Tuesday, June 15, 2010

 

Where have you gone, Paul Brickman?


By Edward Copeland
Two films. Two wonderful films are all that Paul Brickman has directed for the world. The first was the smart teen sex comedy Risky Business in 1983 that launched the career of Tom Cruise and the second was the equally good dramedy Men Don't Leave, which was released 20 years ago today in 1990. That's it. It's how it was waiting between Kubrick or Kurosawa projects toward the end of their careers or, if you are so inclined (and I'm not) being impatient for a new Terrence Malick offering after Days of Heaven, though now he seems to have picked up his pace.

No one speaks with bated breath about Brickman. Though he has written or co-written two scripts in the past two decades: Clint Eastwood's True Crime in 1998 and the NBC 2001 miniseries Uprising about the (thanks to Peter Nellhaus for catching that I'd typed the wrong article here originally) Jewish revolt in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II (You can't say his subject matters aren't eclectic), I still feel his absence. Until (or unless) Mr. Brickman graces us with another of his own projects, we'll need to keep celebrating the two gifts he's given us, especially the underrated and neglected gem that turns 20 today.


Nothing in Brickman's pre-directing career as a screenwriter prepared the world for his deliverance of two works of near perfection, separated by seven years, that couldn't be more dissimilar. He wrote The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, one of the ill-conceived sequels to the original 1976 classic, in 1977. That same year he wrote the screenplay for Jonathan Demme's Handle With Care, which alas I have not seen. Released a few months after Risky Business in 1983 came William Friedkin's troubled production Deal of the Century starring Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver and Gregory Hines and though Brickman got sole screenplay credit, it included uncredited work by Robert Towne. Despite that, Brickman alone gave us Risky Business and then, working with Barbara Benedek who wrote the screen story and co-wrote the screenplay, the remarkable Men Don't Leave which I salute today.

Men Don't Leave tells with humor and pathos what happens to a nuclear family such as the Macauleys when they are hit by an unexpected rupture. As the film opens, they are family of four: father John (Tom Mason), mom Beth (Jessica Lange), teenage son Chris (Chris O'Donnell) and youngest son Matt (Charlie Korsmo). As young Matt says in a brief opening narration, when he has those moments when the family are together, "Then I was saved." John is a home builder. In fact, he's not even done with the family's own homestead as plastic covers the unfinished kitchen wall. In a sly joke in the movie's first few minutes that I'd either forgotten or slipped by me on previous viewings, dad takes the kids to a movie which Chris describes as being about a fat kid "who hasn't done it" so his friends hire him a prostitute and then hide in a closet and watch. Quickly realizing the film might not be something his mother would approve of, Chris tries to pass it off as "educational." John tries to assure Beth that it's no big deal and was harmless before eventually relenting and admitting "It was shit." If it's a reference to Brickman's previous film (In the early going, Thomas Newman's nice score even has echoes of Tangerine Dream) or, more likely, the many awful movies lumped in the same genre, it's just a brief moment of levity before the real story starts. A call takes John away before dinner can even be served because of a problem at the construction site. A little while later, it's not John who returns, but a police officer with the news that John has been killed in an accident at the site. The four now are three.

I've never been the biggest fan of Jessica Lange as an actress (though I'm downright charitable when compared to how fellow ECOF contributor Josh R feels about her). I think she has won two Oscars for roles she didn't deserve to win for in Tootsie and Blue Sky, but didn't get a nomination here for Men Don't Leave which, in my opinion, is the best work she's ever put on film. She's completely believable as the small-town housewife. Her portrayal of a woman being forced to keep her family intact when burdened with unexpected debt and the loss of the love of her life while adjusting to a new city when the family is forced to move to Baltimore where a job awaits her, plays as achingly real and heartbreaking, with just the right mixture of humor, sadness and, when it is called for, even indignation. Watching Beth, in a state of shock, trying to navigate the maze of a hospital after getting cold directions from a nurse as to where to go to identify John's body, Lange really delivers the goods. Brickman helps her as well with his dizzying direction in this sequence, even returning to it in a flashback.

