Thursday, August 1, 2013

Neglected Gem #43: The Tall Guy (1989)

Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy (1989)

Mel Smith, who died a couple of weeks ago, was one of those living legends of British comedy who never managed to crack the American market. (He was a youngish legend, felled by a heart attack at just 60 years old.) Smith became a TV star as part of the cast of Not the Nine O’Clock News, an early-‘80s sketch comedy series that also launched the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones. Its humor was assumed to be too British and topical to export; instead, there was an Americanized HBO version, Not Necessarily the News, which is best remembered as the testing ground for Rich Hall’s “Sniglets”. His long-running series with Griff Rhys Jones, Alas Smith and Jones, was broadcast on A&E for a few years, but Smith and Jones’ attempt to take their act to the movies, the 1985 sci-fi comedy Morons from Outer Space, was a washout.

In 1989, Smith began directing movies himself, with The Tall Guy, a romantic comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson. On the basis of The Tall Guy, George Lucas hired Smith to direct the expensive, sprawling period comedy Radioland Murders, one of those highly touted Lucas dream projects (such as Howard the Duck and Willow) that make it seem impossible that this guy ever had a commercially viable idea in his life, and that pretty much finished Smith in Hollywood. He did have a hit in 1997 with a big-screen spinoff of Rowan Atkinson’s TV character Mr. Bean, but that was a watered-down version of a pre-sold property, and anyway, Mr. Bean is a mostly-mute sweetums played by a comedian who was meant to always be mean-spirited, talkative, hyper-articulate, and snarling (as in the Blackadder shows).

Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, in Alas Smith and Jones
Though it both pains and confuses me to say it, George Lucas did have one good idea in his life: Smith should have been besieged with offers from people who’d seen The Tall Guy. (It may be remembered that the best idea Lucas ever had that was related to the Star Wars franchise was to hire Irvin Kershner to direct one of them.) The fact that Smith was apparently never besieged with offers to direct big movies may, in fact, be directly connected to the fact that not too many people ever saw The Tall Guy. After the shoot wrapped, it took a few years before the movie was released in England, and then another year for it to come to the U.S. When it opened here in the fall of 1990, it had the aura of a neglected movie that had just missed the bullet of a direct-to-video release, and many of the reviews reflected that. It was the first produced feature film screenplay by Richard Curtis, and it has a mixture of cornball innocence reflected in the kind of goofy touches (such as a montage of all the characters celebrating the hero and heroine’s coming together by singing along to Madness’ “It Must Be Love”) that only a beginner would include in a movie that’s made all the more disarming with its sophisticated, satirical take on its theatrical milieu, which is that of a couple of world-weary insiders. (I seem to remember Gary Giddins, who reviewed it in the Village Voice, dismissively brushing it away with the observation that there were silly clips from the movie running alongside the closing credits.)

Whatever special charms The Tall Guy had at the time of its making, it now has at least one extra: the magic of seeing a lost nugget from the golden age of Jeff Goldblum. He plays Dexter, an American actor who came to London to pursue his dreams of theatrical stardom and has now spent six years playing straight man to a star comedian played by Rowan Atkinson, in what’s essentially a one-man show with an extra man. “I think people find it curious when I take a bow,” Dexter says, in his voiceover narration. “They don’t remember that there was anybody else in the show.” (He later says that his part “could be fully realized by an umbrella stand.”) Dexter is down in the dumps, but he’s not reflexively self-deprecating, or morose and defeatist, like some mumblecore antihero. He’s just defeated, temporarily, because his career is stalled (but steady) and his bighearted romantic dreams aren’t getting much nurturing from his regular life. Then he visits a hospital and sees a pretty nurse (Emma Thompson), and is immediately faced with the paradox of the romantic who’s wary from being burned: it seems impossible that he might be able to get her, but if he could get her, than it would mean that anything is possible.

Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy
The Tall Guy was shot before Thompson made Henry V and Dead Again and the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War with her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh. She’s not quite like any romantic heroine seen before, or since, either, including in other Emma Thompson movies. (One of the most disappointing things about Curtis’ later Love Actually is that he cast her in the sad-sack role of the harried wife and mother who stays trapped in her unfulfilling marriage; it’s as if, working with her again after she’d been confirmed as a Great Actress, Curtis didn’t think it would be right to waste her time on anything less frivolous than a joyless role.) The nurse seems warped at first, because she’s so straightforward; once you get past the first impression that she’s a little odd, she makes you realize how much irrational bullshit most people routinely accept as the price of being a human being. After canceling their first date, because she’s just gotten off work and decided that she’s too tired to go out, she invites Dexter to walk her home and then proposes that he come around the next afternoon, so they can go to bed together and get this ball rolling. After they’ve made love and she refers to their encounter as “a one-night stand,” his face falls, and she grins and says, “You are going to be so much fun to tease!” (In a way, she’s the character that Michael Richards always claimed to be doing when he tried to explain what made Kramer tick.)

Thompson has a pretty bright glow about, bright enough to make it convincing that she could even bring a man back from the dead after he’s spent six years at the mercy of Rowan Atkinson. (Smith and Curtis generate suspense by only showing Atkinson onstage for the first twenty minutes of the movie, which gives the audience time to wonder of the offstage version of the character he’s playing is more of a Blackadder or a Bean. When he finally invades Dexter’s dressing room and tells him to pull himself together “before I sack you and hire a lobotomized monkey to play your role,” you want to stand on your chair and cheer yourself hoarse.) The Tall Guy fully blossoms in its second half, after Goldblum loses his job, starts looking for another one, and winds up playing the lead in an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style musical version of The Elephant Man. (Mel Smith makes a cameo appearance at the opening-night party: he tells Goldblum that he was brilliant, then promptly passes out.) You don’t have to be a theater geek to love The Tall Guy, but members of that select demographic will definitely feel especially gratified by the snippets of Elephant! (“Come up, come up/ The tent is busting/ Here he comes/ Mister Disgusting!”) and such throwaway jokes as Goldblum’s failed audition for a new Steven Berkoff play, England, My England. Reporting back to Goldblum, his agent tells him that he didn’t get that job because Berkoff felt that “you lacked anger.” “I don’t know,” shrugs Goldblum, “I was pretty pissed off by the end.”

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. Great review/analysis. I too was puzzeled this wasn't a hit movie.