but Altman need try to provide “Altmanesque” overlapping dialogue.)

And then Lily Tomlin shows up.

Normally this would be a good thing. Lily Tomlin is usually such an appealing presence in the movies that it was shocking to me just how revolted I was by her performance, which reaches for Annie Hall like lovable daffyness but falls and lands broken on the stones of braying shrew. How an actress who normally radiates intelligence, good humor, and self possession could end up giving such a wholly unsympathetic performance is beyond me and I can only blame writer director Benton. Why an author would create such a script that is appealing in everyway and then place in its very center this utterly terrible part is beyond me. You have to understand its not as if Tomlin is bad in this movie, she plays the chacter exactly as written, its just that the character is written to be oblivious, ignorant, and stupid. Which are not qualities normally thought to be endearing. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with having a character who is annoying, you just might not want to stick them in nearly ever scene of the movie. And yes there’s nothing wrong with having a protaginist who isn’t likable, but you should at least make them intriguing, which Benton’s script doesn’t bother to do so.

In all fairness Tomlin does get slightly more bearable about an hour in as she grows more vulnerable. But by then its too little to late, its too late to gain any investment in her, or the film.

Which is just a shame because otherwise everything about Benton’s film is top notch. It’s a great film with some terrific sequences characters and moments including a Mexican standoff that ends with startling swiftness that I’d put up against Reservoir Dogs any day of the week. And a scene that where Carney gets revenge on a thug that humiliated him that is smart enough to play his satisfaction as the main focus of the scene.

The concept is great, his casting impeccable and his style is developed enough to tap both into the California sunshine and dark noir heart when it needs to, deftly switching between drama, action and comedy often within seconds of one another. Benton later directed the similarly old school LA Noir Twilight, which shares this movie’s class and realism, but which is unfortunately also as boring as sin.

Art Carney who one doesn’t usually assosciate with the word intimidating, does a great job, drawing on a commanding authortive presence unlike anything he has ever done. Vulnerable and weak, but able to draw on inner steel when he needs to, believably able to stand up to the various thugs and low lifes he comes across. Watching him work you can understand how he’s survived, simply put, he has what it takes. He might not be officially playing Marlowe but he personifies the characters wits, tenacity and soulfulness, better then just about any actor who has handled the role.

This is a movie better served by its old school tendencies then its new school affectations. But all flaws aside The Late Show remains an intriguing film.


Will Errickson said...

I didn't make it through this movie when I watched it a couple years ago. Pretty much had the same reaction as you, but your post also makes me think I should try again just to see that Mexican standoff!

Bryce Wilson said...

Its one hell of a Mexican standoff!