The only thing that has kept Alec Baldwin from becoming a megastar of the magnitude of Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, and Harrison Ford, or a heavyweight dramatic leading man like Russell Crowe, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio… is Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is too obscenely gifted to fail, and too self-destructive and difficult to succeed. The moody 30 Rock star has just about everything: devastating good looks, a voice like aged scotch, impeccable comic timing, boundless charisma, simmering intensity, voluminous talent, and a bizarre, colorful family dynasty. Yet he’s found countless ways to sabotage his career.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Baldwin seemed destined for a spot high atop the A-list. It’s a testament to the heat and intensity of his career at that point that Harrison Ford was reduced to scooping up Baldwin’s professional sloppy seconds when he assumed the part of Jack Ryan after Baldwin abandoned the franchise following The Hunt For Red October. Furthermore, Baldwin stole Glengarry Glen Ross from Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Al Pacino, and Ed Harris, even though he only appeared in one scene. Baldwin’s succinct but unforgettable turn in Glengarry Glen Ross is the cinematic equivalent of a Miles Davis solo; given its musicality and rhythm, it’s no surprise that it became the basis for the infectious dance song “Greatest Man Alive (Man’s Game Mix),” a standout track on the second disc of Steinski’s essential career-spanning retrospective What Does It All Mean?
Yet something curious happened en route to Alec Baldwin’s rocket ride to greatness: He fucked everything up. Baldwin’s scuffles with paparazzi, explosive temper, and tumultuous marriage to/divorce from Kim Basinger (and subsequent vicious custody battle) garnered more press than his increasingly iffy films. In Art Linson’s wry show-business memoir What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front Line, the veteran producer recounts having to tame an overweight, belligerent, unbecomingly hirsute Alec Baldwin before shooting The Edge. (In the little-loved film version of Linson’s book, Bruce Willis plays the Baldwin role.) Baldwin had recently appeared in a long string of duds (The Marrying Man, Prelude To A Kiss, The Getaway, The Shadow, The Juror, Heaven’s Prisoners, and Ghosts Of Mississippi) and the actor needed a classy, David Mamet-scripted major studio film like The Edge more than it needed him. But that didn’t keep Baldwin from playing prima donna and nearly sinking the film before shooting even began.
Unsurprisingly, Baldwin developed a reputation for being hard to work with. Before 30 Rock resurrected his career, he alternated between thankless supporting roles in shitty films (Mercury Rising, The Cat In The Hat, Along Came Polly, Fun With Dick & Jane) and bigger roles in films that either went directly to DVD or barely saw release (Thick As Thieves, The Confession, Mini’s First Time, Suburban Girl, Lymelife, Brooklyn Rules).
The notorious voicemail message in which Baldwin called his 11-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig” did little to rehabilitate his image as a volatile loose cannon, nor did his frequent vitriolic attacks on conservatives. A fascinating 2008 New Yorker profile of Baldwin paints a dark portrait of a bitter soul who derives no joy from his remarkable gifts or impressive comeback, and sees his rightly acclaimed role on 30 Rock as nothing more than the acting equivalent of being a pastry chef.
Baldwin’s ill-fated 2001 directorial debut, Shortcut To Happiness, filmed as The Devil And Daniel Webster, similarly illustrated the most talented Baldwin’s genius for snatching defeat from victory’s claws. On paper, the film looks fantastic. It’s based on beloved, time-tested source material—Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic 1937 short story “The Devil And Daniel Webster,” which in 1941 inspired a minor classic starring Walter Huston as a homespun Beezlebub. It boasts a screenplay co-written by Oscar-winner Bill Condon and National Book Award winning novelist/screenwriter Pete Dexter (Paris Trout). It also sports a stunning cast: Baldwin, his Edge co-star Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Amy Poehler, Kim Cattrall, Jason Patric, and Bobby Cannavale. Oh, and Jennifer Love Hewitt as the devil.
Yet the film quickly devolved into a clusterfuck of historic proportions. As befits a film about a man who makes a deal with Satan and lives to regret it, the film seemed cursed from its inception. After two of its investors were busted for fraud before post-production could be completed, the film ended up in bankruptcy court, where producer Bob Yari purchased it for several million dollars in 2007 and re-edited it so heavily that Baldwin had his directorial credit replaced with the pseudonym “Harry Kirkpatrick.” When filming began in 2001, Baldwin never could have imagined that nine years later, his star-studded take on a classic American story would be available only via Netflix’s “Watch Now” feature. (Similarly, when Happiness slipped into a handful of theaters in 2007, 30 Rock fans must have experienced cognitive dissonance watching an ostensibly new release featuring an Alec Baldwin six years younger and a good 40 pounds lighter than the handsome butterball of Tina Fey’s cult sitcom.)
Happiness begins on an appropriately amateurish note with an opening-credits sequence featuring a mischievous devil that only vaguely resembles Hewitt. It looks like it was assembled by the slow students in an Intro To Animation class at a lesser junior college. That opener sends a message: “We ran out of money before post-production was finished.”
We then cut to Baldwin’s hapless, luckless writer reading his latest story aloud. It’s a maudlin morality tale that’s become the bane of his existence, concerning an adorable moppet who ties helium balloons to a bike. When the boy’s father sees what he’s done and hears his explanation, he gets his Ward Cleaver on and sagely counsels, “Remember son, there’s not a shortcut to happiness.” The movie hasn’t properly begun yet, and already it’s beating us over the head with its moral.
