FILM REVIEW: Into The Night (1985)

Into The Night (USA, 1985)
Directed by John Landis
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Farnsworth, David Bowie

Many of the big 1980s comedies we remember are largely admired for one thing: their complete light-heartedness and escapist feel, something totally removed from the darker, more complex, and in some cases less funny comedies of today. The problem, however, is that once all the nostalgic charm has worn off, films like Ghostbusters and Bachelor Party turn out to be ropey, flimsy and ultimately not that funny.

Into The Night, on the other hand, is a underrated comedy film which remains largely funny twenty-five years on. For its first two thirds it manages to deliver both light-hearted thrills and a decent amount of substance, satisfying those of us who like to laugh and think at the same time. It's also a turning point in John Landis' career, marking the end of his huge success in the early-1980s and hinting in its latter half towards his more rambling, self-indulgent work later on. It far from Landis' best work, but it is an entertaining and ultimately satisfying experience.For the best part of an hour, Into The Night is a very well-crafted, light-hearted comedy about suburban life and the unexpected. It is a film which depicts how domesticity and the individual routines of working life have sucked all the fun out of existence. Ed Okin, played by Jeff Goldblum, works in a brown office, drives a beige car, and lives in a boring house with a boring wife in a neighbourhood in which nothing seems to happen. Even the sheets on his bed are a drab, ordinary white; there is nothing in this house or the dialogue which occurs there that would make you envy his lifestyle.

Having this low-key, slow setup means that there is some kind of rationale behind the extraordinary events which unfold. Okin is someone who is literally restless: he cannot sleep because his life has become so dull and so orderly, that he can longer no find sense, or purpose, or enjoyment in what he does. His decision to drive to the airport is the first instance of him attempting to break free from this monotony, even if it amounts to little more than sticking one's toe in the water.Hence when the series of events happen, they are much less contrived than one might expect. True, it's not like we've all had Michelle Pfeiffer fall on our cars whenever we randomly go for a drive. But there is nothing in the precise way in which the events play out which make the characters' circumstances seem unbelievable or ridiculous. The point that the film is making so well is that life needs to be unpredictable; in the case of the central character, it may be just what is needed to solve his problems.

But, as they say, be careful what you wish for. Much like Griffin Dunne's character in After Hours, Ed Okin has to live with the unpredictable consequences of such a miniscule decision. His ongoing decisions to help Diane are not motivated by a need for excitement: on the contrary, they are an increasingly desperate effort to return to the safety of his home. He keeps repeating the phrase, "this is too weird for me", because he simply isn't aware of what 'weird' is.As the film moves on, however, he and Diane develop a romantic attachment and his use of this phrase becomes less frequent. Though Okin may never fully embrace the world of intrigue to which Diane has introduced him, he has become more aware of how such a world works, how complex everything in comparison to his limited and frustrated worldview. He realises there is a whole other world out there which he never knew and which by the merest accident he has gain the ability to explore. His experience is an awakening -- or perhaps that should be asleep-ening, since the film concludes with Okin getting his first proper night of sleep in years.

As a comedy, Into The Night succeeds by being funny over its duration, with the humour coming as much from the subtlety of the central relationship as from the big set-pieces. There are several genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, most of them involving the incompetent Iranian henchmen. In one scene, their car crashes into a van in the airport car park while they are chasing Diane; they get out to face down the drivers, only to be greeted by four burly, muscular men, who look like the A-Team with even worse haircuts.Alongside these big set-pieces are more traditional Landis in-jokes and motifs. His love of old movies is shown during the scene in the deserted hotel room. A clip from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is playing on the TV screen, and at one point a character holds a knife aloft across the screen just as Abbott's chest is exposed. Likewise there is a reference to Get Carter in the beach scene, and the inadvertent carnage Ed creates on the film set is a possible nod to Animal House.

As far as casting goes, Pfeiffer is a straightforward choice, bringing to the role her irresistible combination of beauty, intelligence and vulnerability. David Bowie's cameo as a very English henchman is also a matter of common sense. But Goldblum, a year before his tour-de-force in The Fly, is far more unusual. He has a distant, alien-like expression, which makes it seem odd for Landis to cast him as an ordinary guy. But the decision pays off, with Goldblum's looks allowing him to play everything completely deadpan, adding to the intelligence of the comedy.The problems with Into The Night can be sub-divided into two groups. One group are general aspects of the film which haven't dated well or which seem questionable even for the time. Having just about put up with Dan Aykroyd blacking up in Trading Places, the issue of Landis himself appearing as a (highly stupid) Iranian does raise questions with regard to possible racism. This aspect could be mitigated as being part of a period attitude: this was in the day when The A-Team filmed Mr. T's stunts by covering a white stunt double in make-up and filming him from far away. But even with this caveat in place, the prospect remains a little unsettling.

What is more disagreeable, however, is Landis' continuing use of gratuitous nudity. When he was making Animal House, it was easy to forgive the odd glimpse of flesh for the sake of base titillation, on the grounds that young filmmakers rarely know what they're doing. Even the brief nudity in Trading Places was excusable, since it didn't detract massively from the plot. But when you're at the stage when you can afford cameos by Bowie and Jim Henson, there isn't much excuse for such adolescence, at least not to such an extent.
The second group of problems relate to the second half of the film, which is much more contrived and drawn-out. The fact that the events stretch over two nights rather than one (as in After Hours) undermines some of the tension; the audience start to question the workings of the plot (e.g. why hasn't Ed's wife tried to find him?). Jeff Goldblum's conversation with Irene Papas feels like a badly drawn-out piece of improv that should have stayed on the cutting room floor. The ending itself is very drawn out and may cause you to lose patience as both coherency and sympathy begin to tumble.Into The Night is a decent effort from John Landis which makes for an enjoyable evening's viewing. Like Event Horizon many years later, it begins very substantially and keeps its eye on the ball for the first hour, before slowly descending into chaos and losing sight of its storyline. But even at its weakest points it is just about funny enough to sustain one's interest. It's too long, too contrived and is knocked into a cocked hat by After Hours. But as an overall experience, it's enjoyable, in a silly kind of way.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Two-thirds smart, one-third silly


Roger said...

Nice write-up, I just saw this again recently. I remember this having a weird kind of coked-up excess (possibly as did Landis and the rest of the cast/crew). The deadpan humor and very well observed details of nightlife in LA and the edges of deep corruption unsettled me (and possibly other viewers) then and now.

Best part is the real sense of insomnia and a waking dream that the film evokes. Goldblum has a rag-doll manner in the heart of the storm. The mid-80s Los Angeles, famous faces popping up all over, a disregard for good taste (really too much blood and nudity (and I beg to differ, the nudity in Trading Places I would not call "brief" and that shot of Jamie Lee Curtis likely added $20 million to the gross)) all contribute to one of the great late night films of all time, the West Coast bookend to After Hours indeed!

Keep up the good work!

Best, Roger

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