Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Neglected Gem #34: Amos and Andrew (1993)

When it was released in 1993, Amos and Andrew got the kind of venomous reviews the press saves up for small-potatoes pictures the studios have already pretty much abandoned, and it vanished from theaters in a couple of weeks. It’s easy to see what infuriated the reviewers: E. Max Frye’s movie burlesques the social attitudes of affluent whites and affluent blacks. (Even the title, with its reference to the golden-age radio show Amos and Andy, is a racial gag: contemporary African-Americans tend to find the show, with its black vaudeville cast and passé black types, embarrassing or offensive.) The only character who escapes Frye’s satiric aim is Amos Odell (Nicolas Cage), a petty crook who gets picked up in a small New England island town – a summer haven for wealthy tourists who keep houses for the season – when, markedly deficient in geography, he thinks he’s cleared the Canadian border. Andrew is Andrew Sterling (Samuel L. Jackson), a celebrity – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker – who has bought one of the houses on the island. But when his new neighbors, the Gillmans (Michael Lerner and Margaret Colin), out for an evening stroll, see him through his living-room window hooking up his stereo, they jump to the conclusion that he’s an intruder trying to steal it. They don’t know the house has been sold since last summer; they assume he’s holding one of the teenage sons of their former neighbors hostage.

When they call the cops, the chief, Tolliver (Dabney Coleman), who’s running for city councilor, is so anxious to prove he’s a hero to his potential constituency that he turns the situation into melodrama. And when his none-too-bright deputy, Donny (Brad Dourif), his face greased with black as if he were a guerilla on a mission in ‘Nam (the blackface is a hilarious joke), shoots at Andrew – Andrew’s car alarm goes off when Donny gets too close, so he directs a remote at it to turn it off, and Donny figures he’s pulling a deadly weapon – Andrew figures he’s being attacked by some white racist group determined to assassinate him for being “a thorn in the side of the white man.” Eventually it dawns on Tolliver that he’s made a dreadful error – the kind of error that buries a political career. So he offers his cheerful prisoner, Amos, his freedom in exchange for playing the role of the non-existent intruder the police force assumed Andrew to be.
Samuel L. Jackson & Nicolas Cage
The premise is wickedly funny and ingenious, not to mention prescient. (It anticipates the embarrassing story of Henry Louis Gates’s arrest by a decade and a half.) Frye, who both wrote and directed, sets it up fast and cleanly. Then, as the plot thickens – Amos, deciding he’s being double-crossed, takes Andrew hostage for real; Andrew, taking an instant dislike to Tolliver, impulsively knocks him out with a frying pan and helps Amos tie him up and gag him while they high-tail it to another house (the Gillmans’) – he starts piling on the characters. In addition to Donny, the half-brained deputy, and the Gillmans, who consider themselves radical hipsters (she boasts that he was one of the attorneys for the Chicago 7, though he now makes his living off personal injury cases), we meet a criminal psychologist (Bob Balaban) who arrives on the scene to coax Amos out of Andrew’s house, unaware that his increasingly self-involved monologue is being heard only by the trussed-up police chief. Also on hand are a police dog trainer named Bloodhound Bob (Tracey Walter); a very sweet whore named Stacy (Aimee Graham) with a crush on Amos; and, best of all, an outspoken black politico, a minister pal of Andrew’s (Giancarlo Esposito). The rev sees the news on TV, immediately assumes Andrew has been victimized by his racist white neighbors, and rallies the troops for a full-fledged black protest, complete with spirituals. Frye, who wrote the great Jonathan Demme road picture Something Wild, is in love with eccentric characters and the kind of house-of-cards plotting that almost no one tries to do anymore; his model is obviously Preston Sturges, the brilliant comic writer-director of the forties. (He nods outright to Sturges: the play that won Andrew his Pulitzer is called Yo, Brother, Where Art Thou?, a jive variation on Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Grapes of Wrath-ish movie the self-important film director played by Joel McCrea wants to make in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels.) And his territory is the area where the civilized and the wild intersect and interact. In Something Wild Charlie Driggs’s initiation into the realm beyond his New York executive life ends up serious; the odd-couple partnership of Amos and Andrew is much lighter (and it has no emotional resonance). But then, Frye, making his debut as a director, works differently from Demme: he’s fleet and lively and efficient, and he leaves no traces.
E. Max Frye
I think Frye’s handling of Amos is, finally, a little smug; maybe the movie doesn’t intend to make him morally superior to everyone else, but that’s how he comes across. And though Jackson reads his lines well, he remains too much on one note, which may be partly a consequence of the uneven distribution of the two major parts. But in its unpretentious way, this is a very ballsy comedy. Imagine sending up both Spike Lee and Al Sharpton and enlisting Jackson and Esposito, two Spike Lee discoveries, to play the leads. Frye has a fabulous cast that includes two veterans of Something Wild, Margaret Colin and Tracey Walter, and he handles them like a pro. And Cage is wonderful as Amos, the astute lug with the moony eyes and the silver-toothed smile. Frye has written him a stoned monologue about his childhood longing to own some Sea-Monkeys – a beauty of a speech – and Cage takes it straight up into the clouds. He’s the most improbable of comic heroes, and Amos and Andrew is a bright, original American comedy.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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