Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Director Report Card: Alejandro Jodorowsky (1990)

6. The Rainbow Thief

After the critical success of “Santa Sangre,” for the first time in his career, Hollywood came calling for Alejandro Jodorowsky. Though hardly a major studio release, “The Rainbow Thief” was the director’s first bid for mainstream acceptance. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Christopher Lee weren’t huge box office draws in 1990 but they were still the biggest stars the director had ever worked with. Considering how fiercely independent Jodorowsky has always been, he bristled under the constrains of a production. Reportedly, the screenwriter refused to let him change a word of the script. “The Rainbow Thief” met with middling reviews and miniscule box office, causing the director to disappear for another two decades. It is the second of his films that Jodorowsky would disown.

Uncle Rudolf, an eccentric millionaire who loves his whores and his dogs, has a sudden heart attack and slips into a coma. Out of the woodwork emerges all the expected vultures. One of the would-be heirs is stranger then the other. That nephew, Meleagre, carries a set of Tarot cards and a large Irish wolf hound with him everywhere. A few years later, Meleagre befriends a pickpocket and shoplifter named Dima. The two live together in the sewers, waiting for old Uncle Rudolf to die and to inherit his fortune. When this doesn’t happen exactly, the odd friendship is thrown into turmoil.

It’s not impossible to see why the film’s producers thought Alejandro Jodorowsky would be a good fit for it. “The Rainbow Thief” is a whimsical tale with a number of surreal touches. A carnival features prominently in the background. There’s a Ferris wheel, a dwarf, a giant, a cross-dressing fortune teller, and even some unexplained Christ imagery thanks to an odd carnival game. The opening scene with Christopher Lee riding around on a cow-colored cart, banging symbols together, giving caviar to dogs and bones to people, are amusingly demented, powered by Lee’s unhinged, opera-singing performances. The eccentric characters, with their dead dog puppets and rainbow-colored hookers, provide several opportunities for the director to indulge in his favored bizarre imagery.

However, when it comes down to it, “The Rainbow Thief” does not feel like a Jodorowsky movie. The film lacks any of the director’s deeper themes. There’s no discussion of spiritualism, mysticism, psycho-magic, philosophy, Jungian psychology, or even parenthood. Moreover, the movie lacks the sense of anything-can-happen surrealism that characterizes the director’s other films. To put it plainly, even with its moments of whimsy and eccentricity, “The Rainbow Thief” is simply not weird enough to be a Alejandro Jodorowsky movie. Even “Tusk” featured a dream-like sequence or two and an overall exotic feeling. This one doesn't even have that.

The thing I liked the most about “The Rainbow Thief” is its setting. Filmed in Poland, the story takes place in a port-side city. The buildings have an old world European feel to them. When exactly the story is set is never specified. The time period appears to be the turn of the century and most of the costumes support this, along with the old-timey presence of carnivals. But there’s also jukeboxes, motorized vehicles, and electric lights. Some of the fashion is more late eighties then 1880s, including a leather-clad punk. By being so vague about the time period, “The Rainbow Thief” settles upon a fairy tale-like tone where it could take place at any time or place.

The biggest problem with “The Rainbow Thief” is that its narrative lacks any sort dramatic drive. It takes forever for a proper plot to emerge. Dima quarrels with Meleagre, both waiting around for the uncle to die. Dima has a number of adventures with the other odd characters living in the town. He swindles people out of their possessions, looking to make a little cash. Very little adds up and it's all so leisurely paced. When Uncle Rudolf finally drops dead, it still feels like the film is in search of a plot. The movie lurches into its climatic final act before the audience even realizes it, the story coming to a close without it feeling like anything was resolved.

