Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Around the time excitable former video-store clerk Quentin Tarantino made an unlikely but glorious transformation into an Oscar-winning international auteur, a primo writer of pulp fiction named Elmore Leonard was also getting classy. 1995’s Get Shorty, which had a lot in common with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—including a producer (Danny DeVito) and a star (John Travolta)—marked a turning point in the cinematic career of one of our greatest genre writers.
Before Get Shorty wowed critics and audiences alike, Leonard’s novels tended to be adapted into B-movies: cheap, fast, and pitched unmistakably to an undiscriminating audience out for its quota of blood, flesh, and action. The film adaptations of Leonard’s paperback potboilers occupied some of the lower rungs of the cultural ladder. In the ’60s and ’70s, Leonard’s novels became the basis for a Charles Bronson movie about a watermelon farmer at war with bad guys (Mr. Majestyk), a Burt Reynolds vehicle that doubled as a Burt Reynolds directorial endeavor (that would be 1985’s Stick), and several other similarly unheralded and half-remembered enterprises.
In the years following Get Shorty, however, Leonard’s novels have been adapted by the eminently respectable likes of Tarantino (1997’s Jackie Brown), Steven Soderbergh (1998’s Out Of Sight), James Mangold (2007’s 3:10 To Yuma), and Paul Schrader (the intriguing 1997 religious allegory Touch). The author has also inspired a trio of well-liked television adaptations: the short-lived Maximum Bob, with Beau Bridges as a hanging judge, Karen Sisco, and currently the much-loved Justified.
Tarantino’s enthusiastic embrace of Leonard did wonders for the veteran novelist’s brand. It speaks volumes that a director with a personality and sensibility as strong as Tarantino would adapt another writer’s work, rather than just borrowing everything he likes from said oeuvre wholesale, as is Tarantino’s usual custom. Like Tarantino, Leonard has become a ubiquitous pop-culture brand synonymous with an irreverent, smartass take on the crime genre characterized by exquisitely stylized dialogue, larger-than-life characters, and blood-splattered dark comedy. Leonard delights in language, in the quirks and eccentricities of the human condition and in storytelling in all its forms.
Freaky Deaky, a Charles Matthau-directed adaptation of a 1989 Leonard comic novel set in 1974 Detroit, features a combustible combination of elements befitting a dark comedy about a pair of explosives experts. And yet somehow, it congeals into an unappetizing, lukewarm mess. If Freaky Deaky weren’t a proper Leonard adaptation, it could easily pass for a half-assed knockoff of the master.
The opening scene of Freaky Deaky captures the film in microcosm: It opens on a huge television screen displaying a game show before panning over to the massive lime-green bathroom of a huge gangster with an equally huge afro, smoking a fat cigar while marinating in a hot tub surrounded by so much Astroturf it looks like he’s sinking into a giant three-layer cake. The gangster gets out of the tub to answer the phone and is told by a sexy voice on the other end, “I’m supposed to tell you that when you get up, honey, what’s left of your drug-dealing ass is going to go clear through the ceiling!” Against a backdrop of wah-wah funk guitar, a bomb-squad specialist (Billy Burke) then enters the scene. After talking to the freaked-out gangster and considering his options, he walks out of the home, barely paying attention when the gangster blows up dramatically.
This is supposed to be a big, bold, funny setpiece that establishes an appropriately rollicking tone for the rest of the film. Freaky Deaky opens with a gag so dark and nihilistic it uses an explosion and a violent death as a punchline. Yet the scene barely registers because the tone is so off. The doomed gangster mugs unashamedly while Burke sleepwalks through the thankless role of a sentient slab of beige amid a vast sea of local color. From the very beginning, Freaky Deaky is either trying too hard—and straining mightily in the process—or steering its cavalcade of comical craziness into paradoxically bland directions.
