Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Take a "Looker"

Most people who know me to any extent know that I am a classic film lover. I have the utmost adoration and respect for those great examples of cinema that enthralled audiences long ago and still would now if people gave them a chance and weren’t offended by black & white film or old clothes or different manners of speaking, etc… So why, if I feel this way, do I have an almost equal, perhaps even greater, affinity for utter garbage? For every Vertigo or Singin’ in the Rain I have a Color of Night or a Can’t Stop the Music! I get such a perverse thrill out of movies that cost a decent amount of money and featured name brand stars but yet wound up as ludicrous, hilarious or embarrassing (or all three.) Such a film is today’s “gem,” the Michael Crichton-directed Looker.

Despite being splendiferously tacky, ineptly scripted, awkwardly edited and petrifyingly dated, this thriller about corporate manipulation of the masses through television advertising manages nevertheless to be fully entertaining and more than a little prescient. Old TV ads are always funny anyway, but when they are fake to begin and from the 80s it only adds to the cheese factor.

Albert Finney, of all people, plays a hotshot Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who has had a string of models make use of his services, each with extremely specific requests about the changes they want done (down to the millimeter.) Shortly afterwards, they begin dying off! He attaches himself to one of the most recent ones (Susan Dey) and begins to investigate what is happening, even though he is simultaneously being framed as a prime suspect in the murders.
James Coburn plays the head of a massive and shadowy conglomerate and is assisted by the rather icy Leigh Taylor-Young. This pair is the chief focus of Finney's legwork. One of the futuristic devices they are developing is a mechanism that is able to pinpoint exactly where the viewer’s eye is landing when watching an advertisement. Reportedly, such a device now exists in real life, though they needn’t bother with me. I can tell you where I usually look!

Standing in Finney’s way is hit man Tim Rossovich who wields a futuristic and baffling weapon (are you ready for this? It’s a gun called the L.O.O.K.E.R., standing for Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses), which causes time to stand still for the victim. Soon, Finney's own life is in grave danger as he tries to unravel the secret shenanigans of the folks who are making these models flawless and then offing them.

Finney does an okay job, though he's hardly the most desirable leading man for a film of this nature with his trousers yanked up to his sternum. Best known for touchstone films such as Tom Jones and Two for the Road, he was in the middle of an attempt to do more commercial and mainstream fare such as Wolfen and Annie. Soon he would revert to more artistically challenging and rewarding projects like The Dresser and Under the Volcano before coming back with a splash in Erin Brockovich.

Ex-The Partridge Family cast member Dey (who is horribly miscast) is adequate, but has a sketchy role with little to do except seem concerned. Fans of hers will be delighted at the amount of skin she shows (the film was made before a PG-13 rating existed and, as a result, the non-sexualized nudity was deemed okay for a PG movie.) Still, if we’re being honest, a film all about the perfection of an exactly symmetric face with flawless features did not necessarily need to focus on the cute, pert and appealing, but decidedly unusual-looking, Dey! The ex-Playboy models who make up the other victims seem a tad more plausible in this regard. Incidentally, Wheel of Fortune icon Vanna White is briefly visible within a passel of girls crossing a drive to enter a building. Coburn tries to inject some wit into his role, but, like so many other folks in this movie, is just a pawn in the bigger picture of “techno-thriller with a message.” Gaunt and rather craggy, with the feathered hair he (and most everyone) favored during this period, he isn’t exactly at his physical or creative peak.

Dorian Harewood has another one of the many cop roles that dominated his career at the time and winds up having little to do of interest. Taylor-Young, who is undeniably gorgeous, goes through the entire film with little expression and one eyebrow raised much higher than the other, which itself almost seems an unintentional comment on the dangers of cosmetic surgery. In her final scene, she looks like someone who is desperately sad she didn't get to play Mommie Dearest with her shoulder pads, severe hair, pearls and even the requisite “fuck me” shoes!

Ex-pro football linebacker Rossovich is a total kick as the hit man (billed in the credits as "Moustache Man"!!) His kinship with Tom Selleck in real life (they were college roommates) is more than obvious here and his hilarious look dates the movie more than anything else. (He is older brother of the yummy Rick Rossovich, an actor who appeared in The Terminator, Top Gun and, most notably, Roxanne, among other things.)

The film is often uproariously funny, but in this case a lot of the humor seems to be intentional. Little quirky bits of irony emerge along the way (for example, a product called "Spurt" is advertised as a character has blood gushing out of his chest!) The featured weapon, silly as it is sometimes presented, allows for some really interesting and eye-opening sequences.

Made at a time when excess and tastelessness were about to explode as never before, it wallows in idiocy and illogic, but is rarely dull. One death from a balcony is shown in slo-mo with the crotch of the victim front and center as the body flails to its eventual death. Someone even decided to mark the lovely event with a lobby card all its own!

The lame script (also by Crichton) has so many holes in it it's downright ridiculous, but somehow the movie still works as light entertainment and is able to get a few points across. This is one rare time when a film could have been better if it were allowed to be a little bit longer. Oddly enough, as he warns here about the dangers of computer-generated imaging, the most successful film adaptation of one of his works was the heavily CGI-ed Jurassic Park. As it stands, Looker is the first mainstream film ever to feature a “realistic” computer generated character, a model named Cindy.

The addictive title song is about as close to deliriously bad 80s heaven as one can get. This film has many similarities to director Crichton's Coma but without that film's darker edge (and without Jerry Goldsmith's nerve-jangling score. This one is done by Barry De Vorzon who had just come off the camp scream Xanadu.)

The preposterous climax of this film, which takes place inside a massive studio, is notably bizarre and hard to forget with the villains doing more harm to each other than to anyone else as they find themselves living inside virtual commercials! Cheesy spokespeople hawk various products while the antagonists skulk around the premises wielding guns.

Give this a look sometime, but be prepared to hum the title song for days afterward, despite any and all measures of prevention short of fast-forwarding through it altogether.

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