I’d be hard pressed to find a scenario worse than being stuck inside on a beautiful, if humid, summer weekend with a Horrible Headcold. Well, maybe the only thing worse would be if I were gainfully employed (which I’m not, full-time) during This Plague and be forced to be on my feet dealing with questionable elements of the populace at large in a discount retail environment…Yes, that is some sort of comfort.

Short of that, for instant relief I turned my concurrently stuffy and drippy head (Should that condition be possible? I ask you, is it fair??) to search for video solace. A comedy, I think, will help, preferably a romantic comedy. Why is it that no matter how many films I buy (used…mostly), that I can never find enough good RomComs when I really need one? Finally, I pulled one out that always gives me that good warm comedy glow. Moonstruck.

What can be better? Vintage Cher and Nicholas Cage, in 1987 before all the tabloid furor and sci/fi adventure films have all but buried them in noisy hoopla. Director Norman Jewison has surrounded them with one of the most perfect casts in history, to fill out this delightfully chaotic and romantic extended family of Italian-Americans in the Brooklyn.
Vincent Gardenia and Olympia Dukakis as her parents, Danny Aiello as his brother and her fiancée…see, the problem is obvious already…and the solving of it, comedy gold! The deftness of the writing and performances were recognized with three Oscars: Best Actress for Cher, Supporting Actress for Olympia Dukakis and Best Screenplay for John Patrick Shanley’s wonderful words. Shanley, the Eternal Scribe of the New York Boroughs, has written so many classic lines here, that all I can say is you probably already know them. I love him…I can’t help myself, so I’ll…”Snap out of it” and go on.

Well, after wallowing in my old favorite a while and watching all the behind the scenes bits on the Anniversary Edition DVD (except the Italian recipes…too much torture!) I decided that it was high time I found more John Patrick Shanley works to wade through. My faithful companion IMDb.com showed me that he hadn’t written as many things for film, as his primary love and work had been on the stage. Now, you’d think I’d already have known that, having been in theater for over twenty years, but when you immure yourself in the Bard, you don’t “Go Modern” as often as you should. No education is too late, however.

I bundled my sniveling self up, as much as the heat would allow and snuck briefly out to Video Americain the local repository of any film over ten years old. Good resource; I found myself four more of his films, two he had even directed himself, none of which I’d ever seen. I hurried myself home to settle in for a very diverse weekend with John Patrick Shanley. First up, was a small drama set on the streets of the Bronx, called Five Corners. This came out at the same time as Moonstruck but has a completely different tone. It stars relative newcomers at the time, Tim Robbins, Jodie Foster and John Turturro. This is the tale of how a quiet neighborhood is threatened by the return of a local thug, Heinz (Turturro in the only macho role I’ve ever seen him in) from a stint in prison after being sent up for trying to rape Linda (Foster). The only thing that saved her then was Harry (Robbins) stepping in to defend her, but these days Harry has had a change of heart since the death of his father, a policeman, and wants to embrace the teachings of Martin Luther King, and has taken a stand against violence.

Director Tony Bill finds some very nice performances from his actors that make it worth a watch. Foster is convincing, if a bit underwritten, trying to keep her panic at bay, and Robbins has a quiet strength about him, and a very eloquent face throughout that shows you his internal debate with himself. Psychosis, while not exactly a new trait for Turturro to play, is one he handles adeptly, utilizing a very powerful physical presence for Heinz. Shanley weaves the suspense well, but then tries to lighten it up with humor, as he often does, with surreal moments (penguins in fountains as an example) and side characters that for my generation, at least, bring up images straight out of Laverne and Shirley sit coms, which deflect the focus a bit too radically.

Next from two years later, in 1989, we find Shanley entering the detective/police genre to somewhat weaker effect. The January Man, a vehicle for Kevin Kline, can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a comedy or a thriller, but where in Five Corners it was a bit off-putting, in The January Man the comedic bits allow it to hamstring itself and fall flat on its face.

Again, a fine cast is assembled under the direction of Pat O’Connor (Circle of Friends, Inventing the Abbotts), with strong, gritty New Yawk performances by all the veterans involved: Harvey Keitel, Rod Steiger, Danny Aiello, and even Susan Sarandon (not quite as salty, but very strong, as always). The leads, Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with sidekick Alan Rickman as an eccentric artist (quelle surprise!) seem to be in a completely different movie, perhaps written for Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. When it comes right down to it, leavening Kline’s heroic detective character with “wild and crazy guy” humor to that level, in what is essentially a straight serial killer flick, squashes any chance to take him seriously. And as cute as they all are, I can’t recommend this one…at all.

