Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Burtonfest Day III: Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice is at its simplest level a movie I like simply because it cheers me up. That might not be the deepest reason for loving a movie, but it works for me. I love Beetlejuice for the nimbleness of its comic invention, the surprising sharpness of its satirical teeth and lastly the genuine and surprising sweetness at the film’s core.

Beetlejuice finds Tim Burton, working with an anarchic sensibility, carried over from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, that for better or for worse hasn’t cropped up for more then an isolated scene or two in Burton’s more stately films (Mars Attacks excluded, but then again I for one always exclude Mars Attacks). The film follows the dream logic of a 30’s cartoon mixed with Sartre, its a model of narrative economy clocking in at a breezy ninety minutes, a picture perfect example of Set up and pay off, and this isn’t even mentioning the giant balls the film has to potray the afterlife as a big shambling bureaucracy staffed by surly suicides and populated by shambling corpses whose means of shuffling off the mortal coil are terribly apparent.

Though the film is filled with audacious ideas, daring non sequiters, and a Mad Magazine like gag a minute aesthetic, It all works so well because the film actually takes the time to ground it all in a story you care about. For all the talk about how Tim Burton hates the normals, he makes the Maitland’s a truly likable couple clearly siding with them over the self impressed grotesque “artists” who end up invading their home (Played by Catherine O’ Hara, Jeffery Jones, and Glenn Shaddix all perfectly awful).

Now this is no easy feat given that the presence of Geena Davis in a movie usually causes my eyes to burst and drip vicious fluid down my cheeks, and this is Alec Baldwin back when the words “smug asshole” preceded him far more often then “charming character actor”. By the time they’ve shuffled off the mortal coil in a suitably tragicomic way, find themselves nearly devoured by Saturian Sand Worms (Don’t ask. Its one of the films great Dada gags, where the punch line is there is nothing even resembling an explination), given a guide to the afterlife that “reads like stereo instructions” and are forced to deal with the awful family that seems hell bent on destroying their homes you can’t help but feel for them.

But like Joe Dante, Burton is firmly of the opinion that a nothing would improve the world more then a few monsters running around in it. So after their attempts to drive their new unwelcome guests out fail to bring more then a delightfully incongruit Henry Belafonte song, and a very fey Dick Cavett (Awesome) in the film’s most famous scene (And a great showcase for O’Hara whose always been underrated as a physical comedian).

After which the Maitland’s turn to more desperate measures. Despite having the title roll very little of Beetlejuice actually features Beetlejuice. (The title was famously last minute. Used only after Burton threatened to kill himself after the studio took his joking suggestion to call the movie “Scared Sheetless” seriously) Which probably works for the best. I can take or leave Michael Keaton, I know that apparently he was a genius as a stand up comic, but by the time I became aware from him he was better known as “That dude for Multiplicity and Jack Frost.” Or “That Batman who didn’t suck as badly as the other two.

Still its easy to see why he was so popular with the role. To say Keaton gets in the spirit of things would be an understatement. He plays every scene to eleven coming off like a cross between a Tex Avery creation, a used car salesman, and some guy desperately trying to sleep with your wife. He personifies the comic anarchy that the film so successfully questions. Sure he’s a bad guy, but things are just so interesting when he’s around.

Also shining in her role is Winnona Ryder. It hasn’t been a great fifteen years or so for Ryder. She’s suffered an epic rash of miscasting (Dracula, Age Of Innocence), terrible films (The Darwin Awards, The Informers, Sex And Death 101, Alien Resur- look this list could go on for awhile), and nothing roles (Star Trek, Mr. Deeds). With this long litany of terrible parts (Scanner Darkly being one key exception) its easy to forget what a fresh presence she once was. In her early roles like this the underrated Lucas ( A Movie that actually succeeds in making Charlie Sheen appear to be a decent human being! Talk about special effects), Night On Earth, and Heathers, she effortlessly projected a real sweetness, backed by intelligence, spunk, not to mention cute tomboyish looks. She’s really the heart of the movie and her bond with Davis, is really solid without being oversold. Unlike so many other comedies that can basically be summed up with the phrase “A bunch of crazy shit happens.” This one actually cares that something sticks. I miss that Winnona Ryder, here’s hoping that Afronsky finds a way to bring her back.

With its clever rapid fire gags, potent surreality, heartfelt script, and wicked sense of humor, I can’t help but smile from the moment Beetlejuice starts to the time it ends. I mean how can you not like a film that ends with Belafonte, a floating Winnona Ryder, A witch doctor and a dead football team for a chorus line.


Neil Fulwood said...

Loving the Burton-fest so far, Bryce. I re-approached 'Beetlejuice' myself earlier this year, having not seen in for nearly a decade, and found myself wondering whether it would hold up. Did it ever! A dark funhouse of barbed comedy (the payoff as to why the unspeaking chap in the waiting room has a shrunken head is priceless) and off-the-wall visuals, underpinned by Michael Keaton's most demented and inspired performance, Winona Ryder perfectly cast and a surprisingly touching chemistry between Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, 'Beetlejuice' hits all the right notes.

Unknown said...

I also wanted to echo Neil's sentiments about loving what you've done with the Burton-fest so far. I've always been a fan of his work but his last bunch of films feel like the man's phoning it in or cashing in on his brand name. Your post on BEETLEJUICE (quite possibly my fave Burton film after ED WOOD), reminded me of how good his films were back in the day and how much I anticipate a new one coming out.

You write:

"Beetlejuice is at its simplest level a movie I like simply because it cheers me up. That might not be the deepest reason for loving a movie, but it works for me."

Amen, my brother! You basically summed up in a nutshell why this film works so well. It is not a deep film but it is vastly entertaining for all the reasons you stated so well. I actually like Michael Keaton's early career and along with NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM, this film showcased his considerable comedic chops. I kinda miss the more manic Keaton that seemed to disappear after BATMAN.

And what can you say about Winona Ryder? I've been a fan of hers since seeing this film and she was so good - a star-making performance. The way she delivers lines like, "My life is a dark room," are so good and you're right, since she stopped getting A-list film offers she's gone indie, but hasn't had the best track record. I agree that A SCANNER DARKLY is the best thing she's done in years and I do also hold out hope for her role in Aronofsky's next film. It should be a doozy!

Anyways, I really enjoyed your post on BEETLEJUICE. It has me wanting to watch this film again. It has been too long.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: It really was incredible how un eighties it was. I think it really has held up the best of all of Burton's films (Ed Wood Excluded). I was as surprised at how well this had been preserved as I was by how Sleepy Hollow had aged.

@JD: Thank you sir! I've never seen Night Shift, one of those ones I really have to get around to it. As to Ryder, you an me both. I really do hope she finds her way into some roles that know how to use her talents. She's just too good in some films to lose.

Erik said...

Couldn't agree more,Beetlejuice always cheers me up as well.Keaton was hilarious in this as well,great performance from him.
Cool blog as well