Monday, June 28, 2010

Film Review: MR. NORTH (1988, Danny Huston)

Stars: 2.8 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Tag-line: "Some say he's a miracle man. Some say he's a fraud. You are about to meet a most unusual young man."
Notable Cast or Crew: Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Harry Dean Stanton, Lauren Bacall, Virginia Madsen, Mary Stuart Masterson, Anjelica Huston, David Warner, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Durang. Based on the novel by Thorton Wilder. Screenplay by John Huston, Janet Roach (PRIZZI'S HONOR), and James Costigan (THE HUNGER).
Best one-liner: "Madam, I suggest that you encourage your children to play with matches!"

Those looking for some lost, latter-day John Huston masterpiece in MR. NORTH will likely be disappointed. Co-written and co-produced by Huston, essentially from his (characteristically active) deathbed, it is based on the 1973 novel THEOPHILUS NORTH by Thorton Wilder and directed by John's then-twenty-six year old son, Danny (who had cut his teeth already directing a few projects for television, a 'making-of' piece on SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE, and the main title sequence for UNDER THE VOLCANO). Equal parts Gatsby, Walter Mitty, and classic picaresque, the film is pleasant, evocative, atmospheric, and has a jaw-droppingly impressive ensemble cast, but ultimately, it's a hollow lark, good for a few gentle thrills on a summer's day, but little else.

As our young Ivy-League grad, odd-job seeking wayfarer with a propensity toward a heightened electrical charge, Anthony Edwards is very likable as Mr. North, and he imbues the role with genuine innocence (and the occasional mischievous flair). He is currently seeking employment as a 'reader,' having just "shockingly" extricated himself from a position as a reciter of ALICE IN WONDERLAND for some positively demonic blue-blooded kiddies.

Anthony Edwards zaps the shit out of this little shrew-in-training.

Soon afterward, he finds himself in Newport, Rhode Island (of 1926), a community of such starchy affluence, that phrases like "This does not concern you, Persis Bosworth Tennyson!" are being bandied about with little context and no restraint. A crooked doctor (the omnipresent David Warner) has deals with slippery little heirs and heiresses to keep loved ones near death, so that the inheritances reach their sweaty palms with greater expedience. The women have problems with love, chronic headaches, and other such vexations. What do you suppose the odds are that Mr. North is about to turn this down upside-down? And what are the odds that said turning of said town upside-down will result in a whacky but not altogether unpleasant courtroom scene, replete with the murmur of shocked onlookers who whisper "rhubarb rhubarb, rhubarb?" Well the odds are very high, because it does happen.

David Warner makes some outrageous, villainous accusations which draw the ire of the crowd because they're directed at that lovable wanderer, Mr. North, the man who dared to turn this town upside-down.

Despite any directorial or cliché-based shortcomings, however, MR. NORTH remains infinitely watchable because of the insane, legendary, eclectic ensemble cast. As a terminally ill pillar of the community whose life is turned upside-down by Mr. North, we have BOB MITCHUM. Originally, John Huston himself was set to play the role, but his declining health prohibited him from seeing it through. Bob Mitchum, a friend and colleague (HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON) of whom Huston always spoke quite highly, stepped in. Now of all the things that could make Mitchum give a shit, I'd say that filling in for a moribund John Huston would certainly be one of them. Look at him:

It's not a flashy role, or a badass one. It's an old man receiving a new lease on life. It requires sincerity. And Mitchum delivers. Although at one point, I think I caught him peering up at a chandelier, imagining that the swaying crystal adornments were, in fact, tiny bottles of gin calling his name.

"Robbbbbbert. Robbbbbbbertttttt. Drinnnnnnk us."

We've also got Anjelica Huston in a brief, nearly wordless role as Mitchum's daughter. She hovers around the edges of the frame- on horseback or from a balcony, silently signaling her approval of Mr. North's upside-down-turning ways. Could a romance be in the works? I don't want to give anything away.

Horseback riding is a Huston family tradition.

Then, Harry Dean Stanton plays a Cockney pool shark who manages a servants' boarding house for its owner, Lauren Bacall. He quickly becomes buddies with Mr. North and reveals his secret- he's actually from Chicago and the British accent is a carefully chosen affectation. He uses this as a springboard for a universal truth: if you dress something up just right, blockheaded rich people will pay outrageous prices for it and clamour for more. I.e., Sally's chowder goes for 10 cents a bowl at the soup cart, but dress it with a "frog name" (bouillabaisse) and you can peddle it for 5 bucks a cup a the country club.

Stanton's solid, as always, and he's got a great dynamic with his boss (Bacall), who's a sternly likable, good-hearted spitfire who plays cards with the guys– a fact which is of particular note, because John Huston himself (an accomplished gambler) was vocal about his history of forbidding women to play cards with him. His reasoning was that, psychologically, he couldn't be an all-out, cold-blooded contender if he went up against a lady. Something tells me that he wouldn't have had to pull his punches around Bacall...

Bacall doesn't even know what it means to 'pull your punches.' She probably thinks it means PUNCH HARDER.

There's also solid supporting roles by the likes of Virginia Madsen (to whom Danny Huston was married from 1989-1992), Mary Stewart Masterson, Tammy Grimes, and Christopher Durang.

I would like to mention that while MR. NORTH is short on originality, satisfying dramatic payoffs, and narrative momentum, it's very rich in tone. 1926 Newport is well developed, the costumes (Rita Riggs) and production design (Eugene Lee) are spot-on, and the visuals well-conjure, say, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I'm sure they conjure Thorton Wilder, too, but I've never read THEOPHILUS NORTH.)

In the end, I enjoyed MR. NORTH- with reservations. With a cast this talented, and visuals this pleasingly evocative, one could certainly do worse, but it lacks the actual touch of the master- a touch that was still as sharp in the 80's films which he directed (UNDER THE VOLCANO, PRIZZI'S HONOR, THE DEAD, et al.) as it had ever been. Danny Huston does not duplicate this touch, although, as I said before, he's made a fine enough movie for a lazy summer day. Allllmost three stars.

-Sean Gill

No comments: