Monday, May 24, 2010

Film Review: FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974, Richard Rush)

Stars: 3.2 of 5.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Tag-line: "Above all...it's a love story."
Notable Cast or Crew: James Caan, Alan Arkin, Paul Koslo (ROBOT JOX, THE STONE KILLER), Loretta Swit (BEER, FOREST WARRIOR), Jack Kruschen (THE APARTMENT, CAPE FEAR), Mike Kellin (MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, SLEEPAWAY CAMP), Linda Marsh (CHE!, HOMEBODIES), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER, CANNONBALL RUN II). Music by Dominic Frontiere (THE STUNT MAN, John Flynn's DEFIANCE). Cinematography by Lászlo Kovács (EASY RIDER, GHOSTBUSTERS).
Best one-liner: "Lady, I spend half my life in toilets!"

Humbly presented, for your consideration... It's not just another San Francisco cop movie... It's FREEBIE AND THE BEAN.
Hell, it supposedly was Stanley Kubrick's favorite movie of 1974 (the same year as THE GODFATHER PART II, CHINATOWN, THE CONVERSATION, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, LENNY, DEATH WISH, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, not to mention FOXY BROWN, MR. MAJESTYK, and SPASMO). Well, I'd kinda like a swig or a hit or a toke of whatever hallucinogenic substance Mr. Kubrick was enjoying at the time he made that ludicrous statement, because if it was capable of making FREEBIE AND THE BEAN the best film of that or any other year, who knows what other, wondrous fantasies it could conjure? But I don't mean to be a dick- FREEBIE AND THE BEAN is not a bad movie, it's merely an extremely choppy, vaguely offensive one which gets a lot of bonus points for great bantering leads (Caan & Arkin), and the infusion of some genuine, back alley grit. Kind of like a lesser, 70's RUNNING SCARED? I mean, I'm not sure I ought to be tossing around phrases like 'a lesser RUNNING SCARED' with reckless abandon, but here we are.
It's directed by Richard Rush (THE STUNT MAN, PSYCH-OUT), who, by all accounts, is a somewhat reckless, passionate 'soldier of cinema.' A fan of Proust and BATMAN comics who started off making propaganda films for the government and later 'hippies gone wild' biker/drug movies, he evolved into one of those eccentric auteurs who makes a picture once a decade, if they're lucky. Alan Arkin's evidently spoken about dangerous working conditions on the set of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, and you have to wonder if Rush based THE STUNT MAN on reality. (Conversely, Rush has spoken out about Arkin as difficult to work with.) Regardless, this film has a very sprawling, organic feel to it; sort of the cinematic equivalent to speeding the wrong way down a one-way street with a madman at the helm– sometimes it's going to be breathlessly inspired gold, and sometimes it's going to be a goddamn train wreck. It's definitely going for a 1970's Keystone Kops vibe, an ambition more satisfying attained by the far superior 1974 Ivan Passer film, LAW AND DISORDER.

Now let me tell you a little bit about the plot- James Caan and Alan Arkin play a couple of cops who play by their own rules and bicker like an elderly couple. Caan likes free shit. Sometimes he steals it, just to make sure it's free. Thus, he's so aptly named, "Freebie." Arkin is (apparently) Hispanic. He always wants to go out for a burrito, but Freebie is always shutting him down. He bears the oh-so-appropriate moniker, "Bean." In a wacky series of events, they end up protecting a mobster that they've sworn to destroy because they're waiting on a warrant for him at the same time that hordes of hit men are descending upon the city.
Under different circumstances, this movie certainly could have been unbearable, but the dynamic between the smarmy Caan and the deadpan Arkin is infectiously fun to watch. Their bad attitudes and endless, smartass banter frankly feel a little ahead of their time.

Paul Koslo even shows up as yet another stringy-haired goon, a role which he inhabited many times throughout the 1970's (THE STONE KILLER, MR. MAJESTYK, CLEOPATRA JONES).
Arkin practices some zany police brutality.

The visuals are fantastic. Lensed by the late, great Hungarian cinematographer, Lászlo Kovács (THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, TARGETS, SHAMPOO), he manages to combine slick, balanced compositions with an inherent grittiness.
The chases, while not approaching the greatness of say, THE FRENCH CONNECTION or THE SEVEN-UPS, are creative, whacky, and presented with a visual flair worthy of Buster Keaton- or at the very least, Jacques Tati. In one of my favorite scenes, a chase collides with a parade, and a marching band gets mowed down with extreme prejudice.
Elsewhere, James Caan's stunt double leads an outrageous motorbike pursuit which involves driving on top of traffic, and ultimately knocking down an enormous set of dominoes, which just happen to be set up in his path.
Yes, dear reader- THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS.


FREEBIE AND THE BEAN gets a little weird as it goes along. I mean, the hair-raising, largely unfunny jokes about police torture, racism, and the like seem ill-advised, plus there's a particularly offensive depiction of trannies as gun-toting psychos.
It's juuuuuust enough to put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. But then James Caan will do something like this:
KER-SQUAAASH

and I'll feel like the film should wear its oafishness on its sleeve as a badge of pride (which it does). There're also a few odd moments where the film blindsides you with something utterly devoid of humor...
...and you know that Rush is aware of it- in fact, he's likely reveling in it- but on the whole, the film has the feel of disparate puzzle pieces, haphazardly jammed together into an amusing little slice of chaotic life. You enjoy it, but it makes you uneasy. A little over three stars.


-Sean Gill



6 comments:

J.D. said...

I think I liked this film more than you did. Really, it's a product of its time but I found it very entertaining and very funny. It's probably the source for buddy cop comedies and the car chases/crashes made me think that John Landis was definitely taking notes while watching this film in prep for THE BLUES BROTHERS!

As you point out, I think what saves this film and makes it work so well is the banter between Caan and Arkin. As with any buddy cop comedy, if there is comic timing/chemistry between the two buddies, yer dead in the water and they certainly have that in a big, big way.

Sean Gill said...

Definitely Landis was taking notes. Probably Zemeckis, too, for USED CARS. But yeah, Caan and Arkin really have great chemistry. I heard that they bonded over mutual dislike for on-set dynamics- I also heard that they appear together in the GET SMART remake, a film which I don't think I'll suffer through just for a possible FREEBIE AND THE BEAN reunion.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I caught a bit of GET SMART on TV a while ago. Awful. My eyes are still burning.

Anonymous said...

Don't overlook Arkin, as part of the good cop/bad cop routine, saying in mock horror: "Not the pliers! Not the pliers!"

And Valerie Harper spritzing perfume up her dress.

Anonymous said...

Don't overlook Arkin, as part of the good cop/bad cop routine, saying in mock horror: "Not the pliers! Not the pliers!"

And Valerie Harper spritzing perfume up her dress.

Sean Gill said...

Anon.,

Very nice. And indeed, Arkin always brings his A-game.