The movie screenplays of sitcom pioneer James L. Brooks can seem schematic in outline, but they mine fertile emotional territory by withholding judgment on their characters’ decisions. Imbued with generosity, his movies often seem surprised by their characters’ folly and impressed by their wisdom. Success, not to be confused with striving, is the subject of every Brooks romantic comedy, and loving them requires a willingness to empathize with a not exactly universal predicament: how does one cope with the pressures of being the best? In Broadcast News, the great American comedy about careerism and its discontents, Brooks introduces his two archetypes: the one who earned success (Holly Hunter as idealistic producer, Albert Brooks as enterprising reporter) and the one who had success handed to him, and who affects a keen awareness of the injustice (William Hurt, unqualified anchorman). The tragedy of this love triangle is that the latter character, saddled with the existential absurdity of being “no good at what I’m being a success at,” is blessed with golden-boy charisma and sex appeal.
Released in 1987 and newly available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion ($29.95/$39.95), Broadcast News worries over the waning of journalistic ethics and the rise of infotainment, but its most profound observations are behavioral. Over the opening credits, Hunter cheerfully plans to meet her colleague in the hotel lobby to report a story, then unplugs the phone in her room, breaks into a crying fit, takes a few deep breaths, wipes her eyes, sniffs and smiles. Nobody has to know. Brooks is particularly skilled at dramatizing the compartmentalization of emotion, and Broadcast News zeroes in on the way we draw boundaries—between public and private, the permissible and the unspeakable, self-involvement and self-preservation. It’s somehow heartbreaking, and not merely monstrous, when Albert Brooks, his shot at anchorman destroyed by a catastrophic case of flop sweat, lets his pain impede his professionalism: “120 people were reported injured. At least twenty-two people dead… I wish I were one of them.”
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Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind looks like a lost classic, and not just because the eccentric hard-boiled romance from 1985 has never before been released on DVD. Newly transferred from the original negative for a twenty-fifth-anniversary special edition (Shout! Factory; $16.98), it’s a luminous low-budget genre patchwork fashioned from the expressionist fabric of classic Hollywood, and stitched together with threads of Edward Hopper and David Bowie. A neon-noir of sorts, Rudolph’s film follows loner hero Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), a cynical ex-cop just out of prison, bent on rekindling an old flame. Returning to Rain City—a melancholy hallucination of Seattle—he finds a community of New Wave beatniks and nighthawks at a diner, a bit of neofascist danger and maybe an unexpected second chance. Dave Kehr wrote that the film “seems to exist as a potential musical,” and yes, it’s garish and naïve and as open to possibility as any work of New Hollywood or Old; Marianne Faithfull’s gorgeous saxophone-drenched songs work double duty as soundscape and commentary. Rudolph’s casting is inspired: Divine is unforgettable as the museum-dwelling male gangster Hilly Blue, and one wonders why Keith Carradine, Geneviève Bujold and Lori Singer are never seen on the big screen anymore.
Rudolph is often spoken of as a more generous, romantic spirit than his mentor, Robert Altman, and Trouble in Mind reflects his willingness to forgive any act of selfishness when love is the goal. When Rudolph is in top form, the emotions and epiphanies are serious even when the atmosphere is exaggerated and artificial. Like Carradine’s failed con man walking aimlessly and untouched through the middle of an epic gunfight, Trouble in Mind makes its own rules in a heartless world, ushering its lost and lonely archetypes down a boulevard of broken dreams toward the faint perfume of tomorrow’s fortunes.
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If Rudolph bathes his genre bricolage in a soft and inviting glow, Jonathan Demme seizes on the violence of clashing rhythms—and rhythm is everything in Something Wild, a romantic comedy thriller satire from 1986 whose tonal discord necessitates one hell of a balancing act. Recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Criterion ($29.95/$39.95), it’s a Reagan-era nightmare and hippie joyride suffused with red, white and blue, as sexy, manipulative libertine Lulu (Melanie Griffith)—named for Louise Brooks’s flapper in Pandora’s Box—“kidnaps” Wall Street company man and “closet rebel” Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels), spiriting him away to small-town Pennsylvania to play the spouse at her high-school reunion. She quickly discards the wig and the name, becoming blond, bright Audrey, and surrendering the role of potential villain. When her ex-con husband (Ray Liotta) shows up and grabs the wheel, the screwball farce is sideswiped by a potent Lynchian psychodrama, fueled by an undercurrent of lies, jealousy and rage.
As befits a movie about subversion, Something Wild is rich in mysterious peripheral detail. Why is Lulu, who can never otherwise sit still, introduced reading a Frida Kahlo biography? How should we incorporate the mostly black bit players who comment on the white-dominated story line—a rap group freestyling at a gas station, a motel philosopher, a gathering of rural churchgoers—a pattern culminating in a Caribbean rendition of “Wild Thing” performed on a downtown sidewalk? Something Wild is some sort of generational statement about yuppie angst, sex and aggression, but its most intriguing sociology is right there on the surface, its rebellious spirit inherent in Demme’s acknowledgment that a periphery even exists.