Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Modern Problems (1981)

...not as laugh-out-loud as the The Shining, but makes Woody Allen’s “early, funny ones” look like exercises in moral terror...

Modern Problems (1981, Ken Shapiro)
Starring: Chevy Chase, Patti D’Arbanville, Brian Doyle-Murray, Dabney Coleman, Nell Carter, Buzzy Linhart, Jan Speck.

Box Notables: The sun damage of the serially unrented.

Tagline: ‘Modern Problems - it'll glow on you!’

Trailers: Gator!, Tribe Vibes, Penny Dreadful, The Biathlon Killers

Cherrypick: “According to these chicken guts, there’s gonna be an awfully big ruckus here this weekend!”

Lamentably few comedies culminate with the male lead atop a belltower beseeching a loved one to kill him before he reaches the event horizon of an insane cosmic fury he has unleashed within himself; an infinitely dense nexus of primordial rage that will unhook the surly bonds of four-dimensional space and create from the very marrow of his twisted bones a being indistinct to purblind human eyes from that of a God.

But it is just this fate that Chevy Chase is hoping to avoid in ‘81s zaniest Rom-Com offering, Modern Problems!
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Chase essays Max Fiddler, an au courant Dapper Dan with a Studio 54 loyalty card and a bulging portfolio of contemporary anxieties. When he’s not bewailing his peccadilloes to his shrink or blowing enough snow to revivify the Pharaohs, Max is busy attending the book launch of nemesis Dabney Coleman’s trenchant self help guide, ‘Get Behind Me and Stay There!’ or checking out underground Mark Twain/Colonel Sanders themed gay nights in New York’s newly up-and-coming Meat Packing District. Such energetic dilettantism cannot, however, mask an ever-sagging hangdog countenance, nor the rampant jealous rage-o-holism that has forced his fiancée into the arms of another man.

A chance meeting with old college mentor Brian (Doyle-Murray) - a wheelchair-bound motivational speaking Viet-vet with “medals up the yin-yang” and the psychic thousand yard stare of a de facto poet-warrior - gives Max a gentle, but much needed, nudge toward some sort of faux-Jungian reconciliation with his ever-burgeoning narcissistic covetousness. Unfortunately whatever good this epiphanic encounter promises is threatened to be swiftly undone when Max is doused with nuclear waste on his drive home.
Still better than the Deal of the Century FX!
It is at this stage in Max’s madcap evolution from the carbon shackles of his birth to vengeful deity that the film avails itself of the first of a number of stylistic transmigrations that prove as hard to follow as they are to deny. Sloughing off the third-rate Neil Simon camp he has cocooned himself with thus far, our hero emerges the next morning to find that the previous nights acid rain has gifted him telekentic powers.

That same evening, in visible disarray (not to mention a cyan Sta-Prest safari suit that must have caused a sensation on the red carpet), Max is impelled by isotope-stoked invidiousness to the gala performance of a ballet being promoted by his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, where - in a scene that would make Brian de Palma blanch like an anaemic milquetoast on his way to matron - Max flagrantly misuses his nascent powers to ruin his fellow suitor’s opening night by telekentically inflating the premiere dansuer’s scrotal sack until it explodes in a mist of pink spray - much to the discomfit of the orchestra pit. It is abundantly clear that the Muppets have already very definitely taken Max’s mental Manhattan.
Is that a frozen turkey in your tights, or...?
This tangibly outré exhibition of green-eyed capriciousness does, however, succeed in scaring his ex out of her living wits and back into Max’s clammy clutches. Soon they and the rest of the cast are fatalistically decamping to an isolated beach house in the Hamptons to preside over the next phase of Max’s wacky accession beyond the infinite.

Whilst the middle section of ModProbs played out like a Mel Brooks-directed X-Men knock-off, the plot now once again corkscrews with a fitfulness commensurate to Max’s increasingly mercurial whimsy: in a slick allegorical reworking of the apocryphal weekend Hunter S. Thompson and Vice President Spiro Agnew spent marooned together in a VW camper van on a snowbound - and to this day - undisclosed turnpike during the ’72 Nixon campaign trail (where Agnew was eventually to become so alarmed with Thompson’s unceasingly gonzoidal behaviour that he called in the only documented tactical air-strike by the US on its own soil), Max’s plight now becomes the plight of the everyman; beset on all sides by the slings and arrows of outrageous plotting, is Max’s embryonic Godhead to be hatched a hawk or a dove..?
Not as laugh-out-loud as the The Shining, but making Woody Allen’s “early, funny ones” look like exercises in moral terror, M ‘blems never quite finds its neighbourhood yet insists in going spastically once around the houses hollering “Where’s the funny?” through every single letterbox when it should instead be concentrating on finding the chill-out room. By turns repulsive (Vesuvian nosebleeds), offensive (the special effects) and actually scary (a full-frontal Dabney Coleman), this hideously misjudged cackle-panic is like a skidmark on the seat of a rollercoaster – deeply disagreeable, yes, but perhaps ultimately understandable. For, as The Tubes sagely point out over the closing credits, “When you got modern problems, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry…”

Yep, we know that feelin’.

Originally published in Little White Lies#30

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