You can’t know. You don’t know what it’s like to be me. --John Belushi
Does anyone know? Any time? In “Wired” (citywide), a movie based, very roughly, on Bob Woodward’s book on the meteoric career and drug-overdose death of John Belushi, the film makers try for a multileveled hipster expose: a whacked-out docudrama, “Citizen Kane” squeezed through “Saturday Night Live” and basted with National Lampoon blood and bile.
Unlike Woodward, who projected little or zero simpatico for his subject, scenarist Earl Mac Rauch and director Larry Peerce are obviously trying to make the kind of movie Belushi himself might have had fun doing. They want to pump it full of his trademarks: the kamikaze humor, calculated outrage, show-biz in-jokes and explosive honesty. But it’s too weird a task, too black a show. When they try to jam in sentiment and uplift, “Wired” starts overloading, blowing its circuits.
Like “Saturday Night Live,” the movie jokes about death, kids or impersonates the famous, zips back and forth from sketch to sketch, throws in a rock act, winks and leers and then tries to slug us with a little heart. It begins with rapid, sock-in-the-eye juxtapositions: Belushi (Michael Chiklis) in his hated bee outfit, an off-screen conversation on casting him in “Wired” (“No man, he’s dead!”), and then Belushi mysteriously revived and sweating from the morgue. Outside, he hails Ray Sharkey as Angel Velasquez, a Puerto Rican cabbie and fellow overdose victim: a cross between a junkie philosopher and Clarence the Guardian Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It’s Angel’s job, apparently, to show the increasingly freaked-out John where he went wrong. He spins his rider quickly through TV success; the chaotic, high-stakes atmosphere of his movies; his home life with wife Judy (Lucinda Jenney, a fine job) and his on-the-road antics with best buddy and comic partner Dan Aykroyd (Gary Groomes, another fine job).
This grisly cab ride is also interspersed with the dour investigations of the movie’s Bob Woodward (J. T. Walsh), a just-the-facts-ma’am journalist put on the case by Judy to uncover the whole truth. Woodward, Angel and Belushi, in his morgue robe, all zip in and out of the same reality planes--occasionally, some of them hail the others on the street--and the movie skitters restlessly through scenes re-created from Woodward’s book as well as imaginary “Saturday Night Live” routines and grotesque fantasies, erupting like paranoid flip-outs through the joked-up docudrama.
It’s a last-gasp, punch-you-in-the-ribs, anything-for-a-laugh-or-sob movie--and it tries to punch things up to the same quasi-cocaine energy level that characterized a lot of ‘70s show-biz and movie humor. But there’s a difference. In the crack-ravaged, freebase-plagued ‘80s, this tune hits sourer notes--though the movie’s oddball edge, slopped up with soap-opera twinges, plays less like a cautionary drug tale than a punked-out Remembrance of Flings Past.
Now the movie’s Belushi, instead of slamming fate’s door with a coke-and-heroin speedball administered by scruffy death angel Cathy Smith (a scarily low-key performance by Patti D’Arbanville), seems doomed far earlier. The movie has a schizoid, lurching drive. It’s about death’s wild ride--playing out your string, dancing over the edge--and also about sweet vulnerable, lovable John, wasted by his appetites.
Chiklis, the 25-year-old unknown who plays Belushi, captures this duality very well. He gives an intensely empathetic performance--awash in sweat, rage and desperation--that subtly suggests the real Belushi and elevates him to myth. Chiklis doesn’t have Belushi’s waggling eyebrows, but he gets the mix of machismo and delicacy. His skin looks transparent, bruisable: the skin of a corpse, an addict, a victim.
Chiklis also gets Belushi’s maniacal spontaneity. Playing against Sharkey’s stylized Angel--a cold-eyed, wised-up spritzer who turns all his y’s defiantly into j’s (“So what jou want?”) --he has the look of a man lowered over the flames. Playing against Groomes’ warm, sloppy-grinning Aykroyd, he has a tender camaraderie. (This is the relationship that should have been caught in the actual Belushi-and-Aykroyd movies.) In the book, Belushi was trapped in the terse, white sidewalks of Woodward’s prose, the police-blotter flatness and austerity. Here Rauch and Peerce let him answer Woodward’s “You did it to yourself, John.” The dying face blazes out, with a cop-hater’s contempt. Even his sweat-drops seem accusatory.
Reading Woodward’s book, you might have expected the movie to be a “Lost Weekend” on uppers. But Rauch, who also co-wrote “New York, New York” and “Buckaroo Banzai,” tries to take it further with this intricate, double-chase structure: Woodward and Belushi careening toward each other over the messy terrain of his life. He gets points for audacity and cleverness, and director Larry Peerce some for emotion. But the movie keeps pulling up short.
The names are changed: John Landis turns into an anonymous manic beanpole of a director; Belushi manager Bernie Brillstein and assistant Joel Briskin are renamed. And Belushi’s super-agent, Michael Ovitz, disappears completely, like God, somewhere above the unseen skyline.
There may be a tendency to reject “Wired” on the simplest grounds. (That isn’t John! That isn’t Danny!) But the crippling flaw in the film lies in its mix of surface daring and inner funk. Inside, it keeps flinching. What the film never suggests--what Woodward barely suggests either--is that two addictions may have been involved in Belushi’s destruction: one to cocaine; one, by others, to deals.
Belushi, like many media rebels, began as an outlaw and ended as a commodity--a tormented commodity. That’s part of the story “Wired” (MPAA-rated R for drug use, sex and language) misses: the addictions of commerce. Shouldn’t the deal always be secondary to the work, the image to the man, the business to the audience, the per diem to carpe diem ?
You would think John Belushi, who worshiped the instant, would never have gotten trapped in the concrete of his own image. You would think the movie of his life would never get shot up with tricks and evasion. And you would think a great clown would never let a deal or a ruined deal--or a high--seal him off forever from the people who wanted to laugh with him.
But . . . nooooooooooooo.
A Taurus Entertainment Co. release. Producers Edward S. Feldman, Charles Meeker. Director Larry Peerce. Script Earl Mac Rauch. Camera Tony Imi. Production design Brian Eatwell. Editor Eric Sears. Music Basil Poledouris. Art director Richard F. Mays. Executive producers P. Michael Smith, Paul Carran. With Michael Chiklis, Ray Sharkey, J. T. Walsh, Patti D’Arbanville, Lucinda Jenney, Alex Rocco, Gary Groomes, Jere Burns.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).