Perhaps, I think, now three movies in, the inconsistencies in these films have to do with the difference in the viewpoint of the screenwriter and the director. If Shanley and Jewison saw eye to eye, then Moonstruck flowed smoothly. In The January Man, perhaps things strayed too far afield with O’Connor. There’s no way to know, except to look at movies Shanley has both written and directed, himself. The first film, Joe Versus the Volcano, I had heard of since it premiered in 1990 and had been so filled with trepidation at the name alone, that I’d successfully avoided it for over fifteen years. I looked around on the internet a bit and found that others had felt my fear and defeated it, and actually found it a “quirky cult favorite”. The last time I had run from a movie’s advance press this hard, it was Tropic Thunder, which I avoided, despite my complete addiction to RDJr. But after finding TT in a discount bin, I finally watched it, and slapped myself on the head immediately for waiting two years. It was wonderful! So I crossed my fingers and finally jumped into the Volcano, too.

To my surprise, I quite enjoyed it, after getting used to the overtly fairy tale, theatrical feel of the production. It reminded me of whimsical tales with strong visuals like Brazil and the first Willy Wonka with a dash of The Little Prince movie thrown in. It is innocent and sweet with a side order of sly sarcasm around the edges. With it’s vividly drawn images by Production Designer Bo Welch and shot by DP Stephen Goldblatt, Shanley’s given us another adult fairy tale like Moonstruck…drawn freehand with Crayolas. The soundtrack Shanley chose added layers of shared memory by including nostalgic tunes sung by unexpected artists: “Blue Moon”, sung by Elvis, “16 Tons” sung by Eric Burdon, “Ol’ Man River” sung by Ray Charles, and “On The Street Where You Live” sung in Spanish by a wandering mariachi band….Gotta love it!
The early scenes are poignant and sad, while you see who Tom Hanks’ Joe Banks character is and where he’s (not) going. You meet Meg Ryan in the first of three roles as Joe’s muse, and she’s different enough in each that you see multiple sides of her comic talents and like her more in each incarnation. Lloyd Bridges is a quirky hoot as Mr. Graynamore, who convinces Joe to sell his soul to the lava, and Ossie Davis is charming and delightful in his short cameo as Marshall, Joe’s Limo Driver/Retail Guru. Everyone looks like they are having a wonderful time. I had to watch it twice before returning it.

The final movie in my John Patrick Shanley Film Fest was the more recent film Doubt, adapted from his own stage play. Shanley is tackling a more somber, serious theme here, with few if any moments of the humor that have lightened the earlier films that I have viewed. He has matured well as a director, handling images and actors in an assured way, posing his theme of the nature of both doubt and belief, and viewing it from all angles, and the strength of this has launched him back into the limelight with five Oscar nominations for this fine film, Meryl Streep and Viola Davis’ being particularly nuanced.
Though, on the surface, the only similarity of Mr. Shanley’s films is the New York locale, this one is also set in the 1960’s in he Bronx. However, I find if one looks closer other parallels come to mind. In all of these films, the characters seem to be dealing with a kind of fantasy world, either it is one that they are searching for, trying to run away from or, in this case, trying to preserve. Sister Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, wants to hang on to her view of the purity of her school, even if it’s an illusion. The modern views that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to bring into her world can only be viewed as unhealthy familiarity with the students in his care. He will not or cannot preserve his distance from his flock and therefore, as she sees it, he must be stopped, whether there has been an actual transgretion or not. Sister James, played with touching confusion and innocence by Amy Adams, views this contest without being able to choose sides, she is an emotional shuttlecock, a bit like Jodie Foster’s character in Five Corners, who throughout the first half of that film is very tentative about which way to run, and it almost kills her.

Doubt is a remarkable film in that it doesn’t take sides, it doesn’t choose a hero and a villain, and yet it still it holds you interested throughout and makes you think, long after you leave the theater. This is a lasting piece of art, and though it is a completely different tone from his comedies, I hope that Mr. Shanley continues to bring us into all sides of his multi-faceted view of life. Even if he couldn’t cure my cold, he certainly made me forget it for a while, and I thank him.