Beth's uncertainty as to how to react to John's death extends to the boys as well. The stoic Matt tells her he won't cry and wanders through groups of mourners with a plate of food some man gave to him. Chris tries to hold it in because he thinks it's the right thing to do, though he lashes out a bit at times, as when he discovers that Beth has put the truck up for sale, a truck he feels is rightfully his and that she has no right to sell no matter how deep their money problems are. When Beth first suggests the idea of moving to Baltimore for a better job, neither child understands why she just can't get a better job where they are. When Chris catches Beth with a cigarette, he chastises her like a parent would, asking her if she's trying to kill herself, something that has a deeper meaning now in a one-parent household.

Despite the kids' misgivings (as well as her own), Beth and the family relocate to an apartment in Baltimore where they begin to encounter new people who will become important parts of their lives. An accidental meeting in the building elevator thanks to a prank by Matt leads to a lengthy ride for Chris and a woman who appears to be a nurse (the always quirky and wonderful Joan Cusack in one of her very best performances). After the elevator finally gets to the ground floor, Chris makes a point of explaining to the woman that his little brother was the one who had pressed all the buttons and it wasn't him. He just wanted her to know that he wouldn't do something like that. Cusack is intrigued. "Why do you care what I think?" Cusack possesses such a unique talent and brings such a special quality to nearly every film she's in, that it's a shame that she doesn't work more, but it's understandable how she's difficult to cast consistently. She's one of a kind, be it here or in Broadcast News, Working Girl, In & Out or School of Rock, she's always a welcome addition to the movie in question.

Beth meets her new employer at the job that was arranged for her in a bake shop/catering service run by Lisa Coleman, a divorced, chain-smoking bitch-on-wheels (Kathy Bates, who actually won the best actress Oscar the same year for Misery) who didn't plan to train someone on the job, but reluctantly agrees to hire Beth anyway and immediately starts barking orders for what she needs her to run and fetch for her at the nearby grocery. Beth's determined to keep smiling' through, though you can sense the misgivings lurking beneath the surface of her new situation, though she eventually starts baking her own recipes at home and bringing them in to sell. Her first delivery doesn't go especially well as she hauls a large lunch basket up and down the stairs of a building, losing many pieces of fruit along the way, to feed lunch to a group of very unusual musicians who use, in addition to more typical instruments, typewriters and egg beaters. By the time she reaches them, both she and the basket collapse, but one of the musicians (Arliss Howard) comes to her aid and invites her to their performance.


At his new school, the always understated Matt doesn't have much to say when the teacher asks all the kids in class to share their summer memories since his is particularly painful. He does make a new friend, Winston (Corey Carrier), but unfortunately he is going to turn out to be a bad influence, showing Matt how to shoplift candy from stores. This leads to learning to break into homes and steals their VCRs and sell them to a guy named Mike (Kevin Corrigan), who likes to remove the dialogue from porn but keep or add musical soundtracks such as the theme from Rawhide. Matt sees this as a way to raise money to buy lottery tickets in the hopes he can buy back his mom's house.

The thrust of Men Don't Leave concerns the process of moving on and with the loss of a lifemate or a parent, no stores stock road maps, no clocks show timetables and life certainly doesn't hit the pause button to stop other events from interferring in the time one needs since every single case is a unique one and Brickman and Benedek's script paints this beautifully without being maudlin but with the right mix of humor and sadness but, more importantly, the palpable pulse of truth. In other hands, the relationship that develops between the 17-year-old Chris and the adult Jody (Cusack) could play as sleazy or unreal, but it feels completely plausible here thanks to Cusack's performance. Jody might not be a nurse (in fact, she's an X-ray technician), but when she says she likes to help people, you take her at her word. Who knows how long her romance with Chris will last once the movie ends, but no matter how it ends you get the feeling that it will wind up being a positive force in his life at a crucial moment.

