Christina Applegate buries her summer supervisor, Billy Crystal wraps a lasso around old age, and Spike Lee makes a black and white epic.
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
Nutshell: With her mom vacationing in Australia and her friends partying in Europe for the summer, teen Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate) is left to rot at home with her misfit siblings, supervised by a particularly nasty babysitter. When the old bag kicks the bucket, the family is left with a season of self-sufficiency, allowing Sue Ellen to date geek Bryan (Josh Charles), metalhead Kenny (Keith Coogan) to experiment with drugs, and the younger ones (including Danielle Harris) to enjoy some mischief. When the bills start arriving, Sue Ellen needs a job, fabricating a faultless resume and landing an executive assistant gig with a clothing manufacturing company, under her spaz boss, Rose (Joanna Cassidy). Now trapped inside an adult world of unforgiving responsibility, Sue Ellen receives the education of a lifetime as she juggles business and teendom, while keeping an eye on her lazy relations, who require firm parental control the faux provider isn’t ready to supply.
1991: I’m not sure why, but I had a severe case of irritation when it came to “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.” According to the Brichives, I found the movie distasteful and unfunny. The latter reaction makes sense, but distasteful? Perhaps Christina Applegate’s eyebrows offended me, or maybe it was the film’s suggestion that any interest in heavy metal immediately equated to a drug-fueled lifestyle of bone-headed irresponsibility. Who knows.
“Babysitter’s Dead” planted itself at my theater during the summer of 1991, slapped against screens after a sizable effort from Warner Brothers to turn the picture into the teen moviegoing event of the year. Promotion was hearty, but the turnout was minimal, failing to corral young audiences, despite the appearance of Applegate smack-dab in the middle of her “Married…with Children” teen hottie dominance. The feature actually did cough up some moderate business, but it was evident the studio was hoping the film would hook into the zeitgeist, especially with its irreverent title and display of adolescent chicanery. It seems few wanted to pay for the privilege of seeing Kelly Bundy on the big screen.
My primary memory pertaining to this feature comes with the end credits. You see, to work at movie theater requires the constant cleaning of a movie theater. This being a five-plex, the average employee would be forced to endure end credit music selections dozens of times during a film’s run, thwacked with the same sonic assault over and over as they swept up the sticky filth left behind by exiting crowds. It wasn’t always a burden, especially when a rich score blasted forth from the speakers, providing a sweeping soundtrack to the elimination of makeshift chewing tobacco spit cups and spilled Sno-Caps. But the pop music? Oof. Pop music was challenging, either drilling into the brain with furious earworm might or outright rejected as dreck. “Babysitter’s Dead” offered cleaners a chirpy cover version of “Draggin’ the Line” by the band Beat Goes Bang. Remember those guys? Neither do I.
The song haunted my work shifts, taunting me with its whiny vocals and plastic pop beats. “I FEEEEEEEL FINE/TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY PEEEEEACE OF MIND!” I was being brainwashed slowly by the tune, which probably led to my resentment towards the film when it came time for a viewing.
“I FEEEEEEEL FINE/TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY PEEEEEACE OF MIND!”
However, nothing tops the 1993 “The Three Musketeers” remake in terms of end credit cleaning detail earbleed. But that’s another story.
2011: I haven’t been anywhere near this film since 1991, making this assigned revisit something of revelation. Again, I fail to recall what offended me so greatly 20 years ago, as a second viewing reveled a doofy, but reasonably charming teen comedy -- a picture with obvious flaws, but one that attempts to subvert the norm with a few curveball jokes here and there. It’s not awful. It’s not good either, but as an adult, I observed quite a bit more agreeable monkey business than I saw with fresh 15-year-old eyes.
