Ever love a movie when you were a kid, only to revisit it years later and realize it basically sucks? This was the feeling I had last night watching 1985's MOVING VIOLATIONS.
I hadn't seen it in about fifteen years, but have been looking for it for a while. I had the pleasure of recently meeting Brian Backer (he's very handsome in 40s now) and wanted to check out some of his films from his '80s heyday. I've seen FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH countless times, and I wasn't about to rent POLICE ACADEMY 4, so that left MOVING VIOLATIONS.
But I couldn't find it anywhere. It's not on DVD, and my excellent video rental store (which sells any video that hasn't been checked out in two years) didn't carry it any more. I was out of luck. But the movie gods shined down on me, and selected MOVING VIOLATIONS to be shown on the Fox Movie Channel. Excellent! Uncut and without commercials, it'd be a great opportunity to tape the movie off cable. I was jazzed. Sitting down to watch it last night, I was ready to bask in its silly gags and broad acting. But, jeez, what a mess this movie really is.
How could a movie be so funny when you're 12 but so annoyingly stupid when you're pushing 30? The only time I laughed last night was the sequence between the hypochondriac Joan and the "Doctor" Terrence. The dialogue is rife with the classic "Three's Company"-style of humor in which the words being spoken are vague enough to mean one thing to one person but something else to the other. The scene is helped immensely by the skilled comedic timing and delivery of Wendie Jo Sperber and Fred Willard, who respectively play Joan and Doc and know how to make the gag work by staying true to their characters and playing the scene straight. Faintly recalling the exchange from my youth, I was laughing before the scene even started. Good stuff.
But that's about it. The rest of the movie consisted of the type of jokes I hate: When people do things simply for a joke, making the joke unfunny. Take a scene for example near the beginning with diminutive old lady picking her friend up at the airport. The one driving has poor vision, you see, and doesn't know that she's in the wrong car. She gets behind the wheel of the car next to hers by walking past hers. Does poor eyesight also negate accurate judgment of the distance to her own car? Wouldn't she know the width of her car in paces? She couldn't even see that the wrong car is dark blue while hers is beige? If not, how on earth did she drive to the airport unscathed? The scene ends with her driving on the runway with planes all around her, which she thinks are buses. This joke had whiskers back in Mr. Magoo's day, and it illustrates that comedies aren't funny when they're going out of their way trying to be funny. (Another example is when a woman is walking naked around an auto repair shop but no one notices her. It'd be funny if she were spotted by the employees, who then screw up whatever they're doing.) The characters in AIRPLANE play their roles with complete seriousness and never leave the viewer questioning their motivation, which is a big reason why that movie remains a classic.
As for the other characters, another one I still liked was the gorehound who tries to pick up chicks by asking them if which movie's violence they prefer. His reaction to the "Blood Flows Red on the Highway" Driver's Ed movie was priceless. His other decent joke, which cumulates with a string of cars being pushed though a drive-through window, is handicapped by the poor choice of the camera angle for the crucial shot. (Speaking of the camera work, I noticed that director Neal Israel ripped himself off my copying a shot from his previous movie BACHELOR PARTY. Way to go, Neal. Gee, I wonder why you're currently laboring on lesser television shows on the lesser networks. And, yeah, that "Brady Bunch" TV movie last year hasn't appeared to released you from Hollywood Jail, has it?)
Back to the cast. Jennifer Tilly as, yes, a rocket scientist wasn't as good as I remembered, but her bit with her love interest in the anti-gravity chamber was still cute, and the shot with their removed shirts groping each other was one of the few images that my memory had retained over all these years. Whodathunk then Tilly would become a terrific actress with wonderful comedic timing and be nominated for an Oscar?
Which brings me to said love interest, the lead character played by John Murray. If you're wondering if Murray is related to another, more famous (and talented) Murray, his performance leaves no doubt. John approaches his character like a cut-rate Bill Murray impersonator. It's unmistakable, and a little eerie and sad. I wonder if Bill was okay with his brother ripping off his persona, or if it created some rot in the family tree. John later had a role in SCROOGED, but has not worked since, which leaves this question open.
Every dumb comedy has its one-dimensional villains, and MOVING VIOLATIONS is no exception. This time it's James Keach, playing the crooked cop demoted to teach the class. Sneering at every sight of our "hero," Keach's performance is handcuffed by his clichéd character that is aggressively one-note. Keach would the next year play basically the same character in WILDCATS, but that comedy was marginally better and his character was allowed a shade or two of gray. In MOVING VIOLATIONS he was a jerk from beginning to end.
Or maybe not. Seeing this movie at a mature age reveals subtext that before had gone unnoticed. Now I wonder, is his character gay? The evidence: His female partner, whom he's supposedly sleeping with, is so butch other characters call her "sir." And later on, while in bed with his co-conspirator (another female), he's clad in leather chest straps, metal harnesses, and tight leather shorts - the preferred clothing of your average West Village daddy. They're making the usual noises people do when in the throes of passion but both of them still have their underwear on, leading me to assume they're dry humping before he jumps out of the bed in a clearly detumescent state. (During this scene, by the way, the old lady falls on top of them, and they don't even realize it. How am I supposed to be laughing while doubting that two people in bed wouldn't notice a third appearing out of nowhere? This breed of comedy needs to be based in truth to work.)
What's going on here? Am I reading too much into things? I've been known to do so. Anyway, let's jump ahead to the climax. Act 3 ends with a Big Chase, which is the ultimate act of creative desperation from a hack screenwriter. How does a comedy about traffic school degenerate to a mad dash with an incriminating ledger in hand? There's so many things wrong with this sequence that I don't know if I can include them all here. For instance, what's the probability that a city would simultaneously hold a marathon, a parade, and a police convention? How does the Brian Backer character conveniently appear on the scene, running from his girlfriend's father in what appears to be from the suburbs? How does a trooper on a motorcycle expect to catch a fleeing Mercedes by riding slow enough for a corp of deputies on foot to keep pace? And wouldn't the police chief be a) at the convention, and b) less easily accessible in his office to the recently-arrested hero and the mob chasing him?
Should I not consider such questions in a dumb comedy? Probably. I should just shut off my brain, right? I wish I could but I can't. Maybe if the movie were funnier, if more of the jokes worked, if the plot were more focused, I could forgive such a nonsensical ending. But after a while my brain rebelled, and wouldn't let me ignore the inconsistencies and failed humor. Sorry. I should have never returned to MOVING VIOLATIONS, because I'm now wondering what other movies from my childhood wouldn't hold up to near-middle-age scrutiny.