In the Cold War-obsessed eighties, that halcyon decade of Rocky IV, Amerika and "Tear down this wall", the defense industry became a ripe subject for cinematic satire. But how do you expose the furtive malignancy of an enterprise so self-evidently evil and cancerous? That's a problem plaguing both of this week's "My Year of Flops" entries, 1983's Deal Of The Century and 1984's Best Defense. Both films try to make dark and challenging subject matter more palatable by casting bankable Saturday Night Live superstars in central roles but not even the mega-wattage star-power of Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy respectively could keep the films from dive-bombing with critics and audiences alike. Satires are a tough sell under the best of circumstances. It is satire's solemn duty to generate steady streams of yuks, guffaws and chuckles while simultaneously revealing society's underlying ugliness and duplicity. But audiences generally go to comedies to escape the horrors of the modern world, not to be confronted by them. Who goes to a Chevy Chase movie to recoil at the greed, avariciousness and amorality of the defense industry?
Deal Of The Century marks the peculiar pairing of Chevy Chase and William Friedkin, two hotshot boy wonders who thoroughly blew two of the most auspicious beginnings in show-biz history though I'll take late-period Friedkin over late-period Chase any day of the week (I seriously underrated The Hunted and To Live And Die In L.A is simply one of the best action films of the eighties). By the time he starred in Deal Chase's breezy charm had long since lapsed into smarm and his light comic touch, so deft and winning in Foul Play, Caddyshack and SNL's legendary first year, had devolved into lazy sleep-walking. Chase's career is riddled with "What ifs". What if he'd accepted the lead roles in American Gigolo, Forrest Gump, American Beauty and National Lampoon's Animal House, all parts he was reportedly offered but turned down, according to notstarring.com, a website devoted to documenting all the roles actors turned down or were rejected for (if you haven't checked it out it's one hell of a guilty pleasure/time waster. I highly recommend it)?
Deal Of A Century suggests those questions aren't anywhere near as compelling as they might seem since Chase probably would have turned them into dreary, standard-issue Chevy Chase vehicles. That's certainly the case here. Chase had a golden opportunity to subvert his featherweight image by playing a character whose surface appeal is used to dark, even evil ends but Chase's relentlessly glib performance largely negates the film's attempts at satire and moral ambiguity.
Chase smirks his way through the role of a hotshot arms dealer untroubled by the deadly consequences of his trade. When panic-stricken fellow arms dealer Wallace Shawn kills himself immediately before completing a huge deal (a deal of the century as it were) Chase swoops in and steals the account. Alas the unmanned fighter plane (known as "The Peacemaker", a perfect use of Orwellian double-speak) is far from combat-ready and after a disastrous demonstration to Pentagon officials Chase decides to sell his futuristic lemons of the sky to sleazy Central and Southern American dictators.
Gregory Hines co-stars as Chase's partner and best friend, a troubled ex-fighter-pilot in the midst of a dramatic religious conversion. It's certainly not Hines' fault that his character is more of a plot point than a plausible human being: Hines' character exists exclusively to move the plot forward and act as the angel on Chase's shoulder.
There are moments when Deal is bracingly dark, like the bravura sequence where the Peacemaker goes horribly awry and turns on its masters but the unbearable lightness of Chase's being keeps it from ever plunging too deep below the surface. Friedkin's touch is most evident in the film's overwhelming cynicism, which makes a lame cop-out of a happy ending even more inexcusable. George S. Kaufman famously quipped that satire is what closes on Saturday night but would-be satires this muddled, ineffectual and achingly unfunny should never have been green-lit in the first place.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Failure