Being director Stephen Herek’s third movie after his positively awesome creature feature “Critters” and the, ahem, excellent “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” there was still plenty of juvenile gas left in his creative tank to fuel “Babysitter’s Dead.” His rascally filmmaking choices are evident here, with an animated opening title sequence and the general slapstick aura of the picture, but there’s a dark side that’s interesting, keeping it away from a bland run of growing pains and mild mischief. Jokes about dildos, Scientology (!), and the general air of drug use give the material needed punch for older viewers, with further reptilian lick supplied by actor John Getz, here as Sue Ellen’s lascivious office boyfriend. I now see why family audiences stayed away from this thing in droves. I’m sure the rebellious title didn’t help box office fortunes either.
Applegate offers more appeal than I recall in the lead role, putting her placid teen allure to proper use. Somewhere along her career path, Applegate was designated a distinguished comedic force of nature. It’s a label I disagree with, but she’s perfectly at ease with a punchline and a pout, and Sue Ellen’s adventures at the office provide the film with something substantial to do other than hang with the deadbeat kids.
And those kids? Insufferable. Perhaps the largest mistake on Herek’s part was making the younger characters completely unlikable, with the little turds a bunch of whiners, thieves, and stoners. There’s supposed to be some semblance of an arc here that shows the family encountering responsibility in the third act to help out their big sis on her day of backyard fashion show glory, but that seismic change in behavior isn’t felt. I found it odd to side with the adults in the film, agreeing with Sue Ellen’s domestic frustration and distaste for her siblings. My teen self would be greatly disappointed in me. That’s aging, I guess.
However, some things never go out of style. Like David Duchovny!
Nutshell: A depressed businessman turning 39, Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) is facing a midlife crisis, unable to find his youthful vigor. Offered a cattle drive vacation by pals Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), Mitch jumps at the chance to live his cowboy dreams. Teamed up with a pack of spiritless urbanites (including David Paymer and Helen Slater), Mitch, Phil, and Ed take off on their easygoing adventure, guided by gruff trail boss Curly (Jack Palance), who doesn’t take kindly to city folk. The peaceful ride soon ends for the boys when tragedy strikes, leaving Mitch in charge of a complex cattle wrangling effort he’s woefully unprepared for. Facing environmental challenges and internal dissent, Mitch searches for the meaning of life, finding comfort in his buddies and the open range.
1991: There were a good few years there where a Billy Crystal comedy was generally considered an appealing event. His follow-up to “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers” was the comedian’s “Avatar” in terms of box office success and media saturation, fitting Crystal for leading man shoe lifts via an unlikely vessel of bellylaughs and cowboy buffoonery.
I treasured “City Slickers” when it debuted, accepting it as a definitive snapshot of middle-age concern, family man blues, and broheim adventure, introducing me to the concept of getaway male bonding activities. Themes concerning aging and the fear of obsolescence didn’t register much at the time, with such matters not appearing on my radar just yet -- I’m positive I regarded Mitch as 1000 years old, eons away from my fixed teen world. The midlife crisis material was not something I could relate to, despite flavorful performances generously depicting the misery of adult responsibility, pre-spurs and cattle drives.
Instead of savored as a statement, “City Slickers” was digested as a well-crafted comedy, easy with slapstick and sincerity, permitting Crystal a starring vehicle to exercise his best Jackie Mason impression while submitting a summer catchphrase in Mitch’s greeting, “Helllllooooo.” The man was genuinely funny here, distributing one-liners and pained expressions, playing beautifully off the likes of Stern and Kirby, while the producers filled supporting roles with a number of colorful character actors, including Supergirl herself. If Supergirl was there, I was there.
And then there was Jack Palance, who clearly beamed down from his private asteroid to portray leathery cowboy Curly, a man so cured, he can light a match off his own cheek. Palance would go on to accept accolades and an Academy Award for his work here (cue the one-armed push-ups clip), and all of the love was heartily deserved, with the actor playing to his breathy strengths as a tough guy who develops a fondness for Mitch’s neuroses. Palance and Crystal worked beautifully together, creating wonderful highlights along the way, including the goopy cow birth scene, which allowed local entertainment programs an opportunity to broadcast footage of an animal vagina without censorship. Can’t do that today! Thanks, Janet Jackson.
“City Slickers” contained a serious side too, which always spoiled the fun during repeat viewings, though the dramatic trials of Mitch and the boys as they labor to salvage the cattle drive makes a strong point of soulful renovation, with the wusses seizing their inner John Wayne. Regardless of speed bumps, it was an easy film to like, starring a funnyman who appeared to be on his way to industry supremacy.
2011: Okay, so I pop “City Slickers” into the DVD player. The introductory jokes still work, the animated opening titles are fondly recalled, and hey, there’s a familiar face playing Mitch’s son!
Mitch turns 39 years old at the start of the film. So much for my teen assessment that the man was from the Paleolithic era. 39 YEARS OLD. OLD YEARS 39. Apparently, in 1991, this was the age to start panicking about missed opportunities and failed relationships, to begin wondering if your whole life was wasted on kids and meaningless jobs. Hoo boy. I wasn’t expecting that one.
Mercifully, “City Slickers” remains a jovial, often uproarious motion picture, with time exposing a silliness about the material that I never perceived before. It’s an earnest production that loves to joke around while paying careful attention to cowboy traditions and serene locations, enjoying monkey business in the middle of nature’s splendor. Ah, phooey…
Mitch is 39 years old in the film.
Damn, why did he have to be 39? That seems so…young, especially when the film carries on like Mitch is ready to be fitted for his own ice floe. I suppose a 1991 39 is a little different from a 2011 39. I think the rise of the geek generation erased those maturation requirements. Thank you, nerds.
Anyhoo, “City Slickers” carries on comfortably enough, though I’ll admit to being slightly more annoyed with Bruno Kirby is time around, finding his lothario character exasperating, while the actor supplies little spark to the role. Everyone loves Kirby (who died in 2006), but I don’t recall spending most of the previous viewing experience wanting to staple his lips together. Thankfully, Crystal is more than willing to hog the screen with his whining, impressions, and glorious chemistry with Palance, whose entire performance is based around inconsistent levels of exhaling. That rascal, always trying to outbreathe his co-stars.
“City Slickers” provides a warm message of personal rebirth, and the cowboy beats are well cared for, making for a vivid contrast between wide-open spaces and these urban clowns. It still satisfies, though goodwill toward the film would eventually be tested with a 1994 sequel -- a follow-up that I enjoyed at the time, but something tells me a second look at that one might cause an allergic reaction. Still, Crystal in his element, in 1991, with a game cast to help him out? Pretty irresistible stuff. Too bad he couldn’t sustain the magic. A “Forget Paris” here and a “My Giant” there can turn an audience on you quickly.
After all, the man was 42 at the time of production. Sheesh, practically ready for an old age home.
Nutshell: African-American Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a frustrated architect and a happy family man, married to Drew (Lonette McKee), a light-skinned woman. Hired as his temporary assistant, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), an Italian-American woman, finds herself drawn to his brash attitude and confidence, with the two soon commencing an affair that satisfies their loneliness and racial curiosity. When their relationship blows up in their face, Flipper and Angie are left to endure harsh judgment from their friends and family, with the married man also dealing with his crackhead brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), a frenzied but charming addict who can’t stay out of trouble.
1991: For the third summer in a row, Spike Lee returned to screens with a powerful piece of cinematic art. Unlike his contemporaries, Lee moved fast, keeping a steady pace to avoid stagnancy, taking advantage of his critical and creative momentum to tell diverse stories of African-American struggle and racial divide. After “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” Lee swiftly reloaded with a film of special social sensitivity, taking on the itchy particulars of interracial dating. And damn it, I couldn’t go near it.
Chalk it up to an overly sexual marketing push or an old-fashioned impenetrable multiplex fortress, but I didn’t catch Lee’s latest theatrically, breaking a pretty sweet streak for a teenage white boy from the suburbs. “Jungle Fever” arrived in theaters boasting impressive reviews, a thumping Stevie Wonder soundtrack affixed to every trailer and commercial, and hypnotic poster art, riding a small wave of controversy over its provocative subject matter. Cruelly, my memory is hazy here, leaving me unable to offer a concrete reason why I would leave a Lee film behind.
I did catch up to the picture when it established residence in VHSlandia, where the small screen provided a more intimate survey of the feature’s hot topics, brutal portrayal of drug addiction, and racial friction. Again, Lee molded discomfort into a smooth machine of reflection, drama, and comedy, using Wonder’s musical pleas and his own customary camera swoops to create a bold statement on a tumultuous culture, with the interracial material merely a carrot dangled to hold outside interest. Though many of the details were lost on me at the time, I could still sense the mournful vibrations, locked into Lee’s artistic focus. I didn’t have to call Noo Yawk my home to understand the discomfort and despair the filmmaker was looking to communicate. Though “Jungle Fever” was marketed with a bounce, the picture struck several powerful, insightful chords, with Lee remaining in full sprint mode -- a freewheeling creative burst that would come to be unceremoniously capped in 1992 with the release of the ambitious “Malcolm X.”
2011: I wouldn’t describe “Jungle Fever” as dated, but it’s somewhat of a relief to see how far interracial dating has come over the last two decades. Perhaps we’re still far from a perfect world of racial harmony, but certainly there’s been a spike in maturity since the hysteria of “Jungle Fever,” which, as the opening dedication reads, was inspired by the shooting of Yuself Hawkins, a young black man gunned down while attacked by a mob in the largely Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst.
“Jungle Fever” prefers to ride a wave of hysteria, plunging deep into the core of bigotry and trembling self-esteem with a wildly scattered screenplay that seeks to emphasize violent reactions to race mixing, while fashioning a funeral dirge for African-American culture, with Lee designing pointed jabs at drug addiction and streetwise desperation. As a youngster, this swell of emotion was overpowering, thrilling with its honesty and audacity. The older me was slightly unnerved by the erratic focus of the feature, which never sees a subplot to a convincing close, yet Lee is masterful at introducing topics with his typical cinematic bravado (even appearing in the film as a way, I presume, to kiss and feel up model Veronica Webb).
At its worst, “Jungle Fever” spins itself sick, hunting for significance with massive swings of melodrama and unnatural motivation (Flipper is either incomplete as a character or Lee truly wanted to hang a film on the actions of an irritating, smug jerk). However, these are small complaints in an otherwise magnificent dissection of racial unrest and neighborhood imprisonment, with Harlem and Bensonhurst vividly captured in the movie as two places that refuse to let go of their own, viewed in a potent subplot highlighting the woes of candy shop underachiever, Paulie (John Turturro). Lee brings a shotgun to a knife fight, but his visual energy is undeniably effective, spraying the screen with venom and appalling realities, with most of the feature locked in confessional mode, encouraging characters to spill their deepest thoughts and fears once skin color is introduced to the conversation. It’s a horrifying, enlightening screenplay from Lee, who never shies away from an opportunity to stage community discomfort and intimidation.
As much as “Jungle Fever” details interracial dating, the feature also works up a brutal viewpoint on crack addiction, with Jackson stupendous as Gator, a floundering sack of disease gamely abusing the goodwill of his family to feed his addiction. Lee presents a stunning descent into Hell here, staging a suffocating “Gone with the Wind” homage inside an elaborate crack den, where the blizzard of sucking and lighting offers Flipper a peek into Gator’s problems, effectively severing their relationship. While the film is primarily consumed with aggression between cultures, some of its finest moments are pulled from Gator’s sickening drug-addled desperation.
And there’s the added brilliance of Gator’s music hit!
“Jungle Fever” isn’t Lee’s cleanest effort, but I would argue that it’s his most deeply felt project, climaxing with a literal scream from Flipper. It’s a marvelous, bold, and toxic motion picture. Perhaps the last time Lee swung for the fences with a divisive plot and volcanic performances.
Coming next week…
Kevin Costner pulls on the tights and flings arrows as a famous outlaw returns to the screen.