In case audiences missed said message the first time around, Baldwin hears that line again after he’s scaled the heights of literary superstardom and has begun to wonder if maybe, just maybe, selling his soul to the devil might have been a mistake. For the benefit of viewers who fell asleep during the credits and woke up 90 minutes later (which is all too understandable), the phrase appears a third time during the climax.
Baldwin stars as, of all things, a hapless everyman who watches helplessly as pal Dan Aykroyd lands the multi-book deal Baldwin desperately seeks. Baldwin excels at playing masters of the universe, corporate sharks, titans of industry, imposing bosses, bad-asses, and sexy criminals. Casting him as a nice guy who just wants to get published is a waste of his dark Irish intensity and sinister wit. Some actors are too good-looking and charismatic to play losers. Just as we wouldn’t buy, say, George Clooney as a yogurt-shop employee who lives in his parents’ basement and makes sweet love to a blow-up doll every night, it’s impossible to buy Baldwin as an amiable dope.
Ah, but Baldwin isn’t just a hapless everyman: He’s a complete schmuck. He has a buck fifty in his checking account. Ruffians steal his manuscript. And when he hurls his typewriter out the window in a fit of frustration, it hits a random passerby. In desperation, Baldwin offers to sell his soul to trade places with Aykroyd.
At this personal nadir, the devil appears in the theoretically bewitching form of Jennifer Love Hewitt, whose buxom charms are undermined by unflattering lighting and chaste costumes. (Baldwin’s underachieving Shortcut doesn’t even succeed as a cleavage-delivery system.) Hewitt shoots for sexy and sinister, but comes off more like a mildly bitchy sorority sister. She’s as miscast as Baldwin: Shortcut asks a wholesome, fresh-scrubbed actress who seemingly can’t do “bad” to become the ultimate evil, and a dark, stormy actor who can’t do passive or nice to serve as a luckless mensch.
Hewitt offers to make Baldwin a literary success in exchange for a 10-year-lease on his soul. To sweeten the deal, she lets him give her the old Hong Kong handshake. Once again, Baldwin’s handsomeness works against him. After Baldwin asks if his Faustian bargain has kicked in yet, Hewitt attempts something that can charitably be called a glare, and hisses, “Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you found yourself in bed with someone who looks like this?” The answer seems like it ought to be “All the fucking time, because I look like the goddamn Marlboro Man.” Yet Shortcut repeatedly asks us to believe that a man who looks like Alec Baldwin has to sell his soul to the devil in order to have sex with attractive women.
With the help of publishing-world hotshot Kim Cattrall—doing a particularly over-the-top version of her female-drag-queen shtick—Baldwin becomes a bestselling author many times over. Yet his success rings predictably hollow. It alienates him from his friends—who begin dying suspiciously, possibly of Satan-related causes—and brings him no joy or contentment.
In a bid to win back his soul, Baldwin hooks up with regal publishing magnate Anthony Hopkins, a masterful orator who has battled the devil and emerged victorious on multiple occasions; he even has the devil’s tail framed on his office wall. Benét’s short story and its 1941 film adaptation were flag-waving, true-blue love letters to the United States and its judicial system. In Benét’s morality tale, even the devil falls subject to the rules and regulations of our Constitution, and is consequently forced to argue his case in a court of law before a jury of the damned.
Happiness replaces that idealistic patriotism with bad literary camp. The film climaxes with a trial to determine the ultimate fate of Baldwin’s soul, with Hopkins acting as Baldwin’s counsel before a gallery of bad celebrity look-alikes of Truman Capote, Mario Puzo, Oscar Wilde, Jacqueline Susann, and eight others. In the 1941 version of The Devil And Daniel Webster, Walter Huston’s folksy Old Scratch was literally a crafty devil, and a formidable foe. (Huston earned an Oscar nomination for the role.) Shortcut’s climax, on the other hand, asks us to ponder whether Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin will collectively be able to outsmart Jennifer Love Hewitt.
For a film directed by an actor with such a strong, distinctive personality, Shortcut feels awfully generic, with a light jazz score, constant lazy establishing shots of the Manhattan skyline, hammy performances from otherwise-gifted actors—the exception is the appropriately majestic Hopkins, who could probably convey dignity and authority in an infomercial for penis-extension pills—and a tone that veers from sitcom silliness to overwrought melodrama as Baldwin wrestles with the consequences of his actions. Not even a cameo from George Plimpton—who reportedly received a free hotplate in exchange for his guest appearance—can redeem this mess. Though filmed just after the turn of the century, Shortcut has a weirdly retro, ’80s vibe: it wouldn’t feel out of place on a double bill with The Secret Of My Success.
Instead of establishing Baldwin, who also produced, as a force behind the camera, Shortcut To Happiness became yet another failed professional suicide attempt from a prodigiously gifted actor who is often his own worst enemy. It’s hard to imagine anyone hiring Baldwin to direct a film now, especially after he publicly renounced Shortcut and urged his fans not to see it. As I seem to recall hearing somewhere, there is no shortcut to happiness, but why does Alec Baldwin have to make everything so goddamned hard?
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure