Two decades ago, star Jack Nicholson, writer Carole Eastman, and director Bob Rafelson joined up on “Five Easy Pieces,” a low-budget odyssey into the country’s tormented Vietnam-era psyche, and it’s no hype to say it helped change the face of American film--for the better. But the trio’s newest collaboration, a little man-woman-and-dog Mulholland Drive romantic comedy called “Man Trouble” (citywide), isn’t going to change any faces or key any eras.
It’s a lazy-looking movie, amiable and smart, but so fuzzy, in its imagery and structure, that it suggests the sun is getting to everybody, that they all need a dip in the pool. It’s certainly not the catastrophe that early press reports have suggested--the studio, rather absurdly, refused to screen “Man Trouble” for critics--but it is disappointing.
Not because it’s bad, but because we expect more from a Nicholson-Rafelson-Eastman collaboration. We expect savage wit, clear takes on society, pungent dialogue, rich characters. Here, after bad cartoon credits, we get Harry Bliss, a maritally disturbed guard-dog trainer (Nicholson), romancing neurotic Bach soloist Joan Spruance (Ellen Barkin), while her crazy, glamour-puss sister, Andy (Beverly D’Angelo), runs away from billionaire lover Red Layls (Harry Dean Stanton) after dishing him in a tell-all memoir.
This cutesy tale has no urgency. Oozing out of it is a light satire on contemporary yuppie-lady-in-distress thrillers--which are further mocked in occasional TV parodies--and a loose stab at modernizing the spirit and style of ‘30s screwball comedies, especially the ones that featured freaky-elegant rich girls and salty working guys.
Eastman has failed before with attempted screwballery--1976’s “The Fortune,” with Nicholson and Warren Beatty--and there her director, Mike Nichols, was a high-style comedy master. Rafelson has different gifts: His humor is darker, earthier, more iconoclastic and bitter. (Rafelson wrote the famous Nicholson restaurant blowup scene in “Five Easy Pieces.”) It’s obvious that he doesn’t have the right style here--he’s telling the story mostly through Joan’s eyes, and seeing it mostly through Harry’s--but maybe there is no right style.
“Man Trouble” seems perfunctory, skittery, the good bits embedded in a half-baked structure. You can’t blame the actors. The great Nicholson’s only real flaw--over-indulging his wiggling eyebrows and swooping hands--crops up occasionally, but he’s such an expert at all the modulations of lower-class savoir-faire that he digs right into Harry’s mix of sonorous patter, good-hearted grunge and desperate con.
The supporting cast members all hit their marks, and Ellen Barkin is actually wonderful. The role of nervous snobbish Joan, a sort of second-string Meryl Streep concoction, would have been a trap for a clothes-horse actress, but Barkin does her from the inside, gives her style, snap, a social history and the right brittle come-hither look. Someone write her a good screwball comedy--quick.
What goes wrong with “Man Trouble”? Too much money? When Eastman wrote “Easy Pieces,” she was dealing with the collision between social classes, and alienation from your family--exactly her subjects here--but she did it without coyness or straining for effects. There was no sense of an artificial construction, which is what comedy often is, of course, and why you have to sweat to get it right.
In “Five Easy Pieces,” some characters broke away, even at their own peril; in “Man Trouble,” they’re in rich glass houses, scared, soaking up the world through TV. The sun really has gotten to them. There’s a story there, too, but “Man Trouble” (MPAA rated PG-13) doesn’t have it. It’s just another high-style screwball wanna-be, waiting for its check, a bit overdressed, hiding behind movie stars and a lovable guard dog.
Jack Nicholson: Harry Bliss
Ellen Barkin: Joan Spruance
Harry Dean Stanton: Redmond Layls
Beverly D’Angelo: Andy Ellerman
A Mario & Vittorio Cecchi Gori/Silvio Berluscino presentation of a Penta Pictures/American Filmworks/Budding Grove production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Bob Rafelson. Producers Bruce Gilbert, Carole Eastman. Executive producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori. Screenplay by Eastman. Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. Editor William Steinkamp. Costumes Judy Ruskin. Music Georges Delerue. Production design Mel Bourne. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.