12 November 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: CAREER OPPORTUNITIES (1991)

It is said to be the case that following the huge success of Home Alone at the end of 1990, John Hughes was asked by Universal to please hurry up and get his next project out as soon as humanly possible, please, so that they could capitalise on the earlier film's golden glow. This strikes me as both weird, and irritatingly likely: studio executives, thinking only of the rich, loamy phrase "From the man who brought you Home Alone", would not likely give much of a shit that Career Opportunities - for that was the new film written and produced by Hughes, and directed by first-timer Bryan Gordon - I say, they would not care that Career Opportunities was not in fact a movie aimed at family audiences, for it did not in fact have an eight-year-old protagonist, and was thus not even a little bit likely to attract the same breadth of audience. Although, they do make a rather nice double feature: both turn on a male who is regarded by his family as something of an epic screw-up, and both spend most of their running time following that character as he runs amok having fun in an empty building just full of interesting things to play with, and at the end of this movie he has to stop a pair of thieves.

Career Opportunities is, however, about a 21-year-old with a hearty case of arrested development, though, and that is all the difference: it is, like She's Having a Baby, a study in what happens to those famous Hughes teens when they grow up and become young adults. Also like She's Having a Baby, it blows. But that's not where I want to be just yet. The new movie introduces us to Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) in a characteristic moment: lying his damn ass off to a bunch of kids about how relentlessly wonderful and successful his life is. In truth, it is neither of those things: in truth, Jim is just about to be laid off from the latest in a long line of mediocre jobs, to the eternal disgust of his father, Bud (John M. Jackson). It's gotten so bad at the Dodge home, in fact, that Bud has issued an ultimatum: start working and paying rent now, or go to St. Louis, where your uncle has a job all lined up. And that is how Jim ends up working as the night janitor at the local Target.

He treats this job with all the sincerity due his single lifeline: by basically destroying the inside of the store. He eats food from the shelf, plays with toys, wears clothes, knocks things down, and then, eventually, he runs smack into a pretty girl. Nay, a gorgeous girl. This is Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly) the hottest girl in town and daughter of its wealthiest businessman, who had whipped up a half-cocked idea to embarrass her dad by shoplifting and getting caught, until she dozed off in the dressing room and just woke up after hours. The two young people chat - they have known each other kind of, mostly by reputation (Jim, we learn, is widely regarded as Town Liar) - and in good Hughesian fashion, they find some kind of accord with one another and daydream about running off to California and escaping their dictator asshole fathers. First, though, they have to deal with the crooks (Dermot Mulroney and his lesser-known brother Kieran) who thought a Target would be an easy mark.

At just 83 minutes, the thing rockets by, and not in a good way: it's wretchedly undernourished, rushing through its various beats as though it had someplace better to go. If we didn't know from other, better Hughes movies what the themes and emotional registers were supposed to be, it's hard to say that Career Opportunities would be able to supply them itself. Fact is, you can tell at every moment that the filmmakers weren't given as much time as they could have used, and the result is a film that is perfunctory and slapdash, with painfully unmodulated performances and just about the most indistinct, one size fits all visual vocabulary of any movie in the Hughes Entertainment archives. Could this be the simple evidence of Gordon's weakness as a director? Maybe. But given that he had, at this point, an Oscar-winning short to his name, and would, in future, do quite a lot of rather good television work, I don't think it pays much to accuse him of routine hackery.

At any rate, the bigger problem by far is Jim Dodge: he is meant to be our protagonist, the guy we want to stand up for when his dad puts him down, and when his various employers treat him like crap. What we are probably not meant to do is wonder that his parents could stand to live with him for so many years without putting rat poison in his dinner. After much deliberation, I have not been able to decide whether I was bothered more by the writing, which presents him as positively smug about his perpetual unemployment, or by Whaley's grating, arch performance - the latter, if you made me pick. It's at least possible to imagine how this character could work on the page, though in the film as it stands the part of the plot where he learns how not to be such an incredibly entitled jackass is rushed through so fast I'm not certain it was even there. But Whaley's insistence on playing the character as a self-amused con man, always talking faster than the speed of light and delivering quips like they're the fucking Beatitudes, makes it impossible to connect with him as a likable, mixed-up kid; it's barely possible, in fact, to recognise him as human.

With that kind of yawning gulf in the center, there was simply no way for Career Opportunities to work. Bits of it are good; very tiny bits of it are outstanding, especially the uncredited John Candy cameo as the Target manager, a glad-handing sort of cynical bastard rare in the Candy oeuvre. Connelly performance is awfully damn good, wounded but not self-pitying, and with a predatory awareness of how her sexual desirability affects the flailing Jim that isn't quite like anything else in the actress's spotty filmography.

Mostly, though, the film is as callow as its protagonist: Hughes has nothing remotely interesting to say that he and other writers hadn't already done far better, and Gordon never really does anything but follow the antic tone set by his lead character, resulting in a movie that is busy to absolutely no point. It keeps feeling like a properly thoughtful movie is right under the skin somewhere - in particular, the film always seems about 90 seconds away from being an ironic look at the middle-class consumer culture typified by a place like Target (incidentally, Targets have not apparently changed in even the minutest detail in the last 20 years) - but this is all slickness and superficiality right down the line, culminating in a grotesque ending that without apparent shame or satire rewards the two young leads for all of their bad habits and asks them to grow not at all. It's not funny, it's not insightful, and only the fact that it is, ultimately, for grown-ups differentiates it from the ass-stupid wacky comedies that Hughes's career was about to topple into, for once and all.

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

I just remember being incredibly confused by Target's possibly weirdest product placement ever. Did the people who ok'd the use of Target actually read the script, or did they just say "ooh a movie!"? Come shop at Target: where it's easy to steal from us, and we hire lazy employees, treat them horribly, and lock them in at night.

The.Watcher said...

"He eats food from the shelf, plays with toys, [b]wears clothes[/b], knocks things down, and then, eventually, he runs smack into a pretty girl"

Haha, I would hope he wears clothes!

Mike said...

Isn't this movie named "White Tank Top"?