My Year Of Flops Case File # 15: Best Defense
More My Year Of Flops
Back in the A.V Club's pre-historic days a college friend of mine asked my colleague and friend Keith Phipps and myself to provide on-camera introductions to art-house films he planned to sell to undiscriminating small-time television stations hungry for late-night programming at rock-bottom prices. The films were all in the public domain so they could ostensibly be shown on television for the price of a scratchy print. It seemed like a fairly preposterous scheme at the time but I agreed to it all the same.
Like a lot of people I labored under the delusion that I would be a natural for television, that television cameras would swoon in admiration of my primal animal magnetism. But when the camera started rolling unimaginable depths of stiffness emerged from deep within my being. My onscreen presence could best be described as "lurching and Frankenstein-like". I was just lucky a mob of angry torch-wielding villagers didn't break into the movie theater we were filming at so they could chase me out of Madison.
As the day wore on and my performance stubbornly refused to improve the hopelessness of the situation became achingly apparent. Late in the day I was woodenly intoning an introduction when I heard the unmistakable sound of a movie theater employee vacuuming in the background.
"Hey, shouldn't we wait until they stop vacuuming before we continue filming? Won't that screw up the sound?" I asked obliviously.
"Nah", responded my scheming pal. "We'll just fix it in editing".
Needless to say, dear reader, nothing got fixed in editing but that phrase has stayed with me ever since. For there is a strange, irrationally pervasive belief among American studios that anything can be fixed in editing or post-production. Your movie makes no fucking sense? Add some exposition-happy voiceover narration in post. Folks on the net desperately want to hear a certain black character actor express his disapproval of slithering reptiles taking commercial flights in no uncertain terms? Then edit those magical words into the film. Test audiences hate your terrible, terrible Dudley Moore flop? Then film a handful of new scenes and try to posit it as a Dudley Moore/Eddie Murphy movie.
1984's agonizingly awful Best Defense beautifully illustrates the folly of thinking that everything can be fixed in editing or post-production. When the film fared poorly in early test screenings the studio realized it had a major dilemma on its hands. How do you get audiences to care about whether a sleazy, unlikable engineer (Dudley Moore) fixes a malfunctioning tank component before it's used in battle? The answer must have seemed radical and brilliant at the time: why not film scenes inside the tank itself? Better yet, why not throw a couple million dollars at Eddie Murphy for a few days work as a wisecracking tank commander? That way the stakes would be nothing less than the life or death of America's brightest and most popular comic actor.
Just try to imagine a world without Murphy. It'd be a grim dystopia where filmmakers would have to hire different actors to play morbidly obese shrews, skinny geeks and grotesque Asian-American stereotypes, a nightmare realm where red leather jumpsuits went tragically unworn and hilarious stand-up routines about faggots with AIDS were never written or performed. It's a world where transvestite hookers are tragically denied rides from good Samaritans and Chris Tucker voices sass-talking dragons and donkeys. In short it's a world no one wants to contemplate, let alone inhabit.
The world of Best Defense isn't much brighter. In my previous post I called the film a strained satire but it lacks even the faintest hint of social commentary: Best Defense makes Stripes look like Dr. Strangelove by comparison. Dudley Moore here plays an engineer at a failing tank manufacturer who stumbles onto the plans for a fantastical gyroscope that will save his company. Moore is hailed as a hero and a genius for inventing the miraculous doo-hickey but there are a few minor complications. Moore didn't invent the gyroscope and it doesn't work.
Best Defense lacks Deal Of The Century's fuzzy aspirations to satire but the films otherwise boast eerie parallels. Both films hinge on the lead character receiving something from a troubled loner played by a respected character actor/playwright. In Deal Of The Century that character actor/playwright was Wallace Shawn. Here it's Tom Noonan. Both films concern defense companies peddling defective wares and boast interracial casts headlined by Saturday Night Live veterans. Lastly, both films suck. Oh Lordy do they suck.
Not surprisingly Murphy's scenes feel thoroughly disconnected from the rest of the film. Not even a young Eddie Murphy is capable of generating hilarity out of thin air and Best Defense gives him nothing to work with. Even with Murphy inside the tank the film sorely lacks urgency and momentum.
Best Defense's plot eerily foreshadows later global developments. Murphy's tank is dispatched to help Kuwait defend itself from Iraq but the film nevertheless seems to exist in an adolescent fantasyland where international affairs take a back seat to ogling hot bosses and making glib jokes. Murphy and Moore boast two of the most distinctive laughs in comedy history but here their guffaws–a deep, rich sensual expression of joy and a foghorn cackle of debauched amusement respectively–reek of noxious, unearned self-love. Moore and Murphy were both paid handsomely to laugh. Audiences at home have no similar incentive.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?:Failure