Director Charles Matthau, who also adapted Leonard’s novel and produced, continues to lay it on thick in opening credits that manage to cram in seemingly every clunky cultural signifier of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Things begin with a hound-dog-faced Richard Nixon speaking dourly of “The Watergate Affair” before following a well-worn path through groovy protestors, not-so-groovy soldiers dying for the white man’s war in Vietnam, Kent State, Black Power, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
Matthau is letting us know that while Freaky Deaky might technically take place in 1974, its actual timeframe is more amorphous. The film takes place in some weird netherworld between the righteous rebellion of the ’60s counterculture and the empty hedonism of the ’70s, a realm of ultra-decadence that retains the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll of the hippies while eschewing all that tiresome idealism and integrity. This is an intriguing and fertile cultural milieu, but (in its cinematic form, at least) all Freaky Deaky takes from it is mindless decadence—a futile, tiresome, and ultimately unrewarding pursuit of kicks for their own sake.
In keeping with its paperback roots and bizarre tonal shifts, Freaky Deaky is divided into chapters, the first titled “No Wheels, No Girlfriend, But Sex Crimes Galore.” It’s a none-too-sensitive acknowledgment that much of the plot of this wacky crime comedy hinges on an accusation of rape. The accusation comes from a struggling actress (Sabina Gadecki) against a wealthy space cadet (Crispin Glover), whose fortune becomes the focal point for the scheming machinations of a desperate aggregation of small-timers and schemers. This group includes Glover’s calculating right-hand man, Michael Jai White; an explosives expert played by Christian Slater in wild-eyed self-caricature mode; and Slater’s partner in crime, a scheming femme fatale played by Breanne Racano, who, like Gadecki, has the look but lacks the magnetism and presence to make her character anything but a fuzzy, unsatisfying abstraction.
Though hamstrung by a fundamental inertness, Freaky Deaky is not without its funky pleasures, many of them rooted in the relationship between White and Glover. The perfectly typecast Glover plays his wealthy ne’er-do-well as an overgrown infant whose massive wealth frees him from the numbing responsibilities of adulthood. He’s a pill-popper, stoner, and alcoholic so inveterately fucked-up that he sees the world like a blurry, out-of-focus television that keeps flipping randomly through channels: a strange and disorienting spectacle that doesn’t make much sense but is weirdly enjoyable all the same. With Glover forever in a state of infantile helplessness, it falls upon White to serve as his babysitter/surrogate dad/driver/life coach/valet/attendant. Glover is completely dependent upon White, who is savvy and calculating enough to use that to his advantage. They make for an unlikely but inspired pair, the space cadet and the savvy opportunist; but the film’s other partnerships all fall fatally flat.
Freaky Deaky is a featherweight trifle that doesn’t have the gravity to deal with sexual assault. To be fair, the sexual assault doesn’t figure that prominently in the proceedings, but it nevertheless results in jarring tonal shifts. Take the following clip, where the film cycles rapidly through three jarringly different tones: the lumbering heaviness of the sexual-assault subplot, the Wile E. Coyote wackiness of the nonsense involving dynamite and explosives, and then finally the Cinemax sleaze of Racano vamping it up as this half-assed comic neo-noir’s appropriately half-assed femme fatale.
Freaky Deaky throws so much at audiences that the law of averages, and the pedigree of the folks involved, dictates that at least some of it succeeds. I will love White until my dying day for giving the world Black Dynamite, and the palpable pleasure he takes in delivering dialogue like “[Glover] remains above earthly shit like police stations and jail. The man is all-the-way live and into his pleasures” is infectious, if all too fleeting.
More often, the dialogue lands with a thud, like when Slater observes of Racano’s devious schemes, “Dynamite and acid! That’s a combo that’ll Star Trek you back to the good old days!” And the film misses the opportunity to comment meaningfully on the way ’60s idealism warped and evolved in the early ’70s, though it’s at least faithful enough to the shaggy clichés of its time period to include an arbitrary acid freakout.
Freaky Deaky’s director is the son of Walter Matthau, who starred in the younger Matthau’s 1995 adaptation of the Truman Capote novel The Grass Harp. Charles Matthau includes a reverent homage to his famous dad by prominently featuring the marquee for the 1974 cult classic The Taking Of The Pelham One Two Three (which, coincidentally, was a formative influence on Quentin Tarantino). The homage to his legendary and much-missed father is a nice gesture that backfires by reminding us of better times, better actors, and better movies with a better grasp on juggling comedy, crime, and the trembling tenor of an uncertain time.
Just how bad is it? It could be worse, but it could also be a lot better.