My Year Of Flops: Rejected Reject #1 Getting Away With Murder
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My last blog post, a painstakingly tossed-off, "Hey look at this kooky clip I done found on the Internet" hackterpiece about Stephen Colbert "rapping" on Whose Line Is It Anyway, received a curiously schizophrenic response. It was eviscerated in the comments yet received more Diggs than all my other blog posts, interviews and My Year Of Flops entries combined. Times ten. The message was clear: I needed to never do another clip-based, seductively easy blog post ever again. Or I needed to start doing nothing but clip-based blog posts.
But us A.V Clubbers pride ourselves on taking the high road and talking up, rather than down, to our readers. So I can assure you that my new column, "Look at this awesome celebrity cleavage I found on Google Image", will appeal to reader's better angels. So will my even newerer feature, an exhaustive photo essay about Hayden Panettiere nipple slips. Will it win me a Pulitzer? Yes. Yes it will.
No, I'm actually introducing a new feature that will be exquisitely labor and time intensivetastic: a My Year Of Flops spin-off called My Year Of Flops: Rejected Rejects. This irregularly updated feature will provide me a forum to write about movies I saw as potential My Year Of Flops candidates or for Inventories but that don't seem meaty or prominent enough to warrant full-on entries. Future potential rejects from the mixed-up files of the already rejected include the Michael Moore laffer Canadian Bacon (which I like) and the Sidney Lumet terminal ward chuckle fest Critical Care (which I also like, with many reservations).
The first entry I will address in this feature is 1996's barely released Getting Away With Murder, a comedy that explores the lighter side of Nazi War Criminals, murder and loveless marriages. Like the 1990 Steve Guttenberg Cancer comedy Don't Tell Her It's Me and the Tom Selleck/Don Ameche senility romp Folks!, Murder seems to have been greenlit less for commercial or creative reasons than as an elaborate practical joke on moviegoers.
Murder would have to be brilliant to pull off such a tricky, potentially offensive premise. It's not brilliant. It's not even particularly good. It's bland and inoffensive in a way I found fairly offensive.
Dan Aykroyd stars as a straight-laced Ethics professor (a profession that subtly conveys he's all concerned with ethics and morals and shit) who takes great pride in being a good citizen and upstanding human being. But when he learns that his seemingly harmless German neighbor (Jack Lemmon) is an infamous Nazi war criminal who will die a free man thanks to the difficulties of mounting a case against him, Aykroyd takes drastic action.
The mild-mannered idealist turns high-minded vigilante and decides to poison the apples in Lemmon's apple tree. When the press reports Lemmon's death as a suicide, an indignant Aykroyd writes an anonymous letter to the police insisting that Lemmon was killed as punishment for his transgressions by a Good Samaritan acting in the public's best interest.
Needless to say, verisimilitude is not the film's strong point. But at this point the plausibility factor devolves from "unlikely" to "You gotta be fucking kidding me." When a news report indicates that Lemmon wasn't a Nazi butcher after all, a distraught Aykroyd decides to make it up to Lemmon's family by breaking up with nice doctor fiancée Bonnie Hunt and marrying his ex-neighbor's glowering wet blanket of a daughter (Lily Tomlin).
The film's commercial and critical failure (it boasts a O% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) can partially be attributed to six words guaranteed to chill the blood: Dan Aykroyd/Lily Tomlin sex scene. Don't nobody want to see that, Aykroyd and Tomlin included. Actually, the Aykroyd/Tomlin fuckfest is one of the film's best scenes, a bleak romp through matrimonial hell where we, and Aykroyd, learn that Tomlin's idea of post-coital pillow talk entails stiffly announcing that she doesn't like sex but will grudgingly consent to it anyway.
Only in its despairing final third does the darkness of the film's execution meet the bleakness of its premise. Otherwise it offers the dispiriting spectacle of an arsenic idea put onto the screen with all the flavor and zing of vanilla yogurt. Murder suffers from what I call Craig Brewer Syndrome, after the affable fella who made nice, overtly moral movies about pimps (Hustle & Flow) and cock-crazed nymphomaniacs who must be chained to radiators for their own good (Black Snake Moan) the whole family can enjoy. With their pastor even. Filmmakers afflicted with Craig Brewer Syndrome make the least offensive films out of the most offensive premises.
Murder made me think but it never made me laugh. There's something intriguing about the notion of a man doing egregiously wrong things (killing a neighbor, making sure the police know Lemmon's death was a murder rather than a suicide, entering into a loveless marriage out of a misplaced sense of obligation) for ostensibly moral reasons. Murder poses some heady questions. Does the individual have a duty to fill in when social structures like courts and police fail? What happens when obeying the law and following the dictates of your conscience conflict? Can murder ever be moral? Those are the kinds of questions that traditionally have moviegoers rolling in the aisles. Yet Murder asks these interesting questions in a most uninteresting way. It lacks the gravity to do them justice. It lacks any gravity whatsoever.
While basking in the comic genius of Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live I found myself thinking, to paraphrase Claire Danes in U-Turn, how come Dan Aykroyd don't make no more good movies? How did one of the greatest comic talents of the seventies and eighties bottom sink so low in the next two decades? How did the Aykroyd of Saturday Night Live, Trading Places and Ghostbusters become the doughy hack of Blues Brothers 2000, Celtic Pride, Caddyshack 2 and Crossroads?
I hate to harp on something as silly and superficial as looks, but Aykroyd's descent from skinny and wiry to pudgy and soft mirrored the decay of his once razor-sharp comic chops. Where Bill Murray improved with time, becoming deeper and more soulful, Aykroyd lapsed into bloated self-parody. His once-formidable talent atrophied. A frighteningly precise virtuoso got typecast as chubby dads and forgettable authority figures in shitty comedies. He's still able to recapture the old magic on occasion (Grosse Point Blank, Bright Young Things) but those moments are few and far between.
Lemmon and Tomlin deliver better performances than the material warrants. A deceptively playful Lemmon is plausible as both a genocidal monster in hiding and a harmless old man and Tomlin's uncompromising performance is refreshingly devoid of sentimentality. Yet their best efforts are wasted in a movie that aspires to make audiences laugh and think and only achieves half its goals.
To give the filmmakers credit, the film is bound to spark plenty of post-viewing conversations, if not plenty of viewings. Unfortunately, those conversations are doomed to start with, "Why did we see this turkey in the first place?What I Would Give The Film If It Were a My Year Of Flops Entry, Which It So Totally Is Not, Despite Looking and Feeling Suspiciously Like One: Failure