Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Couch Trip (1988)

...the latest of Tinseltown’s attempts to convince us that the mentally ill are all loveable hipsters with clean hair...

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The Couch Trip (1988, Michael Ritchie)

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Walter Matthau, Charles Grodin, Mary Gross, Richard Romanus, Benbow Ritchie, Tino Insana.

Box Notables: ‘I laughed ‘til it hurt’ Alexander Walker (RIP)

Tagline: ‘A comedy of truly loony proportions.’

Trailers: The Tall Guy, Throw Momma from the Train, Johnny Serious

Cherrypick: “I’ve got my initials carved into my leg…”
The career trajectory of Couch Trip director Michael Ritchie is illustrative of the effects of the rise of the ERH dragon on the fortunes of many a seasoned Hollywood helmer. After a solid apprenticeship as beret-for-hire on such Sixties TV westerns as ‘Rope, Burns!’ and ‘Tell ‘em Brown Passed Through’, a string of smart Seventies hits (The Candidate, Semi-Tough) saw him become established as Redford’s go-to guy and Burt Reynolds’ Mr. Fix-it.

The Eighties would, however, see him playing his joker alarmingly early, risking the ignominy of an ‘Alan Smithee’ credit forever haunting his hitherto illustrious filmography rather than take the heat for ‘81’s misjudged High School synchro-swim team slasher spoof, Student Bodies. But after the long climb out of the bottle and back up onto the horse, he proved to a new breed of studio honcho that he could be trusted to deliver solid ERH product (i.e. point the camera in the right direction and allow two above-the-title stars to mug their way through ninety minutes of contrived shite) with 1983’s hymn to societal collapse, The Survivors. He was, unlike many of his contemporaries, back in the game.
Stand back - comedy dynamite comin' through!
The Couch Trip came at the height of this resurgence. His sure handling of the guffaw-neutral Chevy Chase vehicle Fletch had sown the seeds of his eventual restoration, and when his often fondly remembered, but actually entirely horrible Golden Child displayed only confirmation of Eddie Murphy’s mid-eighties box-office bullet-proofing rather than any semblance of directorial flair, Hollywood finally readmitted him to their Velvet Valhalla: that’s exactly the way they had always wanted it.

Aykroyd beckoned. The Trip was chartered. The eternal footman snickered...

Dan Aykroyd is John W. Burns Jr. Getting through a five year stretch in a prison laughter-academy by schtupping the nurses and campaigning for the decimalisation of time, Burns is the latest of Tinseltown’s attempts to convince us that the mentally ill are all loveable hipsters with clean hair. In a bid to avoid the frontal lobe shuffle, he McGyver’s his way out of the nut-hatch using the innards of an answer-phone, a coat hanger and a playing card and boards (sans cash, of course) a plane to LA, where he waltzes into the offices of vacationing celebrity head-shrinker Charles Grodin and comfortably smooth-talks his way into taking over both his medical practice and media commitments.

He is soon spotted as a fraud and subsequently blackmailed by Walter Matthau’s viciously be-mulletted Becker - a hustler in a dog collar and a comparably audience-friendly study of advanced schizophrenia. Together they team up to…. no… no, sorry, it’s gone. They do get some swans properly drugged-up at one point, but, other than that, I’m afraid…

'I'll let go if you let go'
Anyway, meanwhile and redolent of some heavy-duty additional photography, Grodin is in London arguing incessantly with his unfaithful wife, Vera (mirth-vacuum Mary Gross). Now, Grodin was undoubtedly an artist - a performer who could ably ply his trade in even the very worst dreck. No matter how bad the script, how feeble the concept he was shilling and regardless of - in fact, usually because of - the proficiency of his fellow cast members, he always managed to shine. He shall ever remain one of the true Godfathers of the sprawling ERH caper family. Here, though, he is beleaguered to the point of apoplexy by a script in which his only function is to be absent for long periods of time.

He is repeatedly slamming his head in the door of his hotel mini-bar when the call comes that Aykroyd has finagled a way relieve him of all of his cash unless he gets back to LA by midnight and chases him around California with a .357 Magnum for the last fifteen minutes of the movie. A Concorde montage and a visit to ‘Morry’s Ammo’ later and Aykroyd and Matthau are quivering atop the Hollywood sign, bathed in searchlights as Grodin takes potshots at them and snorts powdered eagle’s talon off the spoiler of his Lamborghini. Some helicopters and a motorbike chase later and the titles are coming up.

Textbook stuff.
No manners, but what a critic!
But what of Ritchie’s subsequent career? After losing a bet with Chevy Chase to see which of them could fry an egg the fastest, he was honour bound to steer the mentally disintegrating comic through ‘89’s redefiniton of moribund, Fletch Lives. Such nepotistic larks aside though, he was, like many, to find the transition to the Nineties even more problematic than his Eighties reinvention. As the ERH decade ate its own tail, he was to become a charmer without a snake, an A-Team without a van, a Kramer without a Kramer.

When it’s time, it’s time. Ritchie knew for whom the credits scrolled: a butcher’s bill was being settled and it was his turn at the scales…

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