February 05, 2012

Foul Play

For most of my childhood, Foul Play (1978) was my favorite comedy (or at the very least, tied with Nine to Five--which, incidentally, was directed by the same man, Colin Higgins). It's about a shy but sexy librarian (Goldie Hawn) who becomes mixed up in a murder plot involving an odd assortment of criminals who are planning to assassinate the pope when he visits San Francisco. The movie is basically a remake of Charade, where Audrey Hepburn plays the chic widow pursued by a trio of cads in Paris and a mysterious stranger, played by Cary Grant. It evens mimics Charade in at least one scene where Goldie is running from one of her attackers. The camera zooms in on her legs and her black high heels as she runs for her life.

Goldie Hawn seems to have access to a neverending current of charm, and she's consistently engaging in almost every movie I've seen her in. While Foul Play may be one of the fluffier entries into her career, it's nonetheless a fun movie, provided you don't put too much thought into it. The comedy is best when Goldie is resourceful but wide-eyed, and her co-star, Chevy Chase, doesn't have to fake Cary Grant-ish charm. Chevy's strength is in his bumbling inability to be serious, and as long as he doesn't have to be a legitimate romantic lead, you can enjoy his being ostensibly paired off with Hawn. He plays a cop who Goldie meets at a party, and then becomes involved with her after responding to her frantic call to the police during an attack by a creepy thug (Don Calfa).

Several comic set pieces are utterly contrived. A scene with Billy Barty is a complete waste, manufactured by the confusion of the head criminal's nickname, "The Dwarf." There's a whole sequence involving Dudley Moore that doesn't fit into the movie at all. Moore is funny regardless, playing a kinky swinger who gets the wrong idea when Goldie asks him to take her home. She's running from a killer, but somehow convinces Moore that she's looking for a one-night-stand.

Hawn's character seems anachronistic to San Francisco. She's apparently the first modern American woman to be de-liberated by a divorce: it's turned her into a mousy loner who has shut herself off to the prospect of romance. It's hard to accept, because Goldie Hawn exudes an effulgent likableness that is anything but shy or unappealing.

And San Francisco isn't exactly portrayed in a good light: it's shown as a city of psychos and sex perverts. Another movie from 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, turns the Bay city into a haven for an alien invasion where humans are being harvested. Granted, this was the city of the Zodiac killer, so perhaps there was good reason to paint it as a locus of dangerous activity. In the process, however, the filmmakers lose a lot of the capital they could have gotten out of their setting. The city's cultural opulence is dulled, with the exception of a sequence in a retrospective movie house and the denouement, which occurs during a performance of The Mikado (both sequences turn their settings into places of destruction). It's as if art itself is merely a breeding ground for violent criminal behavior. Or maybe it exacerbates the behavior.

The whole assassination plot is a bit half-cocked, but you don't go to this kind of movie for brilliant storytelling. The sequence where Goldie and Chevy race across San Francisco, wrecking several cars in the process, is a clunky way to liven things up. Burgess Meredith offers liveliness of a natural kind. He plays Hawn's landlord, a kindly retired anthropologist with a Black Belt in Karate that comes in handy during a scuffle with the radiantly evil-looking Rachel Roberts.

With Eugene Roche, Brian Dennehy, and Marilyn Sokol. 

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