In order to fill time before the film can end, “The Rainbow Thief” has to thrown around a bunch of characters and subplot. Dima swipes a gramophone from a dwarf early in the film. The dwarf pursues him throughout most of the film. Is this plot line ever resolved? Nope. What about the dwarf’s best friend, a seven foot tall giant? Contributes nothing to the plot. Dima’s love interest, an old fat woman? The Jewish bartender that he owes money to? The street urchin who live at the dock, one of which dies in a fist fight? The fortune teller played by a man in drag, a rare Jodorowsky-style element? None of these characters add to the story or pay off in any fashion. They are seemingly there just to pad out the run time.

What “The Rainbow Thief” is actually about is the relationship between Dima and Meleagre. The story, of two unusual friends who don’t appear to like each other but rely on one another more then either realizes, is not a unique idea. Unfortunately, the film can’t sell any sort of union between the two. This is because they don’t ultimately have very much screen time together. Dima is usually off on his own adventures. Melagre is usually brooding in the sewers. When the two are sharing the screen, they’re usually sniping at one another, wondering why they stick around. The realization that their friendship means something arrives bluntly, more likely to make the audience shrug then cry.

“The Rainbow Thief” concludes when Dima decides he isn’t putting up with Meleagre’s bullshit anymore. He hops on a train, headed towards a boat headed towards Singapore. At the same time, a hurricane strikes the city, leading to the film’s sole exciting sequence. Harsh gales beat down on the streets, rain blowing horizontally. Deciding to rescue his friend, Dima wades through the flooding sewer. My favorite moment has him climbing up on a pipe to avoid a swimming colony of rats. I imagine this sequence, with its constantly rushing water, the actors soaked up to their necks, was an ordeal for both the cast and the crew. However, it leads to the one truly exciting moment in the whole film, as the audience wonders how the rushing currents will affect the characters.

Perhaps the only thing “The Rainbow Thief” has anything in its favor is its leading men. Despite Peter O’Toole getting top billing, Omar Sharif is actually the star of the show. Sharif has some decent moments in the film. He seems to have a good time playing a rogue, constantly swiping items from hapless people. My favorite moment has him leading a blind lady down the stairs, only to make it off with his purse. The finale has Sharif doing some good acting, falling into a catatonic state for several hours or days. Sharif is likable enough to overcome the weak writing of his character.

Peter O’Toole, meanwhile, gets to indulge in some over-acting as Prince Meleagre. O’Toole spends the film hanging out in the sewers. His beloved dog dies in the early half of the film. He appears to hollow out the animal’s body, turning him into a hand puppet. So O’Toole gets to play both a deranged an old man and his doggy best pal. Meleagre is a singularly odd character, ranting to himself in deranged ways that don’t make sense to anyone else. From his sewer home to his abrasive personality, O’Toole’s character is far too out-there to ever be believable or likable. You know something is wrong when the oddness in a Jodorowsky film is a weakness instead of a strength.

“The Rainbow Thief” at least looks pretty good. The production values were decent, as evident by the flood of rushing waters. The film has a number of interesting shots or angles. As the storm rolls in, O’Toole yells up at the ceiling’s port hole, lightening flashing overhead. A climatic climb up a ladder is tightly cropped on the actors’ faces, providing some decent tension. Jean Musy’s musical score is fairly listenable. As always, Jodorowsky gets the most out of his budget.

Hideous DVD artwork.
That Jodorowsky would disown “The Rainbow Thief” doesn’t shock me. The film lacks the feel, tone, and unique energy of all his previous films, even the subdued “Tusk.” That the director’s creative spirit was being restrained during its production is easy to see. The film is not without its highlights but they are few and far between. The pacing is unfocused, the story far too thin, and the execution tired and uninspired. The best thing I can say about the film? It’s short, running at a brief 87 minutes. “The Rainbow Thief” didn’t receive a theatrical release in the U.S. when it was new. Even now, it’s unavailable on DVD. (Though apparently a Blu-Ray exist in the UK.) Unlike Jodorowsky’s other hard-to-find films, this state of limbo is arguably where “The Rainbow Thief” belongs.” It is the director’s weakest work. [Grade: C]

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