Understandably, Beth isn't thrilled that her teenage son is sleeping with an older woman, but then she finds trepidations about most aspects of her new life. She's hesitant to begin any sort of relationship with the musician Charles (Howard, a great actor who is almost as rare a sight as his wife Debra Winger), but yet she's clearly attracted to him and finds a need for his emotional support. Chris disapproves at first, especially when he thinks he's bringing Beth home too late following a concert, prompting Charles to ask, "Is your father this rough on all the guys?" When they do actually have a real date at her apartment and he moves in for a kiss, Beth resists, telling him that having an affair is not high on her list of priorities. Charles reassures her about the relationship that, "If it can't be physical, let's go bowling." At one point, she shows up at the divorced father's door and says nothing more than, "I'm very sad." Charles tries his best to be a comfort and they even begin to kiss until a poorly timed nosebleed gets in the way. She also tires of Lisa's barked orders and finally snaps one day when Lisa tells her to run and get her something, telling her if she wanted someone to run, she should have hired a thoroughbred. Lisa fires her and Beth's unraveling really begins. Matt, despite his new criminal life, always tries to be the good son, but watching Winston's full and fun family life with both a mother and a father, starts longing to live there and even runs away to spend the night there.

Beth takes to bed for days and despite the best efforts of Matt and Chris, they can't seem to get through to her. Since she's essentially cut off contact from the world, a desperate Chris even goes to visit Charles, begging him to come see her, assuming that the way he acted was the reason he doesn't come around anymore, but he can't stand seeing his mom so sad and alone and she was happy when he was around. Charles and a friend do their best, coming by to serenade her through the door, but though Beth is on the other side listening, it fails to get her to respond. It takes Jody, the woman sleeping with her son, the woman she hates, to get through to Beth, simply because she refuses to take no for an answer, dragging her out of bed, pushing her into the shower, pouring coffee down her throat and talking with her. Jody tells her of a story Chris told her about John carrying Beth around a park when she broke her foot and she hoped to have someone love her that much someday. If someone loved me that much and he died, Jody says, "I'd be so sad, I'd get very tired.

Of course, it's often the person who is the quietest who really needs the help and that turns out to be Matt who turns up missing. They eventually get a call and find that somehow he made his way back to their old house in their old town, where they find him sobbing in the little house his dad helped him build. His mom reassures him that he doesn't always have to be such a good boy. Through tears, Matt says, "I want to see him again — just one more time," a sentiment that anyone who has ever lost anyone dear to them can relate to completely. The family returns to Baltimore again and Beth resumes baking goodies, which she takes to Lisa to sell on consignment. In a soft moment, Lisa tells her that while it's hard to have been left alone with two kids, when Lisa's husband divorced her two years ago, it's even harder to have been left alone. I don't know which is harder, but I do know that Paul Brickman has left movie lovers in the lurch by only leaving us his two gems. What are you waiting for, Paul? Please sir, we want some more, especially if they are as great as Men Don't Leave.


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Comments:
'men don't leave' was the subject of my favorite overheard movie review -

"it's got jessica lange in it but don't worry, she's not all "jessica lange""
 
Uprising was about THE revolt in the Warsaw ghetto, also the subject of a novel by Leon Uris, Mila 18. I don't know how accurate it was in recounting all of the facts, but it was pretty thrilling to watch.
 
Wow, Brickman wrote TRUE CRIME? Such an underrated Eastwood and fave of mine. I'm a sucker for journalism films. I really need to revisit this film again but I do remember liking it a lot.

Excellent appraisal of this man's career. It is a damn shame that he doesn't work more often but maybe he got tired of/burnt out from playing the Hollywood game. He certainly wouldn't be the first.
 
If you liked True Crime, then surely you would've loved Calling Northside 777 (the film True Crime ripped off).
 
I think Paul is very choosy...I knew him as a kid.

H. P. Benson
 
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