Saturday, August 11, 2012

Off the Shelf: Jim McBride's The Big Easy

From time to time, I'll haul down a DVD from my collection, throw it into the player and see if it still holds up. In most cases, it's been years since I've seen it, tastes change and there is always the possibility that I'll go, 'what the heck was I thinking?' The last time I did that was in February 2010, a month after we launched Critics at Large, when I looked at Toby Hooper's delightfully bananacakes film Lifeforce (1985). This past weekend I pulled down another 1980s picture, one that I actually liked, not because it was catawampus, but because, except for the predictable cop plot, it was a good, adult character piece: Jim McBride's The Big Easy (1987).

Being set (and made) in pre-Katrina New Orleans gives this film an unexpected current-day resonance. The city, as portrayed in the film, is gone, or at least seriously damaged. McBride must have known his script was basically codswallop since he uses it as one gigantic McGuffin to hang his character study on. A series of seemingly gang-related killings start to occur in New Orleans, except none of the gangs seem to know anything about it. Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid), chief homicide detective of the New Orleans Police Department, has to unravel the case. McSwain, and seemingly every other cop in the department, is corrupt. He (and they) think nothing of taking a kickback here, getting a free meal there. It's, as they repeatedly say, “the Big Easy, cher.” Meaning, it's the way things are done there. As he tries to solve the case, the Louisiana's District Attorney's Office sends Assistant D.A. Ann Osborne (Ellen Barkin) into the city to, at first, investigate the corruption – and especially McSwain – and then later, on her own, decides to help McSwain solve the crime. Let's leave the silly plot aside. Written by Daniel Petrie Jr., it's like a funky redo of Magnum Force.

Dennis Quaid & Ellen Barkin enjoying New Orleans
What makes this thoroughly entertaining film so much fun to watch to this day is the way McBride completely embraces the city and the culture of New Orleans. As you watch the film, you feel you are not in the middle of some dumb-ass cop thriller, but instead you feel you have become, over the 100 minutes of the picture, a temporary citizen of the city itself. With all the characters, except Barkin's, speaking in the thick “NorLins” patois – and the film is filled to bursting with wonderful music from such musicians or bands as Buckwheat Zydeco, Beausoleil (whose song, “Zydeco Gris Gris”, over the terrific opening credits sets the tone), The Neville Brothers and Professor Longhair – you are welcomed into the very guts of New Orleans. These are people, especially McSwain and his extended family, who love life, music, food, partying and talking. Man, do they love partying and talking! McSwain is a charmer who has little trouble seducing Osborne, even though he knows she's there to investigate him and the department. Just like the honey badger in the now ubiquitous online video (see it here), McSwain doesn't give a shit. He just wants to have a good time with a beautiful lady (the cop stuff can, and does, come later). But it's not just the sex. For him, its all about taking her to a killer bar to hear amazing music, drink wonderful wine and eat amazing food. The sex will naturally come later. It is all of a piece. He is New Orleans and New Orleans is him. The fact Osborne is so quickly seduced is not the least bit surprising. No, she's not an easy target (but for some inexplicable reason Petrie finds it necessary to make her a cliched klutz), but she, like us as we watch the film, gets seduced by the city and all that it offers.

Grace Zabriskie
The casting is generally wonderful, with Quaid clearly enjoying himself immensely as a bon vivant. But he's not alone. You get a sense that McBride wants to boogie in New Orleans, so he creates an atmosphere on the set that it is like one big party. Several actors, including Lisa Jane Persky, John Goodman and Ned Beatty also get into the swing of things. You can tell, without looking it up, that McBride decided to give this gumbo a really righteous kick by adding the spice of “local talent” to the proceedings. First and foremost is Grace Zabriskie, as McSwain's mother. Zabriskie has always had odd rhythms as an actress (she playeAdd captiond Laura Palmer's mom in Twin Peaks), and McBride allows her to let rip with her full, natural “NorLINs” accent and rhythms. The other actors around her (not from New Orleans) by into her approach and make you believe they are life-long citizens of the Big Easy too. Actor/theatre director Charles Ludlum, as McSwain's lawyer; and R & B singer Solomon Burke, as the wonderfully named Daddy Mention, are just two others who bring the right vitality to what would have been a woefully conventional picture (if McBride hadn't plunged into the milieu with such complete gusto).

Ellen Barkin, as the outsider (and our representative) is perfectly cast. Today, an actress of Barkin's quirky beauty would probably not have a career in Hollywood if she was just starting out. But lucky for us in the 1980s, she made a string of pictures (Diner, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) where her skills as an actress and her ability to project her sexuality without being vulgar was embraced. The bedroom scenes with Quaid have a real-good-roll-in-the-hay spark. My favourite line has always been, “Don't do that,” she says. “Don't do what, cher?” says Quaid. “This. Or this?” Out of camera range, he is clearly touching Osborne's nether regions in first one way and then another. She squirms with delight and moans, “that.” It's delicious and so very adult.

Director Jim McBride
It's almost a pity that McBride expends so much creative energy on such an obvious script, because what he was making is a character study of the people and the city of New Orleans; what Hollywood thought it was going to get was another forgettable cop thriller. Lucky for us he gets seduced by the city as much as Osborne's character does, so he makes the picture he wants to make regardless of the script. Unlucky for us he was never allowed the freedom to party like it's 1999 again. His credits after this were woefully thin in feature-film land (he seriously botched the bio picture, Great Balls of Fire again with Quaid – perhaps I'm wrong, but maybe he was allowed to party too much on this picture because it is a mess – and after that his features were of the straight-to-video variety). In recent years, he's been directing some TV and making documentaries. Too bad he never got the chance to make a real character piece without having to battle the trappings of cop thriller or other such nonsense. He might have come out with something completely wonderful, instead of just wonderfully